“My Grandmother’s Love Letters” means almost exactly what it says. It does not reach beyond its own experience of the mind’s working and reworking a central question: In the silence of time and memory, is it possible to find the original feeling and experience it “as though to her”? The poem works effectively on that level. The reader is left to ponder the same question from the framework of his or her own life. The ambiguities of the poem become part of its meaning. It asks the reader to share the experience through imagery and reflection, not through an identification with the speaker. In fact, the first-person pronoun does not enter until more than halfway through the poem, at which point the speaker rather indirectly raises the issue of privacy. What is it that he thinks she might not understand? The poem demonstrates perfectly what Allen Tate prescribed in his 1926 introduction to White Buildings: “The poem does not convey; it presents; it is not topical, but expressive.”
Crane became known as a visionary, almost mystical poet, whose series of complex metaphors taps into an intuitive experience of the world. Crane struggled over the course of his short life to find a subject for his vision and perhaps best succeeded in his long book-length poem The Bridge (1930), published shortly before his suicide in 1932. In it, he was able to link an affirmative myth of the United States to one of its most powerful symbols, the Brooklyn Bridge.
In a letter to Harriet Monroe, reprinted in Poetry in October, 1926, Crane talked about the “logic of metaphor.” In his statement, he said he was “interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness.” He went on to say that illogic “operates so logically in conjunction with its context in the poem as to establish its claim to another logic. . . .” The letters serve as metaphor, but they take on added meaning in the context of the rain, the image of melting snow, the birch limbs, and the music. The music, in turn, is associated with emotion.
A look into Crane’s biography reveals his bisexuality and his several homosexual experiences. It is possible that in his poetry Crane was using his own illogical impingements in order to explore more fully his sexuality. Certainly “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” is less concerned with reading actual letters than it is with an identification with the feminine. The speaker not only posits the emotions felt on receiving the letters but also presents the experience with a vocabulary—the loose girdle of rain, the softness of the letters, the invisible white hair, the gently pitying laughter—that fuses the masculine with the feminine. This mixture is mirrored in the fusion of the natural with the human; it is virtually impossible to say whether Crane is imagining his grandmother laughing at, or with, him or simply noting with some irony the anthropomorphized similarities between laughter and the sound of rain.
In a later poem, “Voyages,” Crane achieves a complex balance between sexually masculine and sexually feminine imagery that becomes visionary in the best sense of the word. At the end of “My Grandmother’s Love Letters,” however, it seems likely that none of the internal conflict has been resolved. The figurative stumbling is also a literal hesitation. The enigmatic quality of “what she would not understand” is left unstated—oblique and inexplicit. In the end, the act, or refusal to act, is unimportant; what matters here is the self-evaluative energy generated by the poem’s central, all-encompassing question.