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On "Black Tambourine"

R. W. B. Lewis

When he wrote "Black Tambourine," Crane was himself hobnobbing with Negroes in a cellar – Negro chefs and waiters, in fact, in the basement of his father’s tea-room and candy shop in Cleveland; he was also busy composing an article on Sherwood Anderson in which he expressed the hope that Anderson might some day "handle the Negro in fiction." Crane’s feelings, however, were mixed. A Negro had been dismissed by Mr. Crane to make room for his son; and, as Philip Horton [author of a 1937 biography of Crane] tells us, "It became a certainty in [Crane’s] mind that his father wished to make a humiliating comparison by this move." Crane associated himself, and by extension the modern poet, with the Negro, as victims of comparable persecution and exclusion; the world closed its doors equally on both – such, anyhow, had been Crane’s experience. …

… The verbal element, as Crane called it elsewhere, is dominant here. I have mentioned the revision of "Mark an old judgment on the world" into "Mark tardy judgment on the world’s closed door." This was a move toward Crane’s characteristically compressed line, in which, by packing the rhythmical space with "positive" (as against neutral) language, Crane could allow words to exert their maximum effect upon each other. Meanwhile, what began as almost a sociological report ("Black Tambourine" is the most overtly socially minded of Carne’s lyric poems) becomes, in the musical sense, transposed by the supple play of allusion. Perhaps the most telling example of the poem’s verbal element is the final phrase, "a carcass quick with flies." "Carcass" is used to designate the body of an animal; and also the body of a human being, when the human being is regarded as an animal. Normally, moreover, it means the body of a dead animal. The central human figure in "Black Tambourine" is made to resemble an animal corpse, attacked by flies, not only because the world sometimes regards him so (when it does not regard him – Negro and poet – in the stereotype of the tambourine player); but also because, within the poem, the black man’s cellar is conjoined with the poet’s grave, to the point that the gnats and roaches that swarm about the living figure seem like flies buzzing at a corpse. It is just possible that a closing twist of meaning is intended, one that would accord with slight hints earlier in the poem; namely, that the Negro-poet, however brutally treated, is nonetheless alive – "quick" – after all.

from R. W. B. Lewis, The Poetry of Hart Carne: A Critical Study (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1967) 27-29

Warner Berthoff

Through the first two of its three quatrains, "Black Tambourine" (which started from Crane’s companionship at work with a black handyman in his father’s Cleveland restaurant) moves in simple declarative verse-sentences. Not until the ambiguously phrased line completing the second quatrain is there anything that might seriously trouble comprehension – or any word of more than two spoken syllables:

[The first two stanzas are quoted]

The effect of simplicity in this is deceptive. What is given so far is considerably more than a string of factual observations; the matter directly at hand has been set into a context that is both judgement-framed and, a step later, given a visionary dignity and elevation. The opening irony of the black man’s having something called "interests" in a world that twice shuts him out is substantially reinforced by the squalidness of his city surroundings – scavenger insects, broken cellar floor, a single bottle; correspondingly the running rhythm of the first two lines, doubly tempered in the second line’s enclosing and assonant spondees ("Mark tardy … closed door"), comes up sharp against the expressive halt, with its elided syllables, of "gnats toss" and "a roach spans." In the second stanza tense and voice abruptly shift – and the imaginative perspective widens accordingly – to a universal memory of extraordinary triumph out of extraordinary adversity. Aesop, in legend, was an African slave, and in the lines following the definition of his triumph (like his tortoise’s it was by means of unaided but unforgettable vernacular invention) he is appropriately commemorated in the folk tributes of animal offerings and in an indistinct but celebratory blending of human voices.

The last stanza returns to the man in the cellar, with metrical irregularities and hesitation again pressing the emphasis:

[The last stanza is quoted]

Here, maintaining the widened perspective, a pair of popular truisms fix the black man in his cultural-historical limbo, unconsoled even by the compensatory folk-legacy of an Aesop. The first is that such a man has, after all, his simple diversions ("give him a tambourine and he’ll be happy")/ The second – and one may suspect another Eliot-marked source, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and marlow’s sighting at the river station of the dying fever-ravaged negroes – is a harshly factual reminder of what the man’s life would most probably have been in the other situation conceivable for him given the historical realities of European colonialism. So at least, Crane explained to his [Gorham] Munson, the whole matter stands – "sentimentally or brutally" – in the popular mind.

From Warner Berthoff, "’Your Strange Steel-sure Abstractions’," Chapter 1 in Hart Crane: A Re-Introduction (Minneapolis: U Minneapolis P, 1989), 6-7.

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