Poetry: Hart Crane Emblems of Conduct vs Greenberg’s Conduct – Good vs Great

The idea for this analysis was given by Peter Clease (the person who interviews Dan in his videos) in a comment over here. Comparing Hart Crane’s take on a poem by Samuel Greenberg to showcase the qualitative differences that one has over the other in terms of how both poets approach the same thing. Here are the two poems:

Conduct (Samuel Greenberg)

By a peninsula the painter sat and
Sketched the uneven valley groves.
The apostle gave alms to the
Meek. The volcano burst
In fusive sulphur and hurled
Rocks and ore into the air—
Heaven’s sudden change at
The drawing tempestuous,
Darkening shade of dense clouded hues.
The wanderer soon chose
His spot of rest; they bore the
Chosen hero upon their shoulders,
Whom they strangely admired, as
The beach-tide summer of people desired.

Emblems of Conduct (Hart Crane)

By a peninsula the wanderer sat and sketched
The uneven valley graves. While the apostle gave
Alms to the meek the volcano burst
With sulphur and aureate rocks …
For joy rides in stupendous coverings
Luring the living into spiritual gates.

Orators follow the universe
And radio the complete laws to the people.
The apostle conveys thought through discipline.
Bowls and cups fill historians with adorations,-
Dull lips commemorating spiritual gates.

The wanderer later chose this spot of rest
Where marble clouds support the sea
And where was finally borne a chosen hero.
By that time summer and smoke were past.
Dolphins still played, arching the horizons,
But only to build memories of spiritual gates.



The first part is kept mostly intact for both poems, word-wise, but you can already see how the slight variations in enjambment and word-choices in Hart Crane’s version adds to the whole. He chooses to begin with ‘wanderer’ rather than ‘painter’, creating an existential parallax as opposed to the plain old imagistic choice that Greenberg uses (Especially since the fact that he ‘sketches’ makes the occupational description redundant). As is the choice of the word ‘graves’ rather than ‘groves’, which creates that link to historical legacy that will be followed in the later parts. Both word choices also add robustness to the tenor with the roll of the ‘a’ sounds and ‘r’ sounds.

The meaningless enjambs in the 1st & 3rd line of Greenberg’s poem is excised in favor of evocative breaks like “Alms to the meek the volcano burst” and “The uneven valley graves. While the apostle gave”.

Then comes the greater additions, with “sulphur and aureate rocks” replacing the comparatively flaccid “fusive sulphur and hurled/Rocks and ore into the air”. The use of the word ‘aureate’, other than being lyrically powerful, condenses the two lines into one. The additions and the enjambment creates a link to the alms given and the ‘spiritual eruption’ that seems to occur in the aftermath – a commentary on morality done in service to religion, mirroring the ecstasy, through explosive lyricism, that a believer might feel in the act committed.

The middle portion is where Hart Crane makes the biggest change, getting rid of the mere image of the volcano, but following up on the idea of religion. Notice the freshness of the imagery such as ‘radio the complete laws to the people’ and ‘bowls and cups fill historians with adorations’. While still keeping to that high rhythm and lyric, there is also a sense of criticism hidden with the “conveyed thought through discipline” and “dull lips commemorating”, and the spiritual gates image will be followed up in the last line to provide the anti-thesis. Greenberg’s description of the volcano has rolls of language, but lacks this leap (negative capability?) that pushes the poem into high idea.

Finally, returning to the wanderer. In Greenberg, the image is used as reprieve from the volcanic outburst in the middle. Hart Crane plays with greater ideas of spirituality instead, and with his foundation set in place, can create deeper connections from the image of the statue. “Marble clouds” and “summer and smoke were past” are gentler in their lyricism, linking up to the decline in tone with “dull lips” and “spiritual gates” from the previous stanza, simultaneously adding to the sense of passing away from the varnish of spirituality. The “chosen hero”, in this instance, takes a kind of Ubermenschian hue, of the human overtaking the spiritual gates. The wanderer has many connections as well, perhaps being the artist who records the aftermath like Ozymandias, or a symbol for all humanity. The link to the leaping dolphin’s curve with the repetition of spiritual gates is lyrical in supreme, an image to remember, and a great way to end the poem with while playing off the whole idea.

In terms of the titles used, then, the addition of ’emblems’ provides deeper resonance – implying something about what drives men to their conduct, and what that emblem might be in the future.

Greenberg’s poem, as an imagistic one, is quite good in how it uses language to sketch the scene, changing to explosive before drifting away, even having a bit of higher idea about how everything cycles amidst such troubles. But Crane’s poem does the same, yet it incorporates higher, somewhat Nietzschean ideas, with fresher levels of imagery, leaps of idea (the descriptive volcano replaced with the spiritual volcano) and lyrical cohesion. When you put both in place, the qualitative levels are plainly demarcated, and one is definitely objectively greater than the other. Supposedly, there are accusations of plagarism with regards to Crane’s version, and but when you look at the words themselves, you can plainly see higher level structures at play here, beyond the mere stealing of words.

Note: Apparently Conduct isn’t the only poem that Crane draws from. The middle section comes from Greenberg’s Immortality – which actually shows even more how Crane could see the intuitive leap between these two separate poems, one highly imagistic, and the other in the vein of the abstract, and combine them into something greater than the sum. Notice that Greenberg’s Immortality also repeats the image of spiritual gates, yet Crane tempered it with his own image, of the dolphins, rather than just letting it hang as mere repetition.