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On Sadakichi Hartmann's Poetry

Marshall Van Deusen

Hartmann's poetry too was touched by the symbolist influence. In 1890, the year Merrill published Pastels in Prose, Hartmann published a broadside of seven short prose poems of his own, written from 1886 to 1889. Although these Poems show nothing like the inscrutable symbolist image or the packed Mallarméan syntax straining against the limits of language or Rimbaud's dérèglement of the senses, they do, in their melancholy tendency toward le rêve, their faint synaesthetic effects, and the Baudelairean vision of the city (in "Finita Commedia"), echo, if not the symbolist achievement, then the mood of what Hartmann himself called the "Decadence." He sent a copy of his broadside to Whitman, though clearly these poems, slight though they are, define a sharp divergence from his Whitmanesque exuberance of three years before. He included four of them in a manuscript copy of ten "Early Poems" (1891).

In 1898 Hartmann prepared "in one copy de luxe" "Naked Ghosts," his most ambitious poetic effort to date. Inscribed on the title page "TO STÉPHANE MALLARMÉ ... WITH EVERY SENTIMENT OF REGARD AND RESPECT," the collection concludes with a poem, "To Stéphane Mallarmé: a Strain in Red," which celebrates in religious and sensual language the poet's savoring with "eager tongue" and "wanton lips" a wine which is "the blood of roses," offered in the holy "chalice" of art. The occasion is sacrificial and celebratory. The 1898 edition of "Naked Ghosts" is filled with Hartmann's mannered version of symbolist language, as in the poem beginning, "Cyanogen seas are surging on/fierce cinnabarine strands, where/white amazons are marching/through the radiance of the sands." And there is more of the same in a much altered unpublished edition of "Naked Ghosts" dated 1903. "Oh, Miasmic Swamps of Southern Climes" is an example. But Hartmann included in the later edition two Whitmanesque poems written in 1887, one of them echoing in its title, "Oh, to Create!!," the poem Whitman gave to Hartmann in 1884. But though Hartmann continued throughout his life his critical advocacy of Whitman's poetry, the older poet's influence on Hartmann's poetic practice has disappeared completely in his next collection of verse, Drifting Flowers of the Sea and Other Poems, published in a manuscript edition of 160 copies in 1904. 

The language of Drifting Flowers is much less flamboyant than the language of "Naked Ghosts," and formally the verse is much more closely patterned, though thematically Hartmann is still concerned with lost love and lost innocence and with the dreamy, nostalgic exploration of l'inconscient, especially through imagery of the sea. "Nocturne" is an example. It is written in rhyming quatrains, except that the last stanza has six lines; the second line of each quatrain becomes the first line of the following one; and the final stanza repeats lines from all the preceding ones. The opening sets the tone: 

Upon the silent sea-swept land
The dreams of night fall soft and gray,
The waves fade on the jewelled sand
Like some lost hope of yesterday.

The intricate patterning of such poems as "Nocturne" seems to have been congenial to Hartmann's developing poetic sensibility. In this connection it is interesting to note that he included in Drifting Flowers six adaptations (rhyme added) of the metrically complicated five-line Japanese tanka. He had published in 1904 in the Reader Magazine an article on "The Japanese Conception of Poetry,"in which he praised the brevity and concentration of the "melancholy musings" characteristic of tanka and described the technical requirements of this and other Japanese forms "exactly fashioned" to discipline the "suggestiveness" of the emotions evoked. Such poems seek to be pictorial yet evocative: the poet "never becomes one with nature" but always insists on the primacy of the human response. His is the craft, but the elliptical nature of what he has "fashioned" demands that the reader's response complete the poem. Echoing the title and themes of Drifting Flowers, Hartmann offers as an example of the method an image in which the poet "wishes that the white breakers far out on the sea were flowers that would drift to his lady love." 

In 1915 Guido Bruno devoted most of the November issue of his magazine Greenwich Village to articles by and about Hartmann as "the King of Bohemia." And as if to prove a point about the ways of bohemian royalty, Hartmann published in the June 1915 issue of Bruno Chap Books "Tanka, Haikai, Fourteen Japanese Rhythms." (Actually there were only thirteen.) Hartmann used the term haikai here and in his article on Japanese poetry for what modern specialists prefer to call haiku: that is, a poem of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables respectively, as distinguished from the five-line linked stanzas called haikai. In any case Hartmann's own tanka and haiku fit the specifications he laid down for these forms in his 1904 essay. Their concentration succeeds admirably in controlling the sentimentality that often threatens to invade his longer poems.  Hartmann published revised collections of his tanka and haiku in 1916, 1920, 1926, and 1933 (eleven copies); the last two editions, entitled Japanese Rhythms, also included poems in the four-line dodoitsu form. Some of the verses were original and some were adaptations from the Japanese; the 1933 edition, for example, includes Hartmann's versions of the well-known haiku by Basho about the temple bells, the crow on a withered branch, and the frog jumping into a pond. Hartmann's article on Japanese poetry seems to antedate the French vogue for haiku beginning about 1905 and the interest of the American imagists beginning about 1910; his own haiku came out almost ten years before the haiku competition organized by the Nouvelle Revue Francaise in 1924. In any case, it is characteristic that he was in the vanguard in the United States in making available foreign forms of art and seeking to domesticate them in the New World, perhaps helping to complete the circuit from West to East described in Whitman's "Passage to India." 

In a sense Hartmann heard what he wanted to hear in the Japanese rhythms he described in 1904. Among other things, he heard "Lamentations over the uncertainties of life which sound like a faint echo of Omar Khayyam's rose-scented quatrains." In 1913 in Saint Louis he published My Rubaiyat, which was republished in 1916 as one of the Bruno Chap Books ; also in 1916 he brought out in San Francisco a "third revised edition." Where he added rhyme to his Japanese poems, he deleted it from his Rubaiyat; and he wrote, not in quatrains, but in six-line stanzas--seventy-five of them.

Excerpted from a longer essay in Peter Quartermain, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 54. Copyright  1987 by the Gale Group.

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