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  • Hart Crane’s Victrola
  • Brian Reed (bio)

To Sound Deep

Hart Crane had an infuriating way of writing a poem. Typically, after drinking copiously, he would put a 78 on a hand-cranked Victrola and play it “a dozen, two dozen, three dozen times” while alternately banging away on a typewriter and loudly declaiming the same line of verse repeatedly. 1 To his friends’ horror, the Victrola was indispensable—Crane claimed it gave him “intimacy with la Muse”—and he peremptorily refused every polite request to change his habits or at least to confine his cacophonous writing sessions to daylight hours (V, 173). Quite the contrary. He forced those around him to adapt. While a house guest of Harry Crosby’s in France, for instance, he one day greeted his reluctant patron with an ukase. “Columbia, loud! ! !” he snapped, presuming that the millionaire Crosby would instantly go fetch him new phonograph needles (V, 584).

Hart Crane’s phonograph fetish has received only passing attention from his many critics. 2 This oversight is unsurprising. In his day, Crane was infamous for such antisocial eccentricities as throwing typewriters out of windows and brawling with taxi drivers. 3 The anecdotes about Crane and his Victrola that appear in such places as Harry Crosby’s diaries may be vivid, but they vie for a reader’s attention with a host of other memorable incidents featuring Crane’s wild, dissipated antics. 4 Indeed, Crane’s self-destructive behavior (he ultimately committed suicide in 1932 at the age of thirty-two) has secured him [End Page 99] the popular reputation of an American poète maudit, as notable for his biography as for the quality of his verse. R. W. B. Lewis long ago pointed out that this reputation has tempted unwary critics to misconstrue Crane’s intent and accomplishments; since Lewis’s magisterial 1967 monograph on Crane, scholars have been loath to dwell upon the details of Crane’s life without carefully justifying their introduction of such material. 5 Lewis’s cautions would seem apropos in the case of Crane’s Victrola. Why should Crane’s gramophone obsession matter any more than his other striking but ultimately rather trivial habits, such as cossack dancing at parties or cruising waterfront gay bars under the name Christopher Marlowe?

Over the last decade, thanks in large part to a number of influential scholarly works dating from the early 1990s, academics have become increasingly aware of the complex relationship between innovative acoustic technologies—such as radio, the telephone, and the phonograph—and gradual but profound shifts in sound’s role in modern literature. 6 Specialists in twentieth-century poetry have displayed particular interest in this emergent branch of scholarship since it offers an appealing, historically grounded alternative to the many, aridly formalist treatments of sound in poetry currently available. Several recent studies have gone so far as to posit that the “aurality” of a poem is not an ahistorical characteristic that can be adequately or exhaustively described by traditional schemes for scanning verse. Instead, aurality ought to be understood as an attribute that undergoes constant modification in its nature and function from period to period and from writer to writer. 7 In other words, such stock-in-trade formulas as “anapestic,” “alliteration,” and “slant rhyme” should be seen as revealing little about a given poem unless one has first established the precise place that sound occupies in its author’s poetics.

When viewed in the light of these developments in the study of poetry, the fact that Hart Crane, a self-styled “Pindar of our machine age,” 8 invariably wrote to the accompaniment of a “machine that sings” 9 suddenly appears much more significant than heretofore appreciated. Indeed, I will be arguing that Crane’s singing machine, the Victrola, left a profound mark on all aspects of his poetry, that is, on everything from the microtexture of his verse to its transcendental aspirations. Moreover, insofar as most secondary literature treating the links between literary experimentation and innovations in acoustic technology has concentrated on the impact of radio, 10 this article, by singling out Crane’s writing ritual for commentary, will demonstrate the need to consider the influence of all...

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