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A Life Not Forgotten: Q&A With Prof. Paul Mariani

Through 'The Broken Tower,' Mariani will see his critically hailed biography of poet Hart Crane transformed into a movie

04/14/11
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By Rosanne Pellegrini | Chronicle Staff

Published: Apr. 14, 2011

This week, Poet and Boston College University Professor of English Paul Mariani will see his critically hailed biography of poet Hart Crane transformed into a movie, The Broken Tower, directed by acclaimed actor James Franco. Chronicle had the opportunity to sit down with Mariani as he reflected on his work and the process of having it become a feature film.

Q: Please describe the experience of having your book made into a film. When you spent five years researching and writing it, could you ever have imagined this happening? What was your reaction to that initial 2009 call from James Franco’s manager?

Mariani: I’ve published five biographies over the past thirty years, four on four 20th Century American poets—William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Hart Crane, and a fifth on the 19th Century British poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and am now deep into my sixth—the life and times of one of the most brilliant American poets of the 20th Century: Wallace Stevens. I knew by the time I was twenty-eight that I wanted to write a biography of Hart Crane, the brilliant and obscure late American Romantic who killed himself at the age of thirty-two.

But it was not until I was fifty-five that I seriously began researching and writing Hart Crane’s life, attempting to make the poet more accessible to a larger audience. In a sense, to act as a transmitter, a bridge, between the poet and a larger readership. Many American poets have acknowledged the impact of Crane’s work on their own—from William Carlos Williams to Robert Lowell and John Berryman on through Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley and Philip Levine and so many others. But how explain the man’s life—this chiasmic force who—Hermes-like—kept moving between something like a religious and even mystical vision, and the poet who out-Catullused the Roman love poet Catullus and out-Poed Poe and out-Rimbaud Rimbaud and out-Wilded Wilde in terms of his critical brilliance and creativity and vision flashing in bold outline against his erotic antics and his Dionysian addiction to booze?

When the biography came out in 1999—Crane’s 100th birthday—I did think that it might make a good movie, if only one could find the right producer, director and actor to play Hart Crane. But who that was I had no idea of knowing, and as time went on, I moved on to other projects—a spiritual memoir, a biography of Fr. Hopkins, a book of critical essays, and another book of poems. And trees grew, and wars were fought, and the sun came and went rising and sinking into the great oceans, and the idea that someone would make a movie of Crane’s life was forgotten.

And then, like that, an email from Miles Levy, agent for a young actor in his late twenties named James Franco, about whom at the time I knew very little. But not for long, I Googled him, began watching his films, and was blown away by James’s extraordinary portrayal of the young James Dean. I asked to speak to James, and he called me from JFK en route to Ireland, I believe, to make another film, and he told me in that telephone conversation that he had read Hart Crane’s poetry back around 2003 or so while on set for a movie being made in New Orleans, and had read Harold Bloom’s introduction citing my biography as the best life available for understanding the poet. And so his agents began talking with my agents and we went on from there. But I was warned from the very get-go that most projects like this soon went down in Icarian flames, and so not to get my hopes up too much. I knew too from what other writers and friends had told me that these things were almost doomed from the beginning to end badly, if at all: no release of the film, no film, the project abandoned somewhere along the way.

Later, when I met Miles in New York, he told me that one thing about James was this: that when he said he was going to see a project through, he saw it through. At first I thought even that was Hollywood hype—of course an agent would say something along those lines. But James proved from the beginning to be the real, authentic thing itself: a man of his word who over time I came to admire and respect and, yes, even love as an older mentor does someone he can teach and likewise learn.

Q: Do you anticipate that the film will inspire a new generation of readers of your book?

Mariani: I would hope so. But even more, I would hope the book and the film would turn the attention of serious readers of poetry back to the words of a young, tragic poet — like Keats or Shelley or Hopkins — who believed in the visionary powers of the poetic imagination to change for the better those who took the time to listen to what the poet had to offer. Certainly, that is what Hart wanted, and it is what I believe James has given us in the film, even in its present stage. 

