A poet-painter from Maine. Alone, communicating the dissonant music of modern life
The Collected Poems of Marsden Hartley, edited by Gail R. Scott. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press. 360 pp. $20, cloth; $12.50, paper. THERE is a spirit of isolation so pervasive in American literature that the line ``No man is an island'' could not have been written on this side of the Atlantic. In fact, Hemingway included, we have been contradicting John Donne since the 17th century. America is a vast land of islands, if poets such as Dickinson, Edgar Lee Masters, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Marsden Hartley are to be believed. America is the place that one goes to be alone.
Although Marsden Hartley achieved recognition as both a painter and a poet during the first half of the 20th century, and counted among his friends some of the major figures of art and literature, he has been eclipsed by other, more flamboyant, poets. This volume of his collected poems, ably edited and annotated by Gail R. Scott, will serve to introduce him to a new generation of readers.
Hartley was born in Maine in 1877, and although he traveled frequently to Europe and befriended such expatriates as Gertrude Stein and Robert McAlmon, there is something quintessentially American about Hartley's work. Both his paintings and poems reflect the directness, simplicity, and independent spirit that Hartley characterized as particularly American qualities. ``Nativeness is built of such primitive things,'' he said once in a tribute to Maine, ``and whatever is one's nativeness, one holds and never loses no matter how far afield the traveling may be.... [It] is therefore for this reason that I wish to declare myself the painter from Maine.''
As his poems reveal, Hartley also declared himself the poet from Maine. No matter where he wrote - Paris, London, Mexico - he recalls the silences, the sun glinting on the water, the refuse of the tides, the grim confrontation with nature that remain for him recurrent images of Maine and, by extension, of the American experience.
Hartley counted among his literary influences ``the Brothers James, Will and Henry,'' the philosopher George Santayana, and such ``hermit radicals'' as Whitman and Dickinson. This predilection for the pragmatic view of the world and for artistic solitude combine in the themes and images that Hartley evokes. ``The eagle wants no friends,'' he wrote in the late 1920s,
where eagles think, there is no need of being lonesome - In isolation is a deep revealing sense of home.
For Hartley, who periodically withdrew from the social scene to remote areas of Europe, Mexico, or the Southwest, solitude ensured a wholeness and inner peace that was necessary for his creative life. The poet, he said once, ``is of necessity the looker-on,'' but this spiritual exile was not necessarily equivalent to loneliness. Instead, it provided a place where ``pressure of irrelevant themes'' could be sloughed off and ``the living sense'' of existence could be revived.
For Hartley, social life - even conversation - threatened to destroy that essential ``living sense.'' Words themselves were suspect. ``If it were the eye/ that solely were to satisfy,'' he wrote, then some truth might be apprehended. ``...[B]ut when the mind begins to work/ then everything goes dark....'' Those lines could well serve as an epigram for modern art, not only for poets, but for writers and artists as diverse as Gertrude Stein, Alfred Stieglitz, and Paul C'ezanne.
Still, Hartley persisted in the hope that the word could, in fact, communicate the same meaning from speaker to listener, from writer to reader. Yet misunderstanding seems inevitable.
Sometimes it seems as if we really couldn't bear the miracle saying one single word - meaning it - perfectly.
Hartley's poetry reflects the same tension between the need for isolation (and the preservation of autonomy and independence) and the longing for communion that we see in Dickinson, Whitman, Emerson, and other of his literary forebears. His spare poetry reflects an insistence on the perfect word (here, Williams resonates), but reflects also a personal reticence to indulge in emotional revelations. Hartley's work surely explains his feeling of affinity for Santayana, a man who kept his emotional life severely in check, who preferred solitude to social commerce, who feared the intensity of emotional attachment. The poet, said Hartley, ``must see first and feel afterward, or perhaps not feel at all.''
Yet so often he reveals to us an underlying longing for attachment, for yielding to another, for, simply, a fulfilling love. In ``Watching,'' Hartley sees a winter snow as punctuating the loose ends of emotional life, the sky seeming half weeping half thinking with its many white punctuations, the many paragraphs to do with them. Sometimes it is ``I love you'' in desperate need of a period.
Hartley suggested that American poets are not ``melodists,'' but perhaps ``cacophonists,'' communicating the dissonant music of modern life. There is a melody in Hartley's poems, though: a solitary tune mingling with the strains created by American poets as they celebrate the vast silences and solitude of their native land.