New & Selected Poems [Charles O. Hartman]
Charles O. Hartman
“Charles O. Hartman’s New & Selected Poems will finally establish his rightful place as at least one of the best poets of his generation. It takes a large collection to reveal the range, depth, intricacy, and inventive playfulness of his very very fine sensibility. Most of all I love his intelligence—his refusal of sentimentality that finds an angle for the release of unexpected yet rich and complex feelings, and his range of attitudes and situations matched by astonishing metrical inventiveness and resonance. (‘Songlines/ tune/ the travels.’) This intelligence makes for a range that beggars most poets—from elegant short dimeter poems to several sustained and complex long poems on topics ranging from becoming familiar with exotic places to establishing attitudes toward the ways new technologies affect possibilities for feeling and for thinking, or for continuing to think that feeling matters.”—Charles Altieri
Flamenco Sketches: Miles
Another drift of sunshine
A day, and then some
No need for snow
Strange creatures scaled down
We tune a canny ear to the unmoved hour
Strung high, the icy cloud sings of a blue trapped in a blue
And so: too
Off on one hand the rind of an undiscarded moon
Off-season fields lie paralyzed for some Persephone
Her place held firm by a zero
Then again, the spring’s wound one way
Copyright © 2008 by Charles O. Hartman
“Charles O. Hartman is a musician’s poet. Those of us who spend our time looking for melodies, and for ways to hang them together, recognize that same impulse in his work; his poems sound like the best Tin Pan Alley songs, graceful and concise. His cadences are as unforced as Lester Young’s, and his language as refined. These verses sing. ”—Steve Swallow
“Of Charles O. Hartman’s New & Selected Poems, David Antin writes: ‘Charles is a precisionist of language, an improviser searching familiar scales for a wrong note, a word or phrase, that can take him past regular habits of meaning or melody to some new kind of right place.’ Spot on. Now let’s shelve this momentarily.Hartman is a poet of strategic diversity who writes poems widely locatable across the aesthetic spectrum—from ‘traditional’ narrative and formal poems, to ‘experimental’ Oulipian feats of constraint and computer-generated verse. Even more impressively, however, Hartman unifies various poetic methods not simply through stylistic bricolage but, more fundamentally, from a conviction that opposing aesthetic philosophies are ultimately not only compatible with one another but even harmonious. . . . By wading through this bit of the poet’s history, I mean to emphasize Hartman’s commitment to formal and structural analysis and theoretical knowledge, which in the practice of his poetry results in a widespread technical virtuosity. His resources do not end there, however, which is why I find Antin’s remark so apt. As much as Hartman is a ‘precisionist,’ he is also an ‘improviser.’ His poetry is by turns technically precise and freewheeling—now exhibiting a deft command of craft, now trusting spontaneity to lead to new ground. His technical approach, to which formalists of the mid-twentieth century might claim the status of forebear, produces poetry that can feel at home with the poetic descendents of Beat, New York School, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.” —Rewiewed by Geoffrey Babbit in Drunken Boat 15
I was born in Iowa City when my father, who wrote fiction, attended the Writers’ Workshop on the G I Bill. We soon moved to Texas, then Ithaca, St. Louis, and Michigan. I graduated from Harvard in 1971 with a senior thesis on Bob Dylan, which was unusual at the time, and then went to Washington University for an M.A. (with “creative thesis,” a book of poems, working with Donald Finkel and Howard Nemerov) and a Ph.D. (1976); my dissertation, overseen by Naomi Lebowitz, became Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (1981), which is still assigned in advanced courses.
I taught at Northwestern and then the University of Washington. Though I got tenure at Washington, I left teaching for a few years to try free-lance technical writing in the still relatively young computer world. This palled. A little at a time I began teaching at Connecticut College in 1984, got tenure again, and have stayed ever since as Professor of English, Poet in Residence, and Co-Director of Creative Writing. I’m the faculty’s Parliamentarian.
