Morton Minsky Reads The Bridge: Hart Crane and the Meaning of Burlesque
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GORDON TAPPER Morton Minsky Reads The Bridge: Hart Crane and the Meaning of Burlesque If you love us, please don't mind If now and then we bump and grind! We will shimmy and we will shake But please don't think we're on the make! Chotus, Minsk's Burlesque Hart crane readers turn up in unlikely places. Morton Minsky , for instance, recalls Crane several times in Minsky's Burlesque, his memoir ofthe years between 191 2 and 1937 when he and his brothers ran several of New York's most celebrated burlesque theaters. In the course of boasting about the cultural highbrows who frequented their National Winter Garden theater at Houston Street and Second Avenue during the 1920s, he focuses on Crane and the "National Winter Garden" section of The Bridge: Those were boom days. Who cared for money! As I said, we were getting a pretty classy clientele. Regulars at that time included the publishers Conde Nast and Frank Crowinshield, the writers John Erskine and John Dos Passos, the columnists Walter Winchell and Mark Hellinger. Such distinguished commentators as Robert Benchley, Irvin S. Cobb, and George Jean Nathan were loyal attenders, as was a shy poet named Hart Crane, who wrote this poem in our honorf.] Arizona Quarter^ Volume 56, Number 4, Winter 2000 Copyright © 2000 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 6 10 Gordon Tapper After quoting the beginning of "National Winter Garden," Minsky comments: That's a poem, tight? But while "legs were wakening salads" in Hart Crane's brain, the women backstage were even more earthy than the poet's visions of them. (71-72) The high spirits and reckless drinking for which Crane was so wellknown jar harshly with Minsky's "shy poet" epithet. Yet this stereotypical view of "The Poet" is itself revealing, since it reflects the same assumptions about cultural hierarchies that have led most critics to overlook or misconstrue this poem from "Three Songs," the fifth of The Bridge's eight sections. Even when attention is given to "National Winter Garden," it is almost always read as an unsympathetic portrayal of a vulgar form of popular entertainment that signals modern America's cultutal degeneration.1 Minsky's observations suggest, however, that this episode from The Bridge needs to be re-examined in light of two contextual factors: the biographical evidence of Crane's unequivocal enthusiasm for burlesque, and the debates about popular culture and obscenity that wete provoked by burlesque when it turned to increasingly explicit displays of women's bodies during the 1920s. Ctane's depiction of butlesque as seen through the eyes of a burlesque impresario is intriguing on several counts. It offers, first of all, a sttiking display ofhow cultural categories of "high" and "low" jostle one another when they come into direct contact. On the one hand, Minsky is clearly proud that his theater has inspired such a "classy" thing as poetry , a genre that virtually defines the kind of high culture produced by "shy" artists who feel, he presumes, ill at ease in the rough and tumble world of burlesque. Like the names of the "pretty classy clientele" he parades before us, poetry elevates the National Winter Garden (and himself) above its (and his) disreputable cultural station. Even so, he is not bashful about playing the critic, making the judgment that Crane's poem idealizes the real-life "earthiness" of the burlesque milieu. In Minsky's view, the "poet's visions" may enable him to invent the unusual locution "legs waken salads in the brain," but they misrepresent burlesque because they do not truly convey the sexuality of the performers , which he alludes to euphemistically as their "earthy" qualities. In order to drive this point home, Minsky resorts to the tools of his trade. His remark immediately following the quoted lines is, in effect, a Hart Crane and the Meaning of Burhsque85 burlesque of the poem: "That's a poem, right?" It isn't hard to imagine him chewing on his cigar to the appropriate musical accompaniment: Da-dum-dum! Minsky's appreciative words, with their gentle touch of mockety, betray the ambivalence with which he implicitly accepts the stratification of culture into...