- Stephen Crane's Refrain
Poetry's liberation from the shackles of meter is one of the most important non-events in late nineteenth-century literary history. It's important because it is to this day so commonly invoked, not only to legitimate a particular way of reading poems, as if they were what Theodor Adorno calls "depositions of impulses," but also to celebrate the human subject's liberation from inauthenticity and expressive constipation.1 It's a non-event because the long and complex history of versification in English poetry is poorly suited to teleological narratives of liberation, despite a lot of early twentieth-century fanfare about breaking "new wood" and "insurgent naked throb[bings] of the instant moment."2 Yet the perpetuation of such liberation narratives is powerfully motivated, and deeply inscribed in our scholarship, our course syllabi, and our anthologies and editions. In the history of poetry in English, Walt Whitman is the foremost symbol of metrical iconoclasm, not least because he is also such a powerful symbol of personal idiosyncrasy asserting itself against many deeply entrenched social and sexual norms. The fictive isomorphism of poetry and person, with which Whitman so dearly loved to play, and play off of and against, very understandably tends to get naturalized as the meaning of his achievement: free verse means a free subject.
This is a harder equation to derive from the spare, irrhythmic verses of Stephen Crane, alongside which Whitman's seem reassuringly measured, lushly and extravagantly familiar. Turning from Whitman's poetry to Crane's one may feel like [End Page 33] a figure in one of Crane's poems, searching for erotic opportunities in "the ashes of other men's love."3 Crane doesn't deny the personal; he combusts it, like a fossil fuel, and lets the residue trail behind on the page, where it congeals into toxic, post-human landscapes:
Behold, from the land of the farther sunsI returned.And I was in a reptile-swarming place,Peopled, otherwise, with grimaces,Shrouded above in black impenetrableness.I shrank, loathing,Sick with it.And I said to him,"What is this?"He made answer slowly,"Spirit, this is a world;This was your home."(P, 17)
Like a David Maisel photograph of sewage flows or wasted mines, this untitled poem from The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895) conjures a world both industrial and primordial, a world that is uninhabitable, yet for which there is no alternative. And like a Maisel photograph, Crane's poem exploits form as an index of human artistry in relation to a scene of degradation that makes scant place for the human ("This was your home"). Crane's specifically poetic achievement, however, has less to do with aestheticizing visual blight than with figuring the effort to speak from beyond certain conventional limits of the self, the better to articulate the defamiliarized, depersonalized contexts of its communications.
This essay calls to account the sentiment of liberated and liberating free-verse artistry through a reading of Crane's poetry that combines formal analysis (a counting, or measurement) and ethical reckoning (a characterization of the lyric subject). More simply put, it is an effort to interpret, in the work of a very untraditional poet, his use of a very traditional poetic device—the refrain—to measure or mark out a timely sense of a [End Page 34] depersonalized aesthetics. Timely, that is, not in terms of present critical anxieties about the aesthetic, but rather in terms of a late-nineteenth-century preoccupation, in literature, science, philosophy, and beyond, with the phenomenon of repetition, which is, of course, the precondition for any type of measurement and for any concept of the personal.
As Andrew Ford observes, the word measure has never shed its etymological origins in the Greek word metron—an evaluative term, Ford reminds us, with moral force.4 We still say a response is "measured" when it strikes us as proportionate and duly limited. When considering measurement in connection with literature, it's natural to think of poetry, which actively displays, through versification, its competence to measure. Poetry, like Crane's, that departs from conventional versification potentially calls prior evaluations...