December 17, 2014

Essay "The Business of Poetry" by Marsden Hartley

Certainly Marsden Hartley was not one of the central poets of US modernism. His work, both in art and poetry, always stood somewhat apart from the extremes of experimental and traditional writing. It is as a kind of “odd man out,” so to speak, however, that his role in modern poetics perhaps should be understood. At the same time, however, in a work such as “The Business of Poetry” we can see how Pound’s ideas, through Kreymborg’s and others influences, came to be subsumed in the modernist sensibility. Hartley’s warning against using “hackneyed words” and his call for an intense terseness, or what he calls “tensity” in poetry, reminds one of Pound. But it also comes close to many of the ideas of Hartley’s friend Gertrude Stein, who argued for radical re-association of words and repetition as a way of revitalizing language. “A rose is a rose is a rose. It is also interesting that Hartley associates the new work with the poetry of Dickinson and the prose of Henry James. His reference to Louis Untermeyer is in response to that author’s The New Era in American Poetry, published in the same year as this essay.

Marsden Hartley
The Business of Poetry

I am riding through Arizona in the Pullman. I am thinking of the business of poetry. Every other man attends to the details of business, if he is a good business man. A train is mostly business men ....

Poets must, it seems to me, learn how to use a great many words before they can know how to use a few skillfully. Journalistic verbiage is not fluency. Alfred Kreymborg agrees with me that poets do not write prose often enough. I speak mostly of the poets who do not write with the sense of volume in their brevities. Brevity of all things demands intensity, or better say tensity. Tensity comes from experience. The poet must see the space for the word, and then see to it the word occupies it. It is almost mechanical science these days, it would seem-the fitting of parts together so the whole produces a consistent continuity. Subjects never matter, excepting when they are too conspicuously autobiographical. “Moi-meme, quand meme” is attractive enough, but there are so many attractive ways of presenting it. Personal handling counts for more than personal confessions. We can learn to use hackneyed words, like “rose” or “lily,” relieving them of Swinburnian encrustations. We can relieve imagery from this banality.

Poets cannot, as aspiring poets, depend, it seems to me, every upon the possible natural “flow” that exists in themselves. Poems have work to do for the precision of simplicity, and the gift of volume in simplicity. It is the business of good poetry to show natural skill as well as natural impetus. It surprises one a deal how much even the better poets effuse, or rely upon their momentary theories. The subject calls for handling, not for enthusiasms. Painters of this time have learned this; or ought to have learned it by now, with the excellent examples of the time. Personality is a state, it is not the consummate virtue. It begins, but it does not finish anything. We have eventually to insert in the middle spaces all we can of real ability. What is much needed is solidity, even of sentiment, combined with efficacy of form. This might be served as an injunction to some of the “girl” poets. Poets have no so much to invent themselves as to create themselves, and creation is of course a process of development.

We are to remember that Ingres, with his impeccable line, was otherwise almost nothing else but silhouette. We cannot subsist merely upon silhouette in poetry, nor upon the pantomimic gesture only. For every lightness there must be a conscious structure. Watteau was the genius of lightness in gesture. No one will accuse him, or even his pupils, Lancret or Pater, of emptiness. A fan has structure by which it exists, a structure that calls for delicate artistry in mechanics. The aeroplane is propelled by motors weighing tons, made of solid metals; and is directed by a master mechanic. Its own notion of lightness would never get it off the ground. Poetry will never “fly” on the notion of its mere lightness, for lightness is not triviality. Francis Thompson had a wing in his brain, but he had feet also. Those men were not mere personalities. They were master mechanics in the business of poetry. A bird could never rely upon the single strong feather. Poetry might rather well take up the mania of Flaubert, if only as a stimulus to exactitude of feeling and idea. You find the best poets doing all they can of that, or else intending that.

The fierce of fiery spaciousness is the quality we look for in a real poem, and coupled with that the requisite iron work according to the personal tastes of the poet. The mere gliding of musical sequences is not sufficient. Poetry is not essentially or necessarily just vocalism. It may have plot or may be plotless-that is for the poet to decide: what is wanted is some show of mechanistic precision such as the poet can devise. He must know his motive as well as himself, and to invent the process of self-creation is no little task. That is the first principle to be learned by the versifiers. Poetry is not only a tool for the graving of the emotions; nor is it an ivory trinket. It calls for an arm. We need not be afraid of muscularity or even of “brutality.”

It is a refreshing omen that big poets write but little poetized autobiography. We find it so much in small poetry , poetry written behind moral arras, where the writer looks out upon a clear space with longing. Anyone would best set it aside, and get outside himself and among the greater trivialities. Preoccupation, blocked introspection, are old-fashioned stimuli for modern poetry. Painting has become definitely masculine at last, in its substance, mechanistic in its purport. Delicacy and frankness are not necessarily feminine. Nor are strength and vigor necessarily muscular qualities. What Mr. Untermeyer please to call the “cult of brutality” does not apply to the poets he names, unless he regards all poetry as delicate and “good.”* You may find the most infinite tenderness in Masters, in Wallace Gould, and in the others who he names. He chooses to call picturing brutality. Brutality exists only in the preferential attitude. No one finds Whitman brutal. One finds him presenting the picture. Yet the effect of Whitman on the “sick soul,” as William James call it, is essentially a brutal one. His simple frankness hurts. He removes the loin-cloth because it always hints at secrecy and cheap morality. He undresses the body we are forever dressing. He thinks it handsomest so. He is right. It is a poor body that doesn’t look best without clothes. Nature is naked, and, not to speak tritely, quite unashamed. It has no moralistic attitude. It has no attitude at all. It is therefore natural.

Frost writes of New England, and the natives say they know nothing of that New England. The native who looks in from the outside with a world vision says, “How familiar!” He doesn’t say, “How cold, how forbidding?” Masters would probably not wish to live by his Spoon River, yet his later books are just other shades of the same powerful grey. Wallace Gould will not want to live by “so dreadful” Out of Season in Children of the Sun; yet his books will probably always be tense and severe. Wallace Stevens thinks, or at least says, he isn’t interested in producing a book at all. Well, that is superbly encouraging. It is not therefore what the poet thinks of, what is the “delicacy” of his subject. He is looking for the mechanism by which to render “subject” with the precision called for by his feelings and attitudes toward it.

I personally would call for more humor in poetry. If it is true with poetry as with the play, that almost anyone can write a drama or a tragedy, while the comedy man is rare, this would at least account for the lack of charming humor in verse. Satire is delectable, as Henry James has shown. Even the so serious-minded Emily Dickinson had her inimitable gift of humor. She did the best kind of fooling with “God.” An intellectual playfulness with great issues she certainly had to an irrestible degree.

A quotation from someone, apropos of Rainer Maria Rilke, stating that “The poet, in order to depict life, must take no part in it,” offers a fine truism. He is of necessity the looker-on. How else? He must see first and feel afterward, or perhaps not feel at all. Modern expression teaches that most noticeably. Real art comes from the brain, as we know, not from the soul. We have excellent examples of this in Mary Garden and Mrs. Fiske-fine refutations of the attitude toward feminity. It is a geometric of self-invention art purposes to crate. The poet, it seems, must learn this along with the other artists of the time. We must make poetry to today according to the theme of radio-telephony, and of commutation over oceans by the plane. We cannot fell as we do and attempt Keats’ simplicities, or Keats’ lyricism even. We have other virtues and defects. We are not melodists. Cacophists, then? We do not concentrate on the assonant major alone. We find the entire range of dissonance valuable as well as attractive. Or is it all a fierce original harmonic we are trying to achieve?

There is no less need of organization even if we do not employ the established metre and rhyme. Likewise, if a poet must state his or her personal history, he or she may be asked to be as brief as possible. It is easier to read epigrams than to read the diary, no matter how short he latter may be. The age of confession perished with the Parnassians. We are a vastly other type of soul-if we are soul at all, which I keenly doubt. The poet’s attitude then, for today, is toward the outside. This does not necessarily imply surface. We present ourselves in spite of ourselves. We are most original when we are most like life. Life is the natural thing. Interpretation is the factitious. Nature is always variable. To have an eye with brain it-that is, or rather would be, the poetic millennium. We are not moonlit strummers now: we are gun-pointers and sky-climbers.