In Paragraph City, we put the portrait of Hart Crane in a small classroom tucked away in one corner of the library. Some students think that Crane is back here because he’s an outcast, and the maintenance crew even moved in a poker table with some leather chairs which get quite a bit of use by the night cleaning crew. Actually, Mr. Crane is here because this was one of the first reading rooms on campus.
Above the door is the April aphorism about reading: Read all the time. Read everything. Ask yourself why the author wrote it this way. Mentally revise everything you read and see if it gets better.
So in my writing classes we read Anne Dillard and Malcolm X and Brent Staples and Amy Tan and E. B. White and George Orwell and talk about the decisions they made in writing. Sometimes the discussion is at the word level, like the way “Once More to the Lake” was written so the last word would be “death.” Sometimes we map the organization, as in the way “Mother Tongue” zig zags around a series of scenes. “Why not chronological order,” I ask. “What would be lost?” Of the million choices a writer makes, he may be intently conscious of a couple dozen, but we students can learn some interesting lessons by thinking about the choices that the writers may not have thought so much about.
But as for Hart Crane, we don’t read him, except occasionally for this one sharp quote from a lost source, “One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.”