Crane was eleven years T.S. Eliot’s junior, and he was as struck by the power of The Waste Land when it came out in 1922 as any of his contemporaries. But he wanted to offer his readers a more optimistic vision of what poetry had to offer. He wanted to act as a bridge, an intermediary, between the material crassness of American business and the lying promises of Madison Avenue advertising, and something more spiritual, something closer to what Emerson in his essay/sermons and Whitman in his Leaves of Grass had offered us a generation or two before. He would use the image of his beloved Brooklyn Bridge, in whose shadow he lived and worked and loved as a transcendent symbol, as well as the promise of new worlds offered by Mary, the mother of God, and Columbus, and the American experience of Pocahontas, and Rip van Winkle, and Walt Whitman, and Manifest Destiny, and the pioneer spirit, while grappling with the dark vision of a city on fire such as Poe had described. It was as if he knew that, even while he saluted Whitman, his own destiny lay rather with Poe lying dead on the streets of Baltimore at the age of forty, or with the carious image of the tens of thousands dead in the trenches of France even as Spads and Fokkers (the diabolical inversion of the promise of flight the Wright brothers had envisioned) machine-gunned those trapped like dazed wasps below.

Q: How would you describe Hart Crane? What inspired you to write his biography?

Mariani: How to describe Hart Crane? He was born in 1899, the same year as Hemingway, but lived only about half as long. He too — like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, was originally from the mid-West, in Crane’s case Cleveland, Ohio and environs. But by the time he was eighteen, he was living in Greenwich Village. Later it would be Brooklyn Heights, then Patterson, New York, then Cuba and France and Mexico, returning from which he would jump to his death, as he had threatened several times earlier. He was thirty-two.

He is our late, great Romantic poet, who published two volumes of poetry in his life — White Buildings in 1926, and his epic, The Bridge, in 1930, and left behind many scattered gems beside, like “The Broken Tower.” His collected letters top 600 pages, filled with literary critical insights equal to Keats’s or Hopkins’s. He worked alongside and against Eliot, Pound, Williams and Stevens. In many ways he was as outrageous in his behavior, frightening or puzzling many of his contemporaries with his drinking and voracious appetite for sailors. But he was also a man with a deeply religious sensibility, someone who shared Whitman’s vision of a democratic brotherhood, even as he aspired to be the Kit Marlowe of the Jazz Age.

Q: What are the challenges of adapting this book, and depicting Hart Crane’s life, for the screen?

Mariani: How does one encapsulate so much energy and human complexity — so many diverse fragments of darkness visible and shattered light — into 100 minutes of film?

When you write a biography of a poet, it’s often like a novel. To do the subject justice, you must account for so many characters, so many episodes, take the figure through all the major stages of his or her life, give it a shape true to the many complex facets of that life, yet balance it, and give it the force of good drama or good fiction. That’s easier in some ways to do with Hart Crane than it is with Wallace Stevens, say, much of whose life was spent walking back and forth to work in Hartford, Connecticut, though he did once get into a brawl with Hemingway. But much of that life consisted of an interior drama, and the task there would be to bring that interior life to the level of the visual imagination.

With Crane, there’s the hitting on truck drivers, on sailors, on aristocrats, there are fist fights in the Village and Paris. There’s the world of the New York subways — those tunnels leading into hell, there’s the bootleg liquor and the illegal cider stills. There’s hurricane weather on the Isle of Pines, with dazed, wounded mules and men collapsing in ditches. But then there’s the majestic beauty of the East River and the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge and the Atlantic Ocean off Rockaway and Battery Park and the great terrapin swimming through the coral waters off Havana.

What James has done is to take twelve episodes — or Voyages — and interlock them thematically and visually — the Bridge from above and below, the interior of Notre Dame, Paris, the bell towers of Mexico. The range of language, from the exalted cadences of “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” to the inchoate, salivating mooing of a cow, to the crash of waves on a beach, to the ineluctable silence we all face. We see a man — a man we come to care deeply about — divided against himself as his family disintegrates and he attempts to establish a new family composed of like-minded visionaries across the ages (backward and forward), one hand stretched out toward Whitman, the other turned up to avert the terrible vision of Melville and Poe.


