Samuel Greenberg, the poet whose life and creative work Milton Klonsky writes about here, was previously considered of interest only for his influence on the poetry of Hart Crane. But a closer analysis of Greenberg’s work reveals an extraordinary talent which can stand on its own.
For the tragic life of this poet, clipped at the age of twenty-three, an apology is required—but from whom? Who is to blame? “God’s only excuse,” said Nietzsche, “is that he doesn’t exist”—but since when is that an excuse? Job, who knew all His historical sleights of hand and philosophical disappearing acts, would never have accepted such an apology. And anyhow, since the Court of Highest Appeal is forever adjourned, Sing O Muse and adjust the fate of Samuel, Jacob and Hannah Slimovitch’s son, driven by the flood of history from Vienna to imperial New York, where, as a child of nine, he burrowed with his family in the slums of the East Side, played hopscotch and stickball in the streets, read Horatio Alger, the pulps and the comics, went to PS 160 on Suffolk Street, but had to leave in the seventh grade to work in a luggage factory, contracted tuberculosis, wrote his poetry in the dead calm between fits of madness, and died in a Staten Island charity ward in 1917 at the age of twenty-three.
Greenberg left more than six hundred poems, scribbled on the backs of calendar sheets, envelopes, postcards, in nickel notebooks, etc., which were regarded by his family and even by the author himself, in his words, as “nonsense to real literature of careful judgment” (Greenberg’s Autobiography).
After his death, the whole mass was given to a friend, William Murrell Fisher, who preserved them curiously for years. But then, by chance, the young Hart Crane saw some of these poems at Fisher’s house in Woodstock, N. Y., and was so struck by the power of their rhetoric—much like his own, as though Greenberg had taken the words out of his mouth—that, fortunately, the greater poet took them back and condescended to plagiarize, without which service who would have heard of Samuel Greenberg? The sudden evaporation of promising talent, leaving only the waste in the melting pot, is one of the sad characteristics of American culture.
Greenberg’s life as an “apartment Jew” was spent at the height of the exodus from Eastern Europe, a turbulent period, when shipload after shipload of immigrants were landed on Manhattan like an invasion army, and the downtown bridgehead teemed with our own foreign faces and foreign languages, strange food smells, beards, yarmulkas, gabardines. Yet this experience, which formed his sensibility, left no impression upon the actual stuff of his work. At the time Greenberg wrote, the attempt of the Imagists to appropriate small tough lumps of the daily life for poetry was unknown to him, and even if known would not have been understood. His sense of the contemporary life was weak. As a result, Greenberg’s diction is often pseudo-literary, filled with the outworn poeticisms of another age and irradiated only by his own fever.
But even if Greenberg, with his undeveloped technique, could never propound the City, the City itself (metaphorically speaking) spoke through him, in tongues, a kind of Delphic gibberish of imagery.
He was a New York poet—the pastoral scenery of his poems has the depth of vaudeville flats. It is not only his high metaphysical voice, however, or the cinematic flow of images, the speed of his imagination to catch swift ideas and feelings on the fly, that makes Greenberg, I think, the ancestor of an as yet unrealized Big Town style. There is also a curious Chinese-box effect of “inwit” in some of his poems (which we shall examine later on), interiors of the mind enclosed in themselves. The intellectual toughness of the City and its irony—billiard “english”—are lacking; yet no one would expect a poetical naif like Greenberg to think out of the side of his mouth.
In applying such an interpretation to the poems, it is true that we look for what we want to find; as James Joyce remarked, we wipe our glosses with what we know. According to the predisposition of his critics, Greenberg has been claimed as a surrealist, a primitive, a neo-Romantic, etc. But, in the end, the poet himself is responsible for that. The almost sibylline unconsciousness in which he wrote his poems tempts us to impose our own categories upon them.
Greenberg’s most ambitious work is “Sonnets of Apology,” a group of poems written during his last months in a tubercular ward when the visions of fever became confused with the appearance of things as they are.
. . . the beam
Of fire from the sun cast mine own
To slumber in imagination of spheres.
Under the heavens of moon-like shapes
Mine eyelids shut; I fell into unfelt realms.
