Hart Crane’s poem ‘The Broken Tower’ (1932) is about—among whatever else you might cull from its depths— the overwhelming power of creative force. Thought, transferred into the medium of any art form, inevitably involves the containment of a perpetual expansion. It is the task of the feeling reader, viewer, listener, and/or critic to gently bestride the expansion and subtly steer it into the history of their choosing. As an audience, our relation to culture becomes one of absolute reciprocity, whereby we are left with the venture to perpetuate the arts’ reverberant qualities.
In ‘The Broken Tower,’ Crane’s calling art is unavoidable but his poetic gift is literally killing him; his body, in fact his entire being (the tower), cannot house it. And yet he is dispatched by a knelling summons to capture through language every emotion bound up in the Dantean topography from Hell to Paradise. Crane was acutely aware of his temporal actuality, which included our collective history or ‘that corps / Of shadows in the tower’ that was inextricable from his art. Struggling with this sense of presence while overwhelmed by the grave desire for poetic transcendence (to reach ‘crystal Word’), Crane’s interiority was fractured. He believed ‘The Broken Tower’ was a failure and that he had failed in his directive to rebuild or even to maintain the tower of (collective) consciousness. Believing he was divested of his poetic power, he walked calmly off the stern of a ship and into the sea to drown at thirty-two. The aim of this project is to acknowledge, with only a modicum of the zeal Crane did, the perpetual reciprocity inherent in the relationships between art and society and, through subjective understanding, guide creative force to maintain the collective tower of consciousness with an unmitigated love and dedication to all forms of art. Or, as Crane put it, ‘To trace the visionary company of love.’
Here’s the poem.
The Broken Tower
The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day – to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.
Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway
Antiphonal carillons launched before
The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray?
The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!
Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas campaniles with reveilles out leaping-
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thighs embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
In wounds pledged once to hope – cleft to despair?
The steep encroachments of my blood left me
No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower
As flings the question true?) -or is it she
Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?-
And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes
My veins recall and add, revived and sure
The angelus of wars my chest evokes:
What I hold healed, original now, and pure…
And builds, within, a tower that is not stone
(Not stone can jacket heaven) – but slip
Of pebbles, – visible wings of silence sown
In azure circles, widening as they dip
The matrix of the heart, lift down the eyes
That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower…
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky
Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.