The Black Riders and Other Lines by Stephen Crane

Until recently, my only experience with Stephen Crane was, as is likely the case for most people, with The Red Badge of Courage, which I read during the summer between my ninth and tenth grades.  As a teenage girl, I didn’t really get into the Civil War novel, which is regretful.  After rediscovering him through his poetry, I think I’ll have to go back and reread it, because his poems are most delightful.

I’ll admit, I haven’t always especially liked poetry.  Why this is, I don’t know.  Perhaps it was my public school education.  My English classes never featured units on poetry, unless one counts writing haiku one day out of the year.  Or maybe it was my household.  My parents aren’t poetry people, so there weren’t books of verse around.  Or I could blame society — we don’t really appreciate poetry in our modern culture.  Ultimately, though, the blame lies with me for ruling out a whole category of literature wholesale without considering the fact that, while some might not be for me, other works might well be sublime.

I won’t go so far as to claim that Crane’s poetry is the pinnacle of literary works.  A lot of the poems included here are short — so short that they either don’t feel finished or feel as if  they have not been thought out fully.  Some of them are also Christian-themed, which is not my favorite of topics.

Crane also tends to be pessimistic and dark.  This is neither a good nor bad thing, in my opinion.  Beauty and truth can come from the depths just as easily as from sweetness and light.  I do admit, however, that he is probably less palatable to more people because of his verse’s lack of froth.

With that said, this book contains one of my favorite poems ever, “In the Desert”, which I can share, since he’s way out of copyright:

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.”

I find that amazingly beautiful with its truth.  When our hearts are bitter, when we have ill feelings toward the world, we become that bitterness.  The longer we are that way, the harder it is to imagine ourselves as not that way, and the more frightening it is for us to accept that life doesn’t have to be that way.  At the same time, our humanity to others is lessened by the petty and miserable ways of our bitterness.

Another one of my favorites, “Places Among the Stars,” hits me as both a stylized piece almost in the same vein as some Romantic poetry and a stretching of the poem’s topic so that, instead of speaking of idealized beauty and love, Crane chooses to talk of a beloved who is decidedly imperfect and the resulting refusals he must make to the model of love the previous generations have presented:

Places among the stars,
Soft gardens near the sun,
Keep your distant beauty;
Shed no beams upon my weak heart.
Since she is here
In a place of blackness,
Not your golden days
Nor your silver nights
Can call me to you.
Since  she is here
In a place of blackness,
Here I stay and wait.

I simply think that his work is some of the most emotionally honest poetry I’ve read.  It’s not without its flaws, but the clarity of his vision in the best of his work makes this collection worth reading.

Rating: 4/5.

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Filed under 4/5, Book review, Favorable, Poetry

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