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On "Porphyro in Akron"

Sherman Paul

… "Porphyro in Akron," the longest of the early poems, is clearly a new departure, an attempt to make something of the Akron experience by using the "modern" poetic means with which the Machine had been treated in poetry. For these means, Crane owed most to Eliot and LaForgue – and perhaps to [Guillaume] Apollinaire. Formally, the poem has a "modern" appearance, the "broken effect" Crane identified with literary cubism; and like many modern poems it employs a persona (the poet), a subjective center and associational mode, and takes up "vulgar" or antipoetic materials. But of most importance, perhaps, is its indebtedness of theme: the "traditionalist" modern theme of the sterility of the modern world.

… By restoring the Greek meaning of Akron and suggesting its religious import in "greeting the dawn," Crane sets up the fundamental opposition of the poem between the old and the new civilization, the past and the present – an opposition that includes on the side of the old both the pastoral ("rolling Ohio hills": the Indian name is meaningful) and the romantic or poetic. The third stanza explicitly names the Greek in reference to the present strife of immigrants – exists mostly for this and the poet’s ironic comment on present and past: "And the Fjords and the Aegean are remembered." And this irony turns the poem to the more desperate irony of the last stanza, where, in syntactically similar lines whose dying fall emphasizes his defeat or spiritlessness, he confesses his uselessness and alienation – a forced exclusion, it seems – from the modern.

…. {Section 2] depicts the poet in contact with a world, an Old World community, where he can abandon irony. His host will not be an American ("Using the latest ice-box and buying Fords") but, when rich enough, will return to his native countryside, while his wife, the mountain of a woman who perhaps portends Crane’s "Interludium," will undoubtedly continue her fertile career. Against this background, so earthy in its warm humanity, both the first section but especially the last are set. … Sections one and three probably belong to the same present time – all of the poem, in fact, is in the present of meditation and may have had its origin in the poet’s situation at the end and be the journey of thought in which he goes back to discover how he got there. But section two is reminiscent of another time and, as reminiscence and for what it remembers, is associated with the memory of childhood that the poet finally recalls. This memory is at work throughout the poem and represents a reverie more vital to the poet than that on modern civilization, though it is connected with it because it holds for him those reasons of the heart that explain his persistence in romance and his inability to give himself to his own time. The poet who remembers the fjords and the Aegean may be said to remember too much, and if his poem seems inconclusive, it is most likely because of his refusal to explore this deep and dangerous memory. And irony, again, is his recourse, although now it is not directed at the modern world but, in terms of the realities of that world, at himself, alone in the enclosure that he knows can no longer protect him and that represents his defeat.

From Sherman Paul, Hart’s Bridge (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1972), 50-52.

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