In the Desert
Poem written by Stephen Crane
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.”
That’s the entire poem and it may be my favorite poem. Certainly, it is on certain days. I came along through school when most teachers had stopped having their students memorize poems for recitation in front of the class. I learned a few, preferring Edward Arlington Robinson because he was easier to memorize, what with all the rhymes and the funny, horrible stories that seemed like Dr. Seuss all grown up. I didn’t know about Crane’s poems then. Only later did I learn them all on my own. Of course, brevity is the sole of memory.
The Red Badge of Courage is the book that I knew from school, like everyone else. I liked it well enough because it had action and it was short, but revisiting it later, I was amazed. In many ways, it may be the finest thing that I have ever read. So, I went on a Crane jag while in my twenties as he seemed to know so many things that I did not. Perhaps that was the perfect age for it, since he never made it out of his twenties.
Life is a dark ride, as they say.
Our art has moved through irony and well past it. We plunder old tropes to twist for prescient commentary. Our popular art is so self-referential that half the audience nods along knowingly because they assume every comment is just beyond their grasp, no matter how unnecessarily showy the call-out. The works we value today will only be digestible in a century if accompanied by more footnotes than a Shakespeare folio. I am no less guilty. A good joke stays in- and I’m often the final judge of its quality.
Then I read Crane or Henry James. I know that they knew what irony was. They were all too well acquainted with the dark side of life- horrors beyond death, in fact. And they created these stunning works of art.
I suspect that in real life, Crane was a melancholy challenge. You can imagine being the first person to hear one of his poems. “Steve, you know that doesn’t rhyme, right?” “It makes me feel like drinking more whiskey, Steve. Maybe tomorrow you could write a nice limerick?”
But the art takes you where it will go. Here and in his other work, I find a writer who stares into the abyss and tells the darkness what it can do with itself. He reaches down with his hand and pulls out a palm-full of darkness. Holding it out, he says, “See, this is what you fear and you can face it. Tear off a little piece and give it a good chew. See, that wasn’t so bad, now was it?”
What’s it all about?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 205 more to go.
New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out release regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry post irregularly. Receive notifications on Facebook by friending or following Craig.
Images may be subject to copyright.