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Crane's "Logic of Metaphor"

A Letter to Harriet Monroe

(as reprinted in Poetry, October 1926)

[This is the letter to Monroe in which Crane analyzes the connotative meanings of his words and proposes a "logic of metaphor" that depends upon close and repeated readings. It is one of the few documents that openly argues for a highly intellectualized approach to the reading of poetry.]

… [A]s a poet, I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and the perceptions involved in the poem.

This may sound as though I merely fancied juggling words and images until I found something novel, or esoteric; but the process is much more predetermined and objectified than that. The nuances and feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past.

This argument over the dynamics of metaphor promises as active a future as has been evinced in the past. …

Its paradox, of course, is that its apparent illogic operates so logically in conjunction with its context in the poem as to establish its claim to another logic, quite independent of the original definition of the word or phrase or image thus employed. It implies (this inflection of language) a previous or prepared receptivity to its stimulus on the part of the reader. The reader’s sensibility simply responds by identifying this inflection of experience with some event in his own history or perceptions – or rejects it altogether. The logic of metaphor is so organically entrenched in pure sensibility that it can’t be thoroughly traced or explained outside of historical sciences, like philology and anthropology. This "pseudo-statement," as I. A. Richards calls it in an admirable essay touching our contentions in last July’s Criterion ["A Background to Contemporary Poetry" 3 (July 1925), 511-528], demands completely other faculties of recognition than the pure rationalistic associations permit. …

From O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, ed. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997), 278-79.

Tim Dean:
On "The Logic of Metaphor" as an Alternative Discourse

In his understanding of the function and capacity of poetry, Crane subscribed to a poetic ideology that was at once transhistorical and culturally specific. The notion that poetry is a discourse of another kind – that poetry provides access to outcomes unattainable by any other representational means – inheres in the tradition of poetic practice. In a much reprinted letter to Harriet Monroe, Crane claimed the privilege implicit in the notion of poetry as a discourse of another kind: "If the poet is to be held completely to the already evolved and exploited sequences of imagery and logic – what field of added consciousness and increased perceptions (the actual province of poetry, if not lullabies) can be expected when one has to relatively return to the alphabet every breath or so?" …

Crane’s "logic of metaphor" – which he also calls (in the same essay) the "dynamics of inferential mention" – may represent the "genetic basis" of speech, but it functions quite differently from ordinary spoken language. Metaphoric language is to rational logic as poetic language is to ordinary language – and, we might add, as the unconscious is to consciousness. Through "metaphorical inter-relationships" and metonymic displacements ("associational meanings" and "inferential mention"), Crane’s poetic logic exploits the substitutive and combinative potential of language to such a degree that it may be said to resemble the logic that governs the linguistic unconscious. …

… Unlike Eliot’s elitist notion of poetic tradition or Pound’s initially democratic notion of poetic language, Crane’s criteria for poetic production and reception seem not to be factored by class.

Crane’s criteria are esoteric without being elitist, because nobody is denied access a priori to experiential intensity. …

Where the logic of the closet depends upon a sign system whose restricted circulation generates a form of privacy factored by sexual identification, Crane’s poetry is restricted to a small audience by the hermeneutic difficulty resulting from "the privacy of connotations" generated by his "logic of metaphor." In this respect, both the logic of the closet and the "logic of metaphor" concern informational (or epistemological) privacy, the limits on what can be communicated or known. Crane’s case is distinguished by his poetry’s commitment to the more radical substantive (or ontological) privacy of inviolate experience – that which remains private even when known and communicated. Crane’s "logic of metaphor" is deployed in the service of this more radical substantive privacy, that of an "absolute experience" whose intensity generates a secondary form of privacy by disrupting the relations (discursive, affective, and erotic) that conventionally connect persons to one another and to themselves.

Although Crane does not aspire to opacity – as he wrote to [Allen] Tate in 1924, "I have always been working hard for a more perfect lucidity, and it never pleases me to be taken as willfully obscure or esoteric" – his poetry is esoteric in that it requires of its reader a form of initiation: "It is to be learned," the speaker of "Legend" advises. This initiation is based on an experience of intensity that is often figured in more or less erotic terms – "This cleaving and this burning" in "Legend" – but that remains irreducible to a purely sexual problematic, because Crane’s paradoxical desire is to escape desire and its principal contingency, namely, loss.

… Crane’s poems instantiate a form of private experience that can be concealed no more than it can be revealed. Intensity eliminates inviolate identity and produces instead a second order of substantive privacy – that if inviolate experience – which the poems preserve for their readers. Crane’s reader is asked not to identify with a textually generated subject position (homosexual or otherwise) but to reexperience a jouissance that eliminates every subject position.

By offering an alternative to the privacy of the closet, Crane’s poetry proleptically challenges and refines one of the most sophisticated models through which it has been understood, thereby indicating the potential of poetic forms to alter ostensibly hegemonic constructions of sexuality and subjectivity. His revelation of a fracture in the otherwise all-encompassing logic of the closet also explains Crane’s commitment to poetry as a discourse of another kind since his highly distinctive lyric practice was the means of access to outcomes – subjective, ontological and aesthetic – that appeared unattainable by other means. Crane preferred poetry over the homosexual subculture of 1920s Greenwich Village because his lyric – rather than his notorious sexual – practices promised freedom from the disabling binary options of closet privacy.

from Tim Dean, "Hart Crane’s Poetics of Privacy," American Literary History 8:1 (Spring 1996), 85-86, 88, 91, 105-106.

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