"With Crane, there’s the hitting on truck drivers, on sailors, on aristocrats, there are fist fights in the Village and Paris. There’s the world of the New York subways — those tunnels leading into hell, there’s the bootleg liquor and the illegal cider stills. There’s hurricane weather on the Isle of Pines, with dazed, wounded mules and men collapsing in ditches. But then there’s the majestic beauty of the East River and the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge and the Atlantic Ocean off Rockaway and Battery Park and the great terrapin swimming through the coral waters off Havana." -- Prof. Paul Mariani

Q: How have you enjoyed the collaboration with James Franco?

Mariani: To say I have enjoyed working with James would be an understatement. I spent a full day back in August 2009 with James and his associate, Vince Jolivette, going over sites in Greenwich Village and mid-town Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Columbia Heights and lower Broadway, walking the Brooklyn Bridge and touring the old subways and the Woolworth Building and so much more, suggesting ways of looking at these landmarks of New York.  Consider what the poet Robert Lowell once said: that Hart Crane somehow managed to get New York into the very matrix of his epic poem, The Bridge. As someone who grew up on New York’s east Side back in the 1940s, it’s a profound insight on Lowell’s part—what one poet comes to see in another.

After that, there were a series of questions from James—from the sort of accent Crane’s Danish lover, Emile Opffer, may have had, to the particular cafes Hart Crane visited during his time in Paris, to the various landscapes Crane was familiar with during his time in Cuba and the Isle of Pines and Mexico City, to contemporary photographs of figures ranging from Gorham Munson to Peggy Cowley to Alfred Stieglitz.

Q: What's been the reaction of your BC students to this collaboration?

Mariani: Everything from disbelief to mild interest to bedazzlement. It’s been fun watching those reactions not only from undergraduates to graduates, but even my colleagues.

Q: I understand you’re a fan of James Franco’s acting work—would you elaborate?

Mariani:  I began watching James’s acting with a kind of curiosity. I watched him in everything from Flyboys to Spiderman to Pineapple Express. I was amused, but also aware of James’s range. Then I saw his portrayal of the young Allen Ginsberg in the film Howl, and was giddy with excitement at his ability to capture the very intonation of Ginsberg’s voice—doubly fascinating because I had had some good talks with the older Ginsberg in the 1980s and 1990s, and had researched Ginsberg for my biographies of Williams and Lowell and Berryman, all of whom had known and commented on their meetings with the poet. And then there was James’ powerful portrayal of the solitary mountain climber Aron Ralston who was trapped in a canyon in Robbers Roost, Utah, his right arm pinned by a six hundred pound boulder for five days, until he finally realized that, unless he cut himself free and left his lower arm behind, he was fated to die.

This, I realized, was what James did best: entering the very soul of another human being, so that — after a time — it was not James up there on the screen but rather a man existentially trapped and discerning finally what was worth living or dying for. Or, with Hart Crane, a gifted poet who had a dream of what we could be, of what Isadora Duncan, for instance, and Emily Dickinson, had come to understand, in spite of the tsunami of death which inevitably swallows the body, even as the spirit struggles to break free. I have been blessed in my own life to have worked with James, and hope to somehow continue to work with him. I consider him now as truly a friend. He’s the real article.

Q: Regarding your part in the film: who do you play and how was that acting experience?

Mariani: I received an invitation from James to play a small speaking part as Alfred Stieglitz, the brilliant and influential photographer and artist, opposite James as Hart. I was given a series of lines to memorize and then drove down to Brooklyn on the first Friday in December. James’s staff — young, energetic, hardworking, focused, and fun-loving — put me up at a hotel near Columbia Heights, Crane’s old haunts, and at half past six in the morning two young women came to my door — one to outfit me in a tweed suit and hat and overcoat and heavy leather shoes and oval eyeglasses, the other to tease out my hair, and glue the most authentic false gray-white moustache I’ve ever seen. Looking in the mirror as I was prepared, I thought I was looking at my own father. Without my glasses I was half blind peering through the clear lenses of those 1920s steelrimmed things. Then I was ushered to a waiting van where the women and a young man drove me to the old brownstone houses where Crane had once lived. I could not find a recording of Stieglitz’s voice, though I’d learned he was quite voluble and longwinded, and my lines had been pared down to the essentials. It was very cold that morning, and the sky was overcast, with the threat of snow, and I was invited to drink some coffee and have some scrambled eggs and toast. But the moustache began listing, and my nose began running, and I could hardly see with the prop glasses I was wearing, and I figured, why not give Stieglitz a bit of an accent. After all, he had been raised in a well-to-do Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, and had spent fifteen years studying photography in Berlin, so why not try a kind of Yiddish/German understated accent.