In his charge, the rational outline of the sonnet form based on the medieval syllogism, with its statement, counter-statement, and resolution, now bulges with disfigured images packed to fit the required fourteen lines. Even with the original shock of these poems absorbed for us by Hart Crane, still we are not prepared for this. The main influences, Shelley, perhaps Blake, certainly Emerson, and those poets of the Romantic movement included in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and the back of Greenberg’s grade-school reader, these are undigested. As a result Greenberg’s poems are loaded with Romantic apparatus: clouds, blood, death, stars; sudden apostrophes to Platonic abstractions; and the characteristic amputations and contractions of “’pon,” “’pelling,” “’ frain,” “o’er,” “e’er,” etc.—even without the excuse of metrical exigency.
Despite the great rise of some lines and passages and even whole poems, the nose sniffs—gas or pneuma, the true afflatus or flatulence merely? Greenberg’s language strains under a weight of meaning it can hardly bear, both because his technical control was slight and the gravity of his experience too heavy; so that, frequently, his words drop their burden of significance altogether and float off like runaway balloons, in a Shelleyan extase, pinnacled dim in the intense inane. The opening lines of “Man” are typical.
O perfect lay of deity’s crested herb
Thou art as the winsome seed afloat.
Whose power e’en fear doth warmly note
Upon the slave of mortal earth to curb. . . .
Paradoxically, it was the cramp of Greenberg’s limited vocabulary on his ideas—“rather poor in careful selection and of grammatic assistance unguided”—which forced him to invent new words and constructions, and, sometimes, to charge verbs and epithets with an intense focal brilliance: “Mythology helped the modem life upbraid”; “Thou hast in plea Mankind’s thirsty juggle, to upheave its concept”; “Doubting conscience’s concentration and behave”; “The orator follows the universe/ And refrains the laws of the people,” etc. Artistic limitations, when they are understood, not only prevent but inform.
A close reading of Emerson gave him his bias, his cue, and even a degree of control. Emerson’s gnomic style is pounded by Greenberg into flat declaratives, and used to anchor his own Transcendentalism, but a naive version, sometimes almost ludicrous, as in these lines from “To Darwin”: “And within the oversouled hush/ I breathed the prayer, reliance.” Greenberg’s use of universal titles—“Peace,” “Life,” “Force,” etc.—which serve as neo-Platonic essences or forms for the poems and so predicate their contents, was also derived from Emerson.
What attracted him to the Transcendental philosophy with its sharp Kantian disjunction of existence and essence, image and reality, good and evil, was precisely this cleavage. Greenberg was in love with the dualities, the master symbol of Yin and Yang.
The great color and sacred Mary
Were whirled in the eyes of Venus and Mars,
But the large sun-circle kept on
With the moon-disk and stars.
(from “Thus Slave Through Nature”)
His own consumptive fever, which cast him intermittently from the apparently real world to the truly unreal, must have seemed like a symptom of this basic metaphysical duality.
But whether he understood its implications or not, Greenberg left Emersonianism at a crucial point. The passage from “Enigmas” already quoted (“the beam/ Of fire from the sun cast mine own/ To slumber in imagination of spheres. . . .”) contains a notion of insight, the mind’s internal beam, as the moon of reality reflecting the true light of day—in distinction from the Emerson-Kant view of the mind as imposing its own categories on nature. It may be reckless to try to piece out a consistent philosophy with quotations from a poet often confused and contradictory (or from any other poet), but I think this does show Greenberg’s adherence to a Biblical naturalism, which presupposes a gap between the intelligences, but not the universe, of God and man. Without the acceptance of this gap—and the possibility of a prophetic leap across—mysticism is disqualified.
Throughout his poems, Greenberg refers to the senses as “bubbles” that can pop at any moment: “the bubble of senses bright,” “eye bubbles dissolving water shade,” and in one of his best poems, “The Glass Bubbles,” the frailty of sight is metaphorically identified with the frailty of what is seen.
The motion of gathering loops of water
Must either burst or remain in a moment.
The violet colors through the glass
Throw up little swellings that appear
And spatter as soon as another strikes
And is born; so pure are they of colored
Hues, that we feel the absent strength
Of its power. When they begin they gather
Like sand on the beach: each bubble
Contains a complete eye of water.
The modulations of metaphor here are extraordinary in a poet who never read Donne or Marvell. First, the bubble-images are thrown up by a spout of vision-water, and “spatter” as others strike and are born; as they break they dissolve into hues of color without substance (like an after-image) so pure “we feel the absent strength of its power”; until, finally, the terms of the metaphor are identified and the eye-spout and its image-bubbles contain one another. The gritty hardness of the image of sand—“When they begin they gather/ Like sand on the beach”—is thrown into our eyes just as the transformation takes place. Figuratively speaking, the whole poem is a metaphysical wink of the inner eye that transcends appearance.
But even the possibility of such a transcendence in poetry—“the weaving fictions of chromatic truth”—serves only to confirm the gulf between sensory perception and the reality. This theme is further rehearsed in “The Master’s Triumph,” with its powerful cadence reminiscent of the later Blake.
Behold all this jagged beauty; I bare the test
alone of perfection too imperfect.
The choir spirit in order weaves it own
gauge in the song of life.
O detail! must thou trail endless, as fables
of yore forever create
Harmonies, while we breathe broad and
simple? We pray to this
Abandoned universe; that critic looms high
in chaos, whether it contains
Sensual or divine restriction. . . . Or perhaps
the infinite charm is cursed.
No matter how God-like in this “abandoned universe” the act of creation may be, the poet’s task is not redemption but to deliver himself from the necessity of having to be redeemed.
He sat as an extricable prisoner, bound
To essence that he sought to emancipate.
Or, as he says elsewhere, following Emerson: “The essence of life remains a screen”—an essence which is not screened by anything else, but is a screen, a screen that screens itself. The “within the within” noumenal character of reality is mirrored by Greenberg’s image (or the other way around), thereby exemplifying in itself what it asserts. One of the lines Hart Crane appropriated from Greenberg for his own poem, “Emblems of Conduct,” was of this sort: “For joy hides its stupendous coverings.” But Crane, exercising his droit de seigneur, misread or deliberately transformed the line to “For joy rides in tremendous coverings,” and so spilled its meaning.
“Emblems of Conduct” was composed by Crane out of a congeries of lines taken from five unrelated poems of Greenberg: “Daylight,” “The Laureate,” “Perusal,” “Immortality,” and, of course, “Conduct,” from which it originated. The result was only a crude amalgam, lacking the spontaneity and dramatic tensions of the original. Here is Greenberg’s “Conduct,” another of the “inwitted” poems where his images have a Realist autonomy and follow their own leads:
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.
The vast landscape of volcanoes, valleys, and beaches is crowded into the small context of the poem, and even further diminished by the figure of the Titanic painter who sits “by a peninsula” to sketch the “valley groves.” (Freudian criticism can make a fuss over the peninsula and the groves—as indeed the whole poem is symbolical of the act of creation.) A strange apostle gives alms to the meek, just as the painter gives form to what he sees. All nature is in a geological confusion like the first week in the book of Genesis or the painter’s own mind. Abruptly, this identification of the creator and the object of creation is made explicit as the volcano bursts—“Heaven’s sudden change at/ The drawing tempestuous/ Darkening shade of dense clouded hues.” Then, just as suddenly, the painter resolves his confusion and finds a “spot of rest.” His mental landscape becomes a summer beach, and here the artist-hero is acclaimed and borne upon the shoulders of the crowd.
Crane sometimes incorporated Greenberg’s imagery with a greater degree of flexibility than in “Emblems of Conduct.” Philip Horton’s biography of Crane contains an account of the change suffered by a line from Greenberg’s “Shadowings” before it was finally annealed in the second part of “Voyages.” “Silhouettes set the scepters roving” became, by stages: (1) “Shadowed sceptres roving”; (2) “Circled by sceptres roving”; (3) “Enlisted by what sceptres roving/ Wide from isle to isle have churned”; (4) and then, the form in which it was used: ‘the sceptred terror of whose sessions rends. . . .” (At this point Crane interpolated a line from Greenberg’s “Man”—“All else than Deities green crested herb”—which he later removed.) The final version reads:
The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends
All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.
Contrasted with the molten issue of these lines, “Emblems of Conduct” is a slag-heap.
Crane’s conscious attempt in “Emblems of Conduct” to impose a rational order on Greenberg’s associational flow of imagery without first estimating its depth or current was a violation of his own theory of extra-logical poetry. In an article published by Crane in 925, two years after he had made copies of the Greenberg manuscripts, he wrote: “Via . . . their metaphorical interrelationships the entire construction of the poem is raised on the organic principle of a ‘logic of metaphor’ which antedates so-called pure logic and which is the genetic base of all speech, consciousness, and thought extension.” But despite his prescriptive criticism, Crane was always ready to supply a rational gloss for his own poems, perhaps trying to join the two terms “logic of metaphor” and “so-called pure logic” not metaphorically but literally. Certainly as the subject of his own poetic analysis he associated the figures of logic and metaphor too freely; even his use of the term “logic”—in this connection deprived of any usual denotation—is purely metaphysical.
The method advocated by Crane, evidence of which he found in Greenberg’s “Sonnets of Apology,” was originally developed by Rimbaud and especially by Mallarmé in his later poems. The structural rigor of Mallarmé’ work was, perhaps, an attempt to make his poems self-sufficient and autotelic in a time of chaotic cultural values—“Monads have no windows.” By omitting the social connections of syntax, the symbols and metaphors of poetry (like the symbols of a dream) attain their relevance to one another and to the world only within the formal context of the poem itself. The vision of the poet can be made manifest by being filtered through a significant form—for without this objective technical correlative for his vision his symbols are merely spots before our eyes. As William Blake pointed out: “The artist’s conception is as his execution and no better.”
An architecture of metaphor was never achieved by Crane, and never attempted by Greenberg. Greenberg’s ultimate failure—and Crane’s to a lesser extent, as his ambitions were greater—was due to the lack of such a controlling technique.
The affinity of both poets is clear—New York. Crane’s talent was magnetized by New York, and in the “Proem” and “The Tunnel” sections of The Bridge, as well as in “For the Marriage of Helen and Faustus,” he found his pole. Although these poems absorb without self-consciousness the artifacts of the machine age, they avoid the lumpish naturalism of early free verse—Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” in poetical guise—and the style Crane wrought instead with its slang, thick impasto of diction, high tonal pitch curved on the inside, elliptic shifts of reference, etc., was considerably more flexible. Greenberg, on the other hand, had none of this literary sophistication. He had only a sensibility formed in the streets, but, in expressing himself, he unconsciously anticipated and sometimes even surpassed the art of Crane. With his technical handicap he could never sustain a unified vision, and, in the end, fragments are his whole achievement.
Greenberg’s life and his work were cut too soon, with all the dangerous (for us) pathos and sentimentality of ruins, shards of poetry that “crumble within view and palm.” Neither the time nor the poet was ripe. The immigrant culture of the East Side was then still more European than American, and the effort of adjustment from the crawling villages of Eastern Europe to the pace of a 200th-century megalopolis, the cockpit of mankind, engrossed every other concern. This Greenberg saw clearly.
I live in an age where the age lives alone
And lonesome doth it rage
Where the bard dare not come.
(from “The Tempest”)
His freak genius was the product of his struggle to achieve personal authenticity, a “self gathering of natural prevention in the ways of life’s action,” while still assimilating to the new American life. His problem in poetry, like that of assimilation in general, was enormous, Hamlet’s problem: To be or not to be—what? For it is much more painful to live without one’s self than to live as a pariah, without society; just as it is better to be in exile than to be dead. The symptoms of the afflictions which led to Greenberg’s death—his schizophrenic madness and the tubercular shredding of his lungs, the source of inspiration—were true symbols of a greater social disorder. We wheeze in spirit. And the elastic of self-alienation has already been stretched so far that all are in danger of being struck down by it, as by a sudden snap of the mind.
What is supposed to be the last poem Greenberg wrote, found on the back of a postcard addressed to his brother and dated March 14, 1917, is composed in tight and regular stanzas, unlike “Sonnets of Apology.”
The advantages of such a strict order, where the slightest shift of meaning or value can be made emphatic, is obvious for a disoriented poet like Greenberg. And yet pattern is not form, as conformity is not style. Despite the superb finish and pure tone of this poem, it is Greenberg’s sprawling “Sonnets,” with their rank tropical overgrowth, gorgeous and grotesque, which are much closer to his own nature.
Here is “To Dear Daniel,” which comes almost as a summation of Greenberg’s life.
There is a loud noise of Death
Where I lay;
There is a loud noise of life
From low and weary stride
Have I flown;
From low and weary pride
I have grown.
What does it matter now
To you or me?
What does it matter now
To whom it be?
Again the stain has come
Again the stain has come