Periodically I’ve delved into programming, which resulted in Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry (1996) and several tutorials (English Metrics) and research programs (the Scandroid). I’ve played guitar since I was ten, settling deeply into jazz by about 1978. Jazz Text: Voice and Improvisation in Poetry, Jazz, and Song (1991) was one result of trying to put together what I know about these arts and how they speak to one another. Some of my courses—“Writing the Lyric” in the Yale Summer Writing Program, and a large undergraduate course on “Bob Dylan”—have grown from the same fascination with relations between poetry and music; so have articles on songs from “The Criticism of Song” in 1975, through an essay on the harmonic structure of Steve Swallow’s “Wrong Together” in the Annual Review of Jazz Studies, to “Contrafactum” in Yale Review in 2007 on the multiple histories of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” A few years ago my long-standing interest in metrics made me start learning to read technical papers in modern linguistics and mulling over the conflicts between that approach and traditional literary ones. A first visit to Greece in 1997 led to four more extended stays and a dozen poems in Greek (selected in Island).
The poems have taken shape beside or between other kinds of work: playing jazz guitar, writing critical prose, building computer programs, teaching. If you don’t put your whole self into the work, it won’t be true so not worth making. But which whole self? Some want to talk, some to dance. From prose through poetry to music, I make this bootstrap choice every time I sit down to work.
A student who saw the fat bundle of proofs asked how it felt to assemble a New and Selected Poems. Maybe for some poets reviewing three or four decades of work is revisiting earlier selves, like paging through a family photo album or a box of old letter carbons. (Remember albums? carbons?) For me it has meant bumping into a crowd of people just as strange and provocative as when I first met them. Like the gathering Proust ends up at, it was the party of a lifetime.
The poems from The Pigfoot Rebellion (1982) are probably as clinched to the details and texture of my personal life as those in anyone’s first book, but its publication was delayed so long that by the time the chapbook handsomely appeared, the mode of double-distilled autobiography already dissatisfied me. In True North (1990), though many of the poems evoked people and feelings someone close to me could have identified, “Lebensraum” sounded in James Merrill’s voice as I was writing it, “Things to Attend To” in John Ashbery’s, “Over a Cup of Tea” in my high-school math teacher’s. If “The Difference Engine” began with my wanting to solo for twenty minutes like Coltrane, in that long stretch it watched its own authorial unity dissolve.
The title poem of Glass Enclosure (1995) sang (at least in its right-hand pages) like Bud Powell, though the poem contradicts as many facts of Powell’s life as of mine. It persisted past expecation—until that voice was through—a lesson that enabled all the longer poems. The third book closes with “Monologues of Soul & Body,” whose authorship is partly given over to the computer, a voice that becomes human only as the poem’s sedulously herds it into our fold.
If The Long View (1999) seems to return to personal concerns in some shorter lyrics, longer ones like “Common Prayer” again refract the person and yield each constituent the stage for its moment. The middle of the book, “Except to Be” (represented here by about a third of the original 48 entries meant to represent potential thousands), emulates the goofy voicelessness of encyclopedias and theological exegeses. The origin of this book’s title poem remains mysterious to me; a Vietnam veteran and a Bible scholar took part, but the despairing narrator was a man I couldn’t place.
Island (2004) included (though this volume doesn’t) eight poems in Greek, which I was learning as I wrote them, and which my English-speaking self could never have written. One layer of “Tambourine,” my longest poem, was dictated by the digits of pi as a mnemonic. The short poems of “Morning Noon & Night” were written so fast—72 in 21 days—that either they couldn’t capture my own personal voice or they couldn’t help delineating it; for the life of me I can’t tell which.
Compiling the New section was as strange as culling the old. Because Island was a specially focused book, some of the New poems predate it by several years. Still, in moving from work as early as “lying awake 8/24/72” to poems too recent for any collection, I might have expected some gratifying sense of progress. I don’t see that I’ve gotten any better or worse, slower or faster, more or less sure. I don’t seem to meet a better class of people, though I love them all. The severe “Maud de Chaworth” and the voluble speaker of “Too far—he said,” both of whom I served as amanuensis during a month in Crete just a year or two ago, are as much a part of me, and as little, as the young guy who set out (“A Little Song”) to learn how Sapphic stanzas worked and found out how much in love he was.
Writing poems is always trying to see around a corner. Some poems do it by staring intently enough into the darkness straight ahead to make it bend. Others resort to mirrors—which work when the mirrors exist in the same dimensions as the corners. Some of the best rely instead on hearing, which is wiser about what’s not yet in sight. A poem is finished when it has seen, or heard. Beginning over and over from something like scratch, all these poems startle me by seeming finished.