Yesterday, we kicked off the week with a post from David Lehman, editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program. Today we present part two of “The Making of the Oxford Canon.” Lehman will write for the blog every day this week, so be sure to come back every morning to read his posts.
Hart Crane’s early poem “Emblems of Conduct” (1926) is a rewriting of a poem by Samuel Greenberg (1893-1917), whom I describe in my introduction to The Oxford Book of American Poetry as “poor, consumptive, self-taught,” and whose work is one of the little-known glories of early twentieth-century American poetry.
From the introduction and from the head note to Greenberg’s poems on page 390, you would learn that Crane’s “Emblems of Conduct” is a rewriting of Greenberg’s “Conduct” (c. 1915). It is easy enough to read the two poems side by side and see how Crane adapted the earlier work for his purposes. And perhaps it is irresistible to compare the two poems in the classroom or as part of a homework assignment. I’d be curious to know whether any given group of readers prefers the Crane or the Greenberg poem, and why.
Crane lifted at least six lines, with changes, from Greenberg’s earlier “Conduct.” The best way to read “Emblems of Conduct” is, in fact, as Crane’s homage to Greenberg, for Crane quotes, echoes, or paraphrases five other Greenberg poems in “Emblems of Conduct.” I’m grateful to Dana Laventure of New York University for referring me to a web site in which the sources of “Emblems of Conduct” are given line by line.
Both Samuel Greenberg and Leonie Adams deserve their place in the American canon, and I am proud to have included them in The Oxford Book of American Poetry. That their poems also provide angles of entry into the mind and heart of Hart Crane, one of our very greatest poets, is a delightful bonus.
David Lehman is Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program in New York City. His most recent books of poetry are The Evening Sun and When a Woman Loves a Man. He is the author of five books of critical prose, including The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets and The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection. He founded The Best American Poetry series in 1988 and continues to serve as general editor of this prestigious anthology. He also edited Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present and co-edited The KGB Bar Book of Poems, based on the reading series he and Star Black directed in New York’s East Village.