The reputation of Stephen Crane’s prose masterpieces ought never obscure his singular contribution to American poetry. Just as Crane’s novels and sketches helped usher in a new mode of impressionistic realism, Crane’s poems are like no one else’s before or since, extraordinary harbingers of the poetic revolution of the early twentieth century. In The Black Riders (1895), War Is Kind (1899), and the best of his uncollected poems, Crane forged his own idiom: abrupt, compact, sharply visual, and brutally indifferent to the niceties of late Victorian verse. These spontaneous utterances—Crane said they came to him “in little rows, all made up, ready to be put down on paper,” sometimes five or six a day—seem now like a prophetic blast of the modernist era that was to follow, as Crane achieves what editor Christopher Benfey describes as his aim in his poetry: “to identify the truth about human existence as he conceives it, a truth that is difficult and austere, and rescue it from what he perceives to be competing and overly facile versions of it.”
In tones alternately sardonic and rueful, Stephen Crane’s poems, although small in scale, address immense problems of cosmic justice and the purpose of human life. They are not quite like anything else in American poetry: uncompromisingly harsh, gnomic, deliberately anti-poetic, and shot through with unforgettable phrases and perceptions. Christopher Benfey’s edition collects all of Crane’s poems and provides an introduction illuminating their biographical and cultural context.
New Stephen Crane: Complete Poems just out with the Library of America. (Read an exclusive interview with volume editor Christopher Benfey (PDF, 65K); read an excerpt, In the desert (PDF, 31K); read an excerpt, Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind (PDF, 36K))