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Foreword to The Collected Poems of Marsden Hartley
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Foreword to The Collected Poems of Marsden Hartley

Years ago, when I was importuning the ever generous Dr. Williams for some contribution to The Black Mountain Review , he sent me, among other things, "Two Pieces," the first of which was called "Beginnings: Marsden Hartley." "Beginnings" of what, I wanted to know—of Hartley's extraordinary genius as an artist? of a time in the world? of Williams' own insistent flowering? Characteristically there was no simple focus, but the details and the affection are very moving:

In one way I am not at all the man to write of Marsden Hartley. I know nothing of his sea-going ancestors, his down-east background. For that very reason, perhaps, since he spent his life, while I knew him, in an escape from that, seeking as a painter of pictures, to follow a life not as far removed from his hereditary one as might on the surface be indicated, I knew this phase and sympathised with him in it. He was in addition a poet, a writer with a delightful prose style which fascinated me. Besides I had had a father of the same remotely English blood who looked like Hartley, at least to the length of his nose, a nose, Dad used to say like the Duke of Wellington, a Roman . . .

One finds the same tone of warm respect in the way Williams remembers him in the Autobiography , clearly a man he was much attracted to over the years.

It is Hartley who brought together Williams and Robert McAlmon, which meeting led to an intensive friendship and the crucial

The Collected Poems of Marsