- Hart Crane’s Smile
"The first creatures on Earth to become aware of time, were the first creatures to smile . . . ."1
This essay, excerpted from a larger study of queer optimism, extends a delineation, if not exegesis, of the myriad smiles found in the poetry of Hart Crane. The sheer multitude of Crane's poetic smiles is only slightly less extraordinary than the fact that these smiles have hitherto been so cursorily (if not dismissively) broached by an otherwise sophisticated and burgeoning tradition of Crane scholarship. Extant critical engagements of Crane's smiles have seemed cursory to the extent that they have seldom taken Crane's smiles as such, but have instead swiftly co-opted them into either neutralizing temporal registers (the nostalgically preterite or untenably futural), or apposite (but by no means equivalent) affective categories. Exemplary of such co-optation is Eric Sundquist's conflation of smiles and smirks, although the smirk appears in only one of Crane's poems: "Lodged throughout Crane's poetry in enigmatic postures of martyred comedy, the 'smirk' or 'smile' . . . has always the questionable status which Freud assigns to the joke. . . . "2 Although smiles are indeed "lodged," enigmatically, "throughout Crane's poetry," Sundquist's analysis is misleading, if not apprehensive, in its dependence on an equivalence between smiling and smirking—an equivalence that Crane's poetry, taken on its own terms, cannot support. Exemplary also is Sundquist's presumption that a Cranian smile, when not smirking, is the screen for a more interesting or authentic emotional state: "What is concealed by these smiling façades is a prophetic suffering. . . . "3 [End Page 629]
Why presume the indistinguishability of smiles and smirks? Why presume that a smile not only is a façade, but a façade for suffering? What does it say about Crane scholarship, and criticism more generally, that a smile, critically speaking, so seldom is allowed to be a smile? As such questions suggest, my subject in this essay is not only Crane's poetry, but also the specific manner in which this poetry has been understood and misunderstood. If this essay arises out of an interest in queer optimism, it likewise arises in a frustration with the sorts of critical pessimisms that would disallow a smile's being taken seriously—without its renomination as smirk or façade, without its imbrication with some more authentic mode of suffering. More simply put: I wish to take Crane's smiles seriously.
To the extent that I imagine this essay as an exercise in queer optimism, I should at the outset clarify that my interest lies primarily in how Crane's poetry has been received by queer criticism. Crane's profound importance to such criticism might register, in shorthand, in the fact that two of Crane's earliest and most innovative queer readers, Tim Dean and Lee Edelman, have since become important and prolific contributors to the field of queer theory. That Sundquist's ostensibly non-queer scholarship would be susceptible to the same limitations as queer Crane criticism (and, I elsewhere argue, queer theory more generally) importantly indicates that a resistance to something like Crane's smiles—or a critical suspicion of something like optimism—is not a uniquely queer blind-spot. The resonances between queer and non-queer responses to Crane's smiles would be all but irrelevant, were I not myself committed, in the end, to positing a particular intervention in queer theory. For instance, queer theory's fetishization of self-shattering, inaugurated in Leo Bersani's 1987 essay "Is the Rectum a Grave?," has inspired if not monopolized most queer readings of Crane. Such readings take Crane's biographical suicide, or notorious poetic failure, or no less notorious textual difficulty, as paradigmatic of queer self-dissolution. This essay seeks to extricate Crane from narratives of jouissance and self-destruction. As I will argue in a subsequent section of this essay, the non-acknowledgement of Crane's smiles within Crane criticism significantly dovetails with a similar non-acknowledgement in the work of Bersani and Michel Foucault. Crane's smiles provide not only a problematic that the work of Bersani or Foucault cannot sufficiently address, but also a site...