Then James came down the street, smiling and looking quite dapper in his camel coat and striped sweater and that infectious smile of his and we stepped aside to prepare our lines—for he had another site to get to by ten—and I told him I’d gone over the lines and wondered if he would mind if I changed one of my lines—the last—to give what I said more emphasis and point (and for other more metaphysical reasons as well) and he agreed. We took a take of the scene, and he seemed happy with it. And then he suggested we take a second one just to be sure, and Hart told Stieglitz how very much his new photographs of clouds over Lake George, and the interplay of the stillness of apples against the gable of his house playing against the force of the gathering storm clouds in the background had meant to him and—by implication—the dynamic stasis of the Brooklyn Bridge, the still point of the turning world had meant to him. And then he asked Stieglitz if he wanted to go the movies with him, to see Charlie Chaplin and the scamp in The Kid, because in truth Crane saw himself as the Comedian as the Letter C (much as Wallace Stevens did), beating out a path for himself in spite of the Index and the index finger of the police authority which would quash him if it could. And will the audience understand that all of this is involved in that twenty or thirty-second take? I don’t think so. But it’s all there, at least potentially.

It was a great moment. But, you know, you can’t teach and try to hold an audience for 45 years without playacting and giving your students something to come back to. And you have to engage them, and bring them near to tears and make them laugh. Or at least that is what I signed on to all those years ago. It’s certainly what James does as an actor, and what Crane did in his life. I remember speaking a year ago with Kate, Dorothy Day’s granddaughter, and she told me how Dorothy and Peggy Cowley—Hart Crane’s one heterosexual lover—had laughed and laughed at Hart Crane’s antics over the breakfast table back in the early 1920s.

Q: Have you seen the film? If so, what is your reaction?  

Mariani: I have now seen two cuts of the film, the first about ten days ago, the second the day before yesterday—March 15th. And I expect to see a subsequent cut now that James and I have met and talked about the film here in Boston on March 16th. But even in that short interval, James had already chiseled the film into something like its powerful final version. I have viewed both versions film several times now, and keep finding more and more to admire about it. It’s in black and white, and consists of what James calls twelve voyages, or segments of Hart Crane’s life, with James reading long stretches of Crane’s poems, including North Labrador, My Grandmother’s Love Letters, For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen, the Proem to The Brooklyn Bridge, The Broken Tower, and The first of Crane’s six Voyages, which ends with the empty sea after Crane has dropped off the stern of the S.S. Orizaba into shark-infested waters—April 27, 1932—and the line, “The bottom of the sea is cruel,” epitaph to a life which ended abruptly and tragically.

Q: What do you hope the audience takes away from the discussion, with you and James Franco, following the BC screening?

Mariani: Two things, at least. I hope the audience will come away with the sense of a poet doomed almost from the start in spite of his visionary aspirations. An only child, he watched as his parents underwent an ugly divorce, leaving him to try to repair within what had been ripped asunder. He remade himself, changed his named from Harold Crane to Hart Crane, Hart being his mother’s birth name. Like many young people today, his parents had one plan for him, while he had another. His father wanted him to work in his candy business (Hart’s father Clarence, incidentally, was the inventor of Life Savers, which patent he sold early on for a pittance, and which is doubly ironic when you consider that Hart drowned at sea while several lifesavers bobbed idly on the sea’s surface).

The other thing I would hope that the audience would take away from the screening would be the seriousness with which James has rendered this feature-length film, paid for out of his own pocket, by the way). I have worked closely with James on this, answering a barrage of pertinent questions for him and his crew, and I have been struck again and again at how deeply James has grasped the very soul of this complex, obscure, but necessary poet of the American religious experience. His models have been not so much American directors in this instance, but rather French, Cuban and Russian poets and directors, and that has made the difference. Even in its rough cut, the film’s montage sequences, for instance, will repay careful attention, much as Hart Crane’s own poetry, meditated on and contemplated deeply, will repay such attention.