Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines

by on Jan.20, 2014

Stephen Crane is one of my all time favorite poets. He’s better known as a journalist (he’s said to have written Black Riders and Other Lines on little scraps while out reporting) and a prose writer, the naturalist author of Maggie: A Girl of the Street and Red Badge of Courage (the poems might suggest some interesting revision of Realism). But for me the poem are very evocative – at times his free verse seems so lazy that they’re about to fall apart (and this is also part of their amazing radicalness when you consider that they first poems were published in 1895); they are “lines” according to Crane, barely even poems. They are little parables or allegories. In many ways they remind me of Henry Parland’s poems from thirty years later and across the Atlantic (I suspect the connection is French poetry).
According to one legend, Crane was inspired to write them by hearing William Dean Howells read Emily Dickinson’s poetry. And there’s definitely something to that story, but Crane’s poems are quite distinct from Dickinson, they never seem loaded but instead on the verge of collapse.(Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson’s editor, wrote a negative review of the Black Riders when it was first published, claiming it was mere “novelty” and, stunted, would never grow into real poetry.).

One more thing: I went to a talk about Crane’s articles attacking the treatment of Native Americans, and his descriptions of the genocide of Native Americans, and one thing that struck me was how a lot of the same words and phrases re-occur in the poems. So whether or not this is true (probably no) or some fancy daydream on my part, I see the poems as kind of “cut-outs” or erasures of polemics against genocide.
Here are some poems from Black Riders and Other Lines:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”

Yes, I have a thousand tongues,
And nine and ninety-nine lie.
Though I strive to use the one,
It will make no melody at my will,
But is dead in my mouth.

Once there came a man
Who said,
“Range me all men of the world in rows.”
And instantly
There was terrific clamour among the people
Against being ranged in rows.
There was a loud quarrel, world-wide.
It endured for ages;
And blood was shed
By those who would not stand in rows,
And by those who pined to stand in rows.
Eventually, the man went to death, weeping.
And those who staid in bloody scuffle
Knew not the great simplicity.

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”

A god in wrath
Was beating a man;
He cuffed him loudly
With thunderous blows
That rang and rolled over the earth.
All people came running.
The man screamed and struggled,
And bit madly at the feet of the god.
The people cried,
“Ah, what a wicked man!”
And “Ah, what a redoubtable god!”

Many red devils ran from my heart
And out upon the page,
They were so tiny
The pen could mash them.
And many struggled in the ink.
It was strange
To write in this red muck
Of things from my heart.

“It was wrong to do this,” said the angel.
“You should live like a flower,
Holding malice like a puppy,
Waging war like a lambkin.”
“Not so,” quoth the man
Who had no fear of spirits;
“It is only wrong for angels
Who can live like the flowers,
Holding malice like the puppies,
Waging war like the lambkins.”

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