Stephen Crane was well launched into a career as a fiction writer before he ventured into poetry. As early as 1890, he was writing sketches for a college monthly, and shortly thereafter he began producing columns for the New York Tribune. In 1893 Crane published one novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, began work on another, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), and ventured into poetry. Since at that time he had only seven more years to live, it is hardly surprising that in all Crane produced only 136 poems. Half of these appeared in The Black Riders, another thirty-seven in a later volume, War Is Kind (1899). Only eight more poems were published during Crane’s lifetime; the remainder were collected and printed after his death.
Though Crane’s important first collection is usually referred to as The Black Riders, it actually appeared under the title The Black Riders and Other Lines. His poems deal with serious issues, but they are not based on a systematic theology or philosopy. Instead, they are speculations, born of fleeting thoughts or experiences, that the poet jotted down and then shaped into a coherent form. Like lyrics, each of the poems in The Black Riders is clearly tied to a moment, and therefore there are often marked differences between various poems on the same subject. Crane’s poems are not intended to express emotion as a lyric does, but to be little essays in poetic form—or, as the author also described them, “pills” to remedy the spiritual and intellectual ills that afflict humanity.
One reason Crane used words such as “lines” or “pills” to describe his poems was that, while he was happy to be classified with fiction writers, he did not want to be considered a poet. For him the term implied effete...
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