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On "Chaplinesque"

John Norton-Smith

The poem is free from literary allusion, or the conscious use of other poems. It is simply an artist’s public testimony, or editorial manifesto, built out of recreated film sequences wholly composed of simple setting and gesture, and put together in a definitive plot: stroll, encounter with object in need of protection, discovery and accusation, evasions, unsuccessful comic escape and "recap." The poem contains one slight, literary connection with T. S. Eliot’s "Preludes" [letter of October 6, 1921]: "I have made that ‘infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing’ of Eliot’s into the symbol of the kitten." …

Activity (gesture and movement) is basic to the total idée of the poem. The implied and symbolized capacity for art, sympathy, gaiety and failure is imagined as activity not personage. Hence the title, "Chaplinesque" which has been suggested by, or modeled on, "Humoresque," "a capricious musical composition." Crane’s decision to commemorate Chaplin’s art is paralleled by Carl Sandburg’s tribute "Without the Cane and the Derby (for C.C.)" in Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922). Sandburg tries to make use of onamatopoeic effects; a comparison of the two poems brings out the felicities of Crane, as against the tasteless elaboration of Sandburg.

… The poem, through the use of the pronoun "you" in line 17, relegates the reader/audience to the normal world of philistine simplicity. See [Charles] Chaplin, My Autobiography, p. 266: "[Hart Crane and I] discussed the purpose of poetry. I said it was a love letter to the world. ‘A very small world,’ said Hart ruefully."

From John Norton-Smith, A Reader’s Guide to Hart Crane’s "White Buildings" (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen P, 1993), 61-63

Richard Hutson

The self of "Chaplinesque" is a child of the random, whose great hunger and need as signified in his "too ample pockets" have only the wind for satisfaction. He would seem to be the repository of the wind’s savings, almost as if his slithered pockets were a bank teller’s window. His wealth consist in the ample emptiness of his tattered pockets, which are always opened to the world, ready to accept and receive in love what the world offers …

This play between the world and self, between the world’s initiative and the self’s reactive powers, is the essence of the poem. If the self is not strong enough to force its way, it can exploit, by its movement of adjustment, the world’s energy to find the "recesses" of the world. The world of this poem prepares within the self the place for its acceptance. But it also prepares within itself the space by which its negativity can be relieved or transfigured. If it prepares the "ample pockets" and the "elbow coverts," it also provides the "step" upon which the kitten finds some respite from the "fury of the street." It also has the "recesses" and the "lonely alleys" within which the self can evade the full brunt of the fury. The solutions to the conflict have to be magical, visionary, at least in part. The self has to find its solutions within its own weakness, And this feat the Chaplinesque self performs elegantly. In his passivity he is a child of grace. He must hold himself open to something beyond his will, such as it is, even if his will should be concerned with legitimate objects. If he "finds" a kitten or sees the moon "make / A grail of laughter of an empty ash can," it is not because he has gone, like the modern Parzival, in quest of these insignificant or significant objects. His success lies in his vagabondage, in his ability to transcend any quest or even his own clownishness. He must be available to the wind, to its gratuitous and random consolations. The "game" of life, the clown’s transformation of the world into a field of play, "enforces smirks." It demands the compromise, the partial expression, the repression of laughter in the "smirk" further distorted by its suggestion of inauthenticity. But this Chaplinesque self is open to the pure gratuity of a vision of liberation. Beyond his need, his humiliation, and his hunger, he finds a spiritual fulfillment. Beyond the "empty ash can"—a new version of the empty receptacle and, in this case, a double negativity, since it is empty even of the burned down remains of the world’s fury—there is the "grail of laughter," a purely naturalistic or secular redemption of the human body, the smirks and puckerings of both the cop and the clown achieveing the full liberation, their consummate expressivity, in this vision. …

from Richard Hutson, "Exile Guise: Irony and Hart Crane," Mosaic 2:4 (Summer 1969), 77-78

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