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The Making of The Oxford Canon: Part Two

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.

Recent Comments

  1. William Busta

    I find a great difficulty in the comparison of Crane and Greenberg.

    Not because I know anything of Greenberg, nor because I know anything of Crane’s poetic process. I find difficulty because of other, obvious references in the content of the poem.

    Crane’s poem “Sunday Morning Apples” is dedicated to the painter William Sommer.

    Sommer was a mentor to Crane, starting when they met in 1919. He was a mentor to others, too, including the painter/sculptor William Zorach – in fact, somewhat of an apostle.

    William Sommer lived near the town of Peninsula, which is located in a valley, through which a steam locamotive made regular runs. There were several cemeteries nearby, likely with uneven graves. A significant amount of Sommer’s painting was out of doors.

    The poem reads as a homage to Sommer, in a different way than “Sunday Morning Apples.”

    There is a specific place where an artist could have sat and sketched “uneven valley graves” while a nearby steam locomotive belched with the smell of high sulphur coal, sending glowing (aureate) cinders into the air.

    Sommer certainly had plenty of diciples who made the “pilgrimage” (that’s what they called it at the time) to see him (he lived out in the country, between Cleveland and Akron).

    In comparing the two poets, some account needs to be made of this. My best guess is that if Crane is re-writing Greenberg, it is because he, like me, found compelling similarities to a cultural geography of which he was familiar and to a relationship of which he was a participant.

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