Among those who love the writing of Harry Crosby (born this day in 1898), the big news over the last 12 months was the publication of a Selected Poems. The book, announced by MadHat Press as available in June 2020 (and paid for then), arrived in early 2021. I’d hoped it would nicely showcase Crosby’s poetry.
Alas, while the book has some positives, its major problems are, unfortunately, the main story.
Here’s the deal: the primary criteria used to select the poems – everything that happened to be published in magazines and anthologies in or just after Crosby’s lifetime – is unconvincing, and in part botched. As a result, this Selected includes nearly a dozen pages of work that ain’t poetry, and another dozen pages or so of, I kid you not, essentially duplicate texts. Ugh. Further, due to either uninspired or uninformed editing, a dozen or so essential Crosby poems are not included. Ugh again, and let me explain.
About two-thirds of the book – the first 100 or so of its 150+ pages–
is given over to what is said, to quote the introduction and back
cover, “the whole of” or “all of” Crosby’s contemporary magazine and
anthology appearances. This was done, the editor asserts, so we can
read the poems seen at the time, and have a historical record of what
was submitted by Crosby and printed by others.
doesn’t make sense. At the same time he submitted poems to magazines,
Crosby self-published , or prepared for publication, several volumes of
his poetry. I would think the work he chose to collect and publish
himself would be the starting point for any selected poems, as well as
the poems not included in those books but which appeared elsewhere.
another way, the right way to compile a selected poems is to consider
EVERYTHING a poet wrote, then, focusing on the work itself, fashion a
collection that reflects the breadth or characteristics of the poet’s
achievement, or some other angle intrinsic to the work. Discarding all
that for an extrinsic and rather arbitrary factor such as where poems
happened to first appear, especially when the magazine and anthology
poems are greatly outnumbered by the entirety of the poetry, devalues
the work as a whole, and thus the poet’s legacy. In this way, much of
the MadHat selected Crosby is wrongly compiled.
The book, by the
way, fails in it’s on its own terms. Contrary to its claims, it does
NOT include the “whole of” or “all of” Crosby’s contemporary magazine
poems. O editor and publisher, get thee to Poetry, Vol. XXXIV, Number
11 (May 1929), at pages 78-79 (“Fragment,” a 35 line verse poem). I
wonder what else was missed? Oh yeah, the key series of question and
answers, first published in transition 14 (Fall 1928), that Crosby
published as the prose poem “Enquette” in his Mad Queen. This
tremendously entertaining four-part word-rush reveals much about
Crosby’s vision of himself, including as an expatriate outsider. “The
End of Europe,” a short visionary and apocalyptic prose-poem in
transition 16-17 (June 1929) is also not included.
while these poems were missed, the editor includes a straight prose
work, “Observation-Post,” which appeared in a magazine. It’s an essay in
which Crosby critiques a magazine essay dismissive of poets that Crosby
considered “the True Dawn.” That this is not a poem is obvious. In
addition to being closely reasoned, the essay quotes liberally from the
work of a number of poets, including the entirety of Hart Crane’s “O
Carib Isle.” The editor does not explain why this essay is included in a book of poems. It
takes up 11 pages and is a big mistake.
Also, the misguided decision to include ALL magazine and
anthology results in – I kid you not – approximately three dozen poems
being repeated – one three times – because they appeared both in
magazines and then later in an anthology. Most of the repeated poems,
which mostly all appear in the book’s first 90 pages, are duplicates of
each other. In the others, there are minor – very minor – differences,
such as additions of a title. Can you spell s-i-l-l-y and
a-n-n-o-y-i-n-g? This Selected is not supposed to a variorum edition.
The poems as Crosby finally published them himself should have been
used, period. The duplicates here, which collectively take up about a
dozen pages, are another big mistake.
I’ll do the math: between
the prose essay and the duplicates, there’s almost two dozen pages of
text that’s either inappropriate or unnecessary.
wasted pages are a shame given the poetry that is not included. There’s almost
nothing from Crosby’s first two books, Sonnets for Caresse and Red
Skeletons. The editor implies that the work in these books is not
Crosby’s “mature period.” While that is true – the poetry’s largely
derivative in style, tone, and subject – there are a few gems in those books not
included here (the homage “Baudelaire,” to name one) that would rightly
shine in a selected poems. Devour the Fire, a Crosby selected poems
published in 1983, managed to do so. It’s strange to that so few poems
from these books are included, while an 11 page prose essay and at least
that many pages worth of duplicate are.
stellar and essential “mature period” Crosby poems are missing. These
include the dardanic masterpieces “Stud Book,” “Sun-Testament” and “Telephone Directory,” the scintillating “Photoheliograph
(Self-Portrait),” the hyper-fervent Boston-excoriating “Target For
Disgust,” the marvelous Egyptian travelogue in verse “House of Ra,”
“Sunrise,” a mini-epic of witnessing, the super-short but important
late-life list poems “Beacons,” “Vocabulary,” and “Library,” in which
Crosby sets forth, respectively, his tippy-top people, words, and books,
and the brilliant manifesto-like prose poems “I Climb Alone” and “The
Ten Commandments.” All these, as I count, would have fit on the pages
wasted on the long prose essay and the duplicate poems.
also have put in certain short verse poems which, while perhaps not Crosby
classics, charm and stir reveries in ways that the short verse poems
that are included don’t: “All That is Beautiful” (it’ll delight any
gardener), “Beyond” (the powerful pull of erotic desire), “Roots” (“And
the root of a tree / Dark-fingered / Thrusting into / Infinity.”), “New
Every Morning” (a quick set of similes and metaphors that invigorate the
dawn), and “Alchemy” (about the “madness we require” and the “sudden
alchemy of splendor” that, I believe, Crosby says poets must embrace and
Okay, the editor here swung and missed lots. As a
result, and sadly, this Selected Poems is far duller than it should have
been. The book simply does not showcase the full splendor of Crosby
as“a true dandy of explosive Promethean desire,” to use Philip
Lamantia’s characterization in “Poetic Matters” (1976).
fair, the book does some things right. The introduction winningly
includes the Crosby diary entry about his inheriting a huge library of
rare books. This passage, a de facto prose poem, will make bibliophiles
swoon. The book proper includes “Illustrations of Madness,” a prose
poem in ten short sections that since its initial 1929 magazine
appearance has only appeared in an extremely limited edition of
uncollected Crosby poems published about five years ago. (That
publication winningly included an additional sub-part to the poem that the magazine
apparently edited out). The poem is exactly what its title implies;
certain sections memorably disturb, in the way great art
sometimes does: “I continually feel hurricanes of magic storming into me
as wild as eagles catapulting themselves into the sun.”
addition, the book includes about a dozen Crosby classics, mostly
because they happened to have been originally published in magazines or
anthologies.. Among these are the disturbing and breath-taking “Hail:
Death!,” the Joycean (cf. Episode 17 of Ulysses) “The Sun,” the
marvelous manifesto-like “The New Word,” the stirring and inspiring
rejection of the past, “Trumpet of Departure,” the middle-finger (and
more) to businessmen, “Scorn,” the beguiling “Short Introduction To The
Word” (albeit an edited version that lacks the full power of the
original), the erotic quick five-line verse poem “Kiss,” and the
breathtaking revolutionary spirit of “Assassin” (“I am the harbinger of a
New Sun World. I bring the seed of a New Copulation. I proclaim the
That said, all the poems listed in the preceding
paragraph, except the five-liner, are included in Seeing With Eyes
Closed: The Prose Poems of Harry Crosby (Quale Press, 2019). That book
also includes most of the essential Crosby poems mentioned in the
paragraph above that begins, “Triple-alas.” And there’s a lot more in
that book as well, including all of Crosby’s Aphrodite in Flight, a
series of aphoristic poetic prose meditations on the correspondences
between airplane flight and love. Even without any verse poems, this
collection is far closer to a representative selection of Crosby’s
So I celebrate today the poetry of Harry Crosby, but not so much the MadHat Press Harry Crosby Selected Poems. And I dream of a complete collected Crosby, with not only all that Crosby published, as he and his wife Caresse published it, but with some of the work currently only available in archives, not published by Crosby or others in his lifetime, and only in very limited editions since then.