Hart Crane and his promise of imagination

The meaning of Spartan life

A path once weaved through the Freiberger Field where the iridescent window walls of the Tinkham Veale University Center now stand. I walked that way to class often as a freshman in 2010, relishing the simple pleasures of novelty, the pseudo-autonomy in the face of other pathways to the main quad and the number of architectural and artistic gems to which that path exposed its travelers.

I’d noticed the life-sized bronze bust of a man nestled behind Kelvin Smith Library many times but never felt compelled to actually see it until last week when my friend and mentor, Professor Laura Tartakoff, asked me about it. When I told her the above information, she asked me why I hadn’t walked over and truly looked at it.

I had no answer.

I am seduced by the intrigue of idleness and succumb to the ease of laziness from time to time, but more often than not I deem one thing more important than another thing and act accordingly. This is logical, but why do we care about some things more than others? Why hadn’t I ever taken the momentous initiative to confront the statue?

The weathered bust behind KSL is a memorial to poet Hart Crane and features three excerpted passages from his poems “Ave Maria,” “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” and “Voyages VI.” Each passage, while fragmentary and different, shares the themes of loneliness and despair, imagination and hope.

Each excerpt captures the absurdity of humanity’s puny voice, the insignificant significance of time and its merciless passage, the indiscriminate prayers of heathens offered from a plate of despair, the beautifully ordered disorder of nature, the peculiar promise of imagination, the anxious hope of life and ruthless finality of death. Taken together, the excerpts capture the essence of humanity.

Anyone familiar with Crane’s poetry will recognize these themes. Tortured by the nuanced contradictions and disheartening experiences of life, Crane sought to face the darker side of humanity eye to eye, a task he abandoned when he committed suicide at age 32. However, one perhaps surprising trademark of his ever-enduring work is optimism.

As another academic year comes to a close and I prepare to graduate in May, Tartakoff’s prompt to visit the campus memorial is nothing short of divine intervention. While we personally choose what we ascribe cosmic significance to, every graduating senior should read the words on the memorial’s stones and pay attention to the stirrings they excite.

For what is life after college but a myriad of possibility? And what is life devoid of conviction, of faith in something? Crane’s words encapsulate the curiosity of innocence, the reverence of wisdom and the uncertainty of it all. They encapsulate what it means to live deliberately from moment to moment.

His words immortalize the beauty of moments and remind us that moments—good, bad or otherwise—are all we have. We are reminded that moments and their fleeting presence allow us access to something bigger, something connected, something divine.

But is imagination, or is hope enough to combat the pangs of loneliness and dodge the abyss of despair? Is optimism enough to sustain the spirit of humanity?

I often sit with these questions, vacillating between the spirited hope of Crane’s poetry and defeated despair of his ultimate action. But life has its own agenda of aloof whimsy and dictates how consciousness will register the intoxicating potential of reality.

Most of the time our awareness unknowingly dissolves into memory, situating itself in the mundane monotony of complacency and routine simultaneously rendering us numb. Sometimes though we remain committed to the moment and our awareness seems to transcend the tangible for an experience more euphorically inebriating than any drug.

Crane’s poetry charges us to remain in the euphoric state at all times. It challenges us to hope, imagine and remain optimistic. “The imagination spans beyond despair” is written in “Faustus and Helen,” but our human stain keeps us in the fetters of an antagonistic duality between fear and love.

When we act from fear we act wholly rooted in past experience and delusions about the future. When we act from love we act from authenticity and fearlessness. The former, no matter how practical its manifestation, eventually leads to despair. The latter can only lead to hope and imagination.

I read the words on the unassuming memorial after an early-morning run. The ground was still wet and dew droplets on the surrounding overgrown blades of grass glistened in the misty pre-dawn haze of light that had escaped the horizon. I was tired but invigorated from the run so I stayed dedicated to every aspect of the experience.

That moment culminated in the realization that I am graduating from college. It’s a surreal realization I’m still processing, but I’ll never forget the moment that pulled me from my numbness behind KSL. That’s what it means to be alive because that’s what life is: a series of moments.

Moments are what matter. They’re all we have, what hope affords, what love gives value to. Moments have a special power to them when we pay attention because they enable us to imagine, and imagination transcends life itself.

This is Jacob Martin’s final column with The Observer. He sincerely thanks anyone who has ever read it over the past few years. Sine qua non.