Marsden Hartley:  Forgotten Classic


by David Cope


            In 1980, I was teaching the poems of Charles Reznikoff in the summer session at Naropa, and Allen Ginsberg brought me his copy of Marsden Hartley's poems, long out of print.  I was so taken by these poems—their plain and sincere outlook, their sense of pictorial focus—that I changed my lecture plan and devoted my second lecture to Hartley.  Later, Allen sent me xeroxes of Hartley's poems; I bound them myself, and this has been my copy of them.  They remain out of print.*

            An  older but close friend of the young Williams, Marsden shared in that excitement of composers, artists, and poets before the first world war:  they were inventing new ways of seeing and hearing, new ways of making poems and pictures and music.  His work is often purely objectivist, though, importantly, he does not always confine himself to this method of writing.  The lush descriptions of his family's life and history, as seen in "Family Album in Red Plush," his fascination with the casual but tender view of death, as in "Three Small Feathers," and his sense of real situations that are absurd—the window washer holding an imaginary conversation with a nude manikin, mark his style as distinctly different from Reznikoff's or Williams'.  Further, there's often a sense that he's creating portraits out of minute details he's observed, that these are paintings imagined with rhythm.  A note accompanying an exhibition of Hartley's drawings and paintings at Stieglitz's gallery (1916) says as much about his poems as his graphic work:


The forms are only those which I have observed casually from day to day. There is no hidden symbolism whatsoever in them; there is no slight intention of that anywhere. Things under observation, just the pictures of any day, any hour.  I have expressed only what I have seen. They are merely consultations of the eye—in no sense problem; my notion of the purely pictorial.


This is an early version of Reznikoff's later and more succinct statement of objectivist theory:  "sometimes a fly is just a fly."  Hartley's statement ducks the question of why he'd select a picture—that involves the business of emotional commitment or of wisdom to be gleaned from the particular scene—but the statement is nevertheless an adequate reflection of the method of composition, the stance one takes in presenting a picture or an image.  In "Lewiston is a Pleasant Place," Marsden lets you into the movie of his life without being sentimental, returning to "instances that are the basic image of my life as it now is":



and myself walking with my father along the

edges of a cool clear stream, gather water cresses,

trilliums, dogtooth violets, and in

the fall—at times—mushrooms. 


            Often his poems are observations of others, playing the objective scene off the subject's interior monologue.  This is especially true of "Park Avenue Baby in its Pram."  In "Daily Library Visitor," we hear the author's own inner monologue surmising the scenes of an old man's life by the way he looks and the way he holds a book:


once it was anchor chains, probably, then it

was plows,

now it is just fixing things up around the


and now it is the quiet look of a mystic in love

with a simple theme,

for the beautiful mask is utterly unruffled,

and the huge hands seem to say, we have earned

a little respite now, and can afford to hold

a book.


            Hartley made several poems on war;  the most successful, "American IkonLincoln," is a heartrending portrait "watching the flaming horizon with calm."  There are others where his anger at the senselessness of whole populations of young men butchering each other cannot be contained:  "Laughter of Steel," of the "Problem" of "what to do with them after they are done for," and the most tortured of these poems, "O Bitter Madrigal":


Sing not O bird on my shoulder; I have

no ear for the sense logic of peace; I am

broken in two—the world and the dream

split in two—the rags of them trailing over

my aching bones, my lips supperate with


O merciless Madrigal!


            Another aspect of Marsden's work is the bemused, satirical, and yet tender look at people around him in the city.  He describes his introduction to New York in "World—Passport Visa":


Had I not escaped to the continent,

Joined the elephants and tigers and acrobats

                                                            of New York City,

Which is the greatest circus arena of the world,

I would be chopping twisted trees

                                         to clear a space for calm,

                                                         persistent contemplation. 


I think he was able to find that calm, persistent contemplation even in the city.  The section entitled Gay World:  City Vignettes features, besides the passport poem, the Park Avenue baby, a proud, broken old women in the park, the daily library visitor, a working girl—"Barbarella Tone"—who still manages to love beauty ("and gave the mop another squeeze, if you please"), Miracle Cary the flophouse saint, and a dialogue in limbo between an ice man and a garbage man.  Hartley loved the city and its people; one of his characters, speaking in the first person, says one might find the city world and its troubled people "tiresome," but "I like 'em now very much and that will do, I'll say."

Among the other outstanding portrait poems that span his career, one should mention "Elias Gove," the crazy man who was sure the second coming was at hand ("He could not stand, to see the things we see, and how—how do we?"), and "Jo Acton—Dwarf":  


Strange that a man's face could

be so beautiful

while the rest of him is so utterly


muscles piled high in mystic


with bone area so niggardly.


Many of his later portrait poems are among his most successful works—"Melville," "John Donne in His Shroud," "Marianne Moore," and "Albert Ryder—Moonlightist" with its marvellous closing lines. 

            Marsden Hartley was a fine poet whose work should once again be made available for all of us.  His poems are among the first of those using the movie scenario and focusing techniques based on attention to little details; at their best, they stand well beside other modern masters of the objectivist tradition, including Reznikoff and Williams. 




* Hartley's poems have a checkered publishing history.  His Selected Poems was published in 1945, and when this essay was published (November, 1985), Hartley's poems had been out of print since that time.  The Collected Poems of Marsden Hartley, 1904-1943 was published by Black Sparrow in 1987, yet they are again out of print.                     




Note:  “Marsden Hartley:  Forgotten Classic” first appeared in The Poetry Project Newsletter 116, (November 1985).