It would seem that we live in a world full of contradictions. You might say “Surely you haven’t just realised this?”, and yes, it’s always been apparent in my line of thinking, but one facet of modern society has really struck me as being particularly incongruous. For a few years now, the buzzword in all the most fashionable circles has been ‘vintage’. From kitting ourselves out to decorating homes, what’s on the catwalk and what’s in every on-trend publication, there’s really no other way to go than retro. Yet not much can be called truly vintage in this day and age, with its hyper-technological focus. Telephone boxes are becoming obsolete and serve little purpose except to pose for a not-very-wacky picture in and to be exported abroad as a rather faded symbol of British-ness. Typewriters have long collected dust in many an attic – unless you’re a writer with a stickler for tradition – in favour of computers, laptops and iPads, and there is increasing talk of the humble paperback being replaced in favour of the latest electronic reading devices.
Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of the contradiction between aspiring for the feel of years gone by while utilising every gadget that couldn’t be more up-to-date unless they came somehow transported from the future is the distinct lack of letters; the most vintage form of communication (barring telegrams). There’s been much talk of good old-fashioned letter writing fast becoming a lost art amongst the more convenient, but not so eloquent, methods of e-mail, instant messaging and social networking, and that would be something to lament. I confess, ashamedly, I’m not doing much to help the cause; the last time I composed a ‘proper’ letter was, I estimate, around eight or so years ago. It’s not just the letter itself that is something special; it’s the process of writing a letter that really affects. The time and effort it takes to make it just right, the painstaking selection of the perfect vocabulary, sometimes (if the situation calls for it) the outpouring of sheer emotion from the heart via pen and paper. Equally thrilling to be the recipient; to excitedly – or apprehensively – break open that seal and soak up every word, beginning to formulate the draft of a reply inside your mind. Now more so the product of history, a third participant – the onlooker placed very much in the present but gazing far back past sometimes even their own existence – takes the privileged position. Perhaps that’s the most exciting position of all to be in, to be connected to the past in such a personal way. But it’s also somehow rather sad, the act of reading rather than writing a letter becoming an abstraction and rendering much of the original emotion contained within faded, much like an old and torn picture.
This unification of the past and the present, and the distinction between different generations is explored in this particularly moving poem by Hart Crane. As much about the simple and tender relationship between a grandmother and grandchild as well as their striving to understand one another – as well as themselves, what has been and what will be, there is so much about this poem that I find incredibly emotional; the tone, the atmosphere that it creates, the beautiful mention of stars being ‘of memory’ and the linking of music with that memory. But mainly, it’s the bittersweet feeling of it all; the not understanding, the stumbling, and the idea that the past is ‘liable to melt as snow’. Crane’s grandmother, and in particular her library of literature, was a major influence on his life and work, and so it is especially fitting that she be the subject of one of his best works.
My Grandmother’s Love Letters
There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.
There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.
Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.
And I ask myself:
“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?”
Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.
Hart Crane (1899-1932)