Stephen Crane’s The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895) is a strange little book, but maybe not as strange as I first thought. Although commonly classified as poetry, I note that Crane is careful to make a vaguer (or more specific?) claim in his title.
Poetry anthologists pick out the most striking, weirdest bits of the book, making it seem stranger than it is. But also less strange. The original text looks like this:
Please imagine the rest of the blank page. I am diluting the effect just be eliminating the white space. This bizarrerie floats atop the page. This poem still jolts me, one jolt after another – the heart, the narrator’s strange question, the creature’s stranger answer.
Taken one after another, though, I find in the 68 pieces a lot of conventional sentiments and flat statements among the surprises:
IF I SHOULD CAST OFF THIS TATTERED COAT
AND GO FREE INTO THE MIGHTY SKY ;
IF I SHOULD FIND NOTHING THERE
BUT A VAST BLUE,
ECHOLESS, IGNORANT, --
Is that readable? I think I know why anthologists turn off the all-caps. The failure of the speaker to find a noun is interesting, but otherwise Crane is giving a conventional idea an unusual typographic package. If they were recast, would they have the same effect, or any effect at all?
A man feared that he might find an assassin; another that he might find a victim. One was more wise than the other.
versus (plus lots of white space):
Still, in a dozen or so poems, in a line or image, I just marvel. Where did Crane get this stuff:
Black riders came from the sea.
There was clang and clang of spear and shield,
and clash and clash of hoof and heel,
wild shouts and the wave of hair
in the rush upon the wind:
thus the ride of sin.
Crane had been writing about battles, for example in The Red Badge of Courage, published in the same year, but here he moves back to something like a ballad, like he is translating from the Old English. I find it hard not to think of Tolkien, although he reverses the scene, doesn’t he, with the water going after the black riders.
Many of the other poems hover around Crane’s novel. References to bravery and cowardice are frequent. “’Tell brave deeds of war,’” poem XV begins, which is just what Crane had been doing, what he was still doing in the 1896 collection The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the Civil War, but at the end the poet is skeptical – “Ah, I think there were braver deeds.” Surely there are.