“And Habit Like a Crane”

For whatever reason, the title of this blog, which is a line from a poem I read more than 50 years ago, has always stuck with me.

I don’t remember any of the context or anything else about the poem, but that image of a crane, going through the same motions over and over without really thinking about it, just like we do with our habits, often comes to me either when I see an actual crane, or when I am going through the same-old, same-old.

So I finally decided to try and find the poem it came from, and thanks to the wonder of Google, it was no problem.

The line comes the poem Living, by Harold Monro. Monro was an English poet born in Brussels in 1879. Along with his poetry, Monro is best known as the proprietor of the Poetry Bookshop in London, he helped many poets to bring their work before the public.

Living is one of his better-known poems:

Slow bleak awakening from the morning dream
Brings me in contact with the sudden day.
I am alive – this I.
I let my fingers move along my body.
Realization warns them, and my nerves
Prepare their rapid messages and signals.
While Memory begins recording, coding,
Repeating; all the time Imagination
Mutters: You’ll only die.

Here’s a new day. O Pendulum move slowly!
My usual clothes are waiting on their peg.
I am alive – this I.
And in a moment Habit, like a crane,
Will bow its neck and dip its pulleyed cable,
Gathering me, my body, and our garment,
And swing me forth, oblivious of my question,
Into the daylight – why?

I think of all the others who awaken,
And wonder if they go to meet the morning
More valiantly than I;
Nor asking of this Day they will be living:
What have I done that I should be alive?
O, can I not forget that I am living?
How shall I reconcile the two conditions:
Living, and yet – to die?

Between the curtains the autumnal sunlight
With lean and yellow finger points me out;
The clock moans: Why? Why? Why?
But suddenly, as if without a reason,
Heart, Brain, and Body, and Imagination
All gather in tumultuous joy together,
Running like children down the path of morning
To fields where they can play without a quarrel:
A country I’d forgotten, but remember,
And welcome with a cry.

O cool glad pasture; living tree, tall corn,
Great cliff, or languid sloping sand, cold sea,
Waves; rivers curving; you, eternal flowers,
Give me content, while I can think of you:
Give me your living breath!
Back to your rampart, Death.

Now I’m no expert in interpreting or critiquing poems, so I came across a review of this poem by Kelly Belmonte, who seems much more qualified than me to do such an analysis.

Here’s how she starts her review:

Just when I thought I had lost my excitement for poetry, that I had read too much in the past six months than is healthy (overdosing on mind-altering literature) and in so doing had extinguished the fire, I stumbled upon the first three lines of Harold Monro’s “Living.”

Kelly then goes on to analyze each section of the poem; noting how it starts by describing our reluctant entrance into the wakened world each morning, the nerves beginning to send signals, the memory starting to code, and cruel Imagination muttering, “You’ll only die.

We are then pushed into our routine, still questioning why there should be this thing called life at all when it only ends in death –  “Why? Why? Why?”

And then Kelly notes that the entire poem turns. Monro talks of running like children, heart-brain-body-imagination tumbling together, a complete unreasonable reasoning. Yes! Such abandon is where living happens.

Kelly closes with the following:  I love how these words dance, how they make my spirit feel that much more alive, and put the exclamation point on the living.

I was glad I found this review.

For the past 50 years, whenever I felt like I was in a rut, the phrase “and habit, like a crane” would come back to me, and I assumed the poem was one that focused on the monotony of life.

As it turns out, Living is actually a poem that celebrates life.

I guess I’ll never look at a crane the same way again.

20 thoughts on ““And Habit Like a Crane”

      1. There are various ways to write poetry, apart from form. Most poems describe a snapshot of life, nature, etc. Some tell a story. This one is clever by starting with how much of life is mundane and then celebrates the joys in life. I like this poem so much. It’s a while since I read it.


      1. How can you Irish and have an affection for poetry and not know Heaney? His commencement speech/poem for receiving an honorary doctorate was also impressively thought provoking.


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