Poem: Improvisations for Hart Crane
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
At issue in Geoffrey Hill’s “Improvisations for Hart Crane” is the issue of one poet reading another. I won’t pretend to have made very much sense of the poem as a whole, but this theme, at least, I can trace for some distance.
Hill begins with an epigraph from Crane himself: “Thou canst read nothing except through appetite.” (For the full poem from which this line derives, see here.) This suggests the impossibility of an impartial, non-selective reading: something of desire must be involved. The key to reading Hill’s poem will thus be the unpacking of the appetites that drive his reading of Crane—unpacked, of course, under the auspices of our own appetites.
There is a sense of accusation throughout the poem. The first stanza, for instance, ends thus:
Procrastination’s death to be in time,
publish his name, exile’s remittancer,
prodigal who reclaimed us brought to book.
But even as he would punish Crane for his crime (of reclaiming us?), he mistrusts his own competence to do so:
Poets are unstable, least to be trusted
with scripts of grand arraignment. All in all
you screwed us, Hart, you and your zany epic.
In the end he reduces the charge: “you screwed us” invites remonstrance, but hardly merits criminal punishment. We have other words for that. And even this mitigation is called into question: “Unwise these thoughts high-spanned.” By the time the poem ends, Hill and Crane have been united in the first person plural: “What derelicts / we must have been, ripped off by infancy.”
The poem ends with a rewriting of the epigraph: “Thou canst grasp nothing except through appetite.” I honestly am not sure what is the significance of the change from “read” to “grasp.”
As promised, this has only been a partial tour through one aspect of the poem, the one I grasped best (perhaps for appetitive reasons), and even then not wholly.