Sleeping with Pocahontas

Sleeping with Pocahontas

I became interested in the poet Hart Crane for an odd reason. I suppose it’s not that odd, if you know me, that is. I was listening to a bootleg of Neil Young at the London Festival Hall from February 12, 1971, and he introduced a song like this:

This is a song I wrote about uh. . .

I don’t know how many of you have heard of a poet called Hart Crane, he wrote a poem called The Bridge among other things. . .

and uh, I’d just been reading it . . .and I wrote this song.

I started out feeling like I was Hart Crane so I wrote this song called “The Bridge”

If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a sad/hopeful piano tune which wasn’t released until the 1973 album Time Fades Away

Shortly after that, I bought Hart Crane’s Collected Poems, though I didn’t have the time to give it that it deserved, because I was knee-deep in W.B. Yeats. I finally got around to giving it a close read, as I reflected on the fact that the first edition of this poem was also Walker Evan’s first big break. I recall being rather confused by most of Crane’s poems, and the book had been sitting on my shelf for at least two years. Sometimes, poems don’t find you until you need them.

Because it was neatly nestled in the middle of the Collected Works, I didn’t realize that the poem To Brooklyn Bridge was just an introduction to a sort of American epic, which dances on the line of social engagement and detached aesthetic sense. And I didn’t know that Hart Crane committed suicide at the age of 32, and was a tortured homosexual. Crane worked on The Bridge for almost ten years, and felt that it was incomplete, a fragment that he just couldn’t bring together. Finding that out, brought Neil Young’s song into sharp focus:

The bridge, we’ll build it now
It may take a lot of time
And it maybe lonely but
Ooh baby, ooh baby.

The bridge was falling down
And that took a lot of lies
And it made me lonely
Ooh baby, ooh baby.

The bridge was falling.
The bridge was falling.
The bridge was falling.

Powahatan’s most famous daughter, Pocahontas.Crane wrote The Bridge as an answer to T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” because he felt that it presented too negative a view of the modern condition. It is, in essence a sort of tragic love poem to America composed in eight parts. I’m still rolling in it, thinking of what I want to say. I’ve spent little time with modern poets, largely because of a huge distaste for Eliot and Pound, but I’m making an effort to get over it. Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams have helped.

The enterprise of trying to write about deep topics on my blog forces me to let go of chronology and focus, while at the same time they assert themselves. I wanted to write about Walker Evans. But my Tristram Shandy mind has me writing about Neil Young, and thinking of the second part of Crane’s poem, “Powahatan’s Daughter,” and wondering about the entire process of myth construction, as it says on the Smithsonian web site:

Historians have pieced together her life from the accounts of others, most notably her friend, Capt. John Smith, whose veracity of detail and recollection is, to put it mildly, questionable. During the intervening four centuries others have showered her with virtues. Poets and writers from Thackeray to Hart Crane celebrated her charm. More lately rocker Neil Young sang, “I would give a thousand pelts / To…find out how she felt.” And now we have the animated eco-warrior princess from Disney.

I really wish they wouldn’t sanitize lyrics this way. The exact lyric is:

I wish a was a trapper
I would give thousand pelts
To sleep with Pocahontas
And find out how she felt
In the mornin’
    on the fields of green
In the homeland
    we’ve never seen.

And maybe Marlon Brando
Will be there by the fire
We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome
    and the first tepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me

I suspect that most people miss the irony here. The vision of America we hold is an illusion, a myth for hire if you can afford the price of admission.

And that’s all there, with much more, in Hart Crane’s Bridge.

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies dreaming sod,
Unto the lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the Curveship lend a myth to God.

I think the sad song of America took a big twist through Hart Crane on its way to the Beats and Neil Young. I think that all of them fail in one way or another, but it’s America’s nature to try and fail. I’ll get back to Walker Evans, when I get back to that confounded bridge.

1 thought on “Sleeping with Pocahontas”

  1. Maybe Neil Young could see it the more clearly ’cause he’s Canadian. . . .Thanks for the pointer to Crane.Grace and peace, AKMA
    What happened to the references to Eliot and Pound? No fair revising on the fly like this, Jeff. I’m having enough trouble keeping up as it is. I was going to reply to that part of your essay for my entry tomorrow.I’m fighting with Snyder’s vision of America in Mountains and Rivers without End and I’m not ready to write about it until I finish the whole book. This vision stuff is hard to pin point and even harder to evaluate.I wonder how Hart Crane’s vision relates to Snyder’s vision? As if I didn’t already have more than enough waiting to be read.
    I’m also off to look for Hart Crane, Jeff. Neil Young? Well, yes. All my life. One of the most consistently under-rated American performing artists in this neck of the woods and, I therefore presume, elsewhere. The guy’s a mine of insight into something awesome and his take on the Pocohontas myth is haunting, as it bloody well should be.
    One of the many, many problems with a canon is that the work we might prefer gets obscured by the era’s elected representatives. I’m pleased and surprised that Hart Crane has become so much more visible lately — I bet it’s largely due to “queer studies”…. Myself, I was brought back to Crane’s work by the championing of novelist Samuel R. Delany.

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