One afternoon back in the 1970s, I was browsing through the sale table at the Cornell University bookstore when a shopworn paperback caught my eye: The Complete Poems of Stephen Crane. I remember saying to myself, “The author of The Red Badge of Courage wrote poetry?” I picked up the book, skimmed the first several pages, and paused at the third poem. Like the others, it bore no title, simply a roman numeral, but it took my breath away:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

After murmuring “Wow”—the correct critical response, by the...

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