When Hart Crane Met Charlie Chaplin

by terigrimm

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During the research and writing of Becoming Lyla Dore, I grew interested in not only silent film and how the subject would translate into poetry, but also in the very real ways poetry and silent film intersected, both directly and indirectly. I was already aware of Hart Crane’s well-known poem, “Chaplinesque,” and how it was inspired by his viewing of Chaplin’s The Kid in the fall of 1921. The poem, as Samuel Hazo pointed out in Hart Crane: An Introduction and Interpretation (1963), is an elegy “toward a human type or human propensity rather than toward a particular person…” I agree with this interpretation and also understand why many of Crane’s contemporaries found the poem difficult. Crane wrote the poem in a mode that might be considered implicit, rather than explicit, challenging the expectations of most of the readers at that time.

Chaplinesque
by Hart Crane

We make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

Of course, that there was a poet of the age writing about silent film pleases me to no end. But when I came across The Letters of Hart Crane 1916-1932, edited by Brom Weber and discovered that Crane had the opportunity to spend an evening with Chaplin two years after writing the poem, it gave me a genuine thrill. Of the sort that only comes when one discovers something “on their own,” not through a conversation or a google search. That the thrill was disproportionate to the moment, I won’t argue, but I am someone who is often too easily pleased. However, here is what delighted me so. In October of 1923, Hart Crane wrote a letter to his mother in which he details at length his meeting with Chaplin, a meeting that was brought about by his friend and fellow writer, Waldo Frank (the associate editor of a short-lived, but influential journal, The Seven Arts  who also published in The New Yorker and The New Republic). Here’s the letter:

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What I find so interesting is to have Crane’s firsthand account of the evening— the sort of intimate divulgence that can only come from a letter written to someone Crane was close to. (The relationship with his mother– Grace, dear! a complicated one to be sure.) And that the letter was written the day after the experience, gives it that giddy immediacy that comes through the details of the evening and Crane’s emotional response to them. A fanboy’s dream come true— over the evening and morning, Crane is privy to Chaplin’s future project, A Woman of Paris, tidbits about Chaplin’s ended romance with Pola Negri, as well as Chaplin’s “hopes and spiritual desires!” That Crane is beside himself is almost understatement. And although there are plans to meet again later in the week it never comes about due to Chaplin being “…under the weather up at the Ritz…” That is not, however, the last encounter Crane has with Chaplin.

Some five years later when Hart Crane is spending time in Hollywood, he again crosses paths with Chaplin at a restaurant . He recounts the moment in a letter to Waldo Frank. The paragraph begins, “I meant long ago to tell you my rather disappointing experience with Charlie.:

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It’s difficult to read that letter without feeling the same pang of dispiritedness that Crane expressed. How easily Crane must have recalled, upon running into his idol, that memory of an evening well-spent. An evening that almost certainly registered with far greater significance than it did for Chaplin, which is evidenced by Chaplin’s response to him. Still, Crane is gracious, pointing out Chaplin’s handsomeness, “those same eyes of genius.” I can almost picture Crane walking away from that table, figuratively wearing the baggy clothes, bowler and cane, twitching a caterpillar mustache. I see him,  making his “meek adjustments,” contenting himself “with such random consolations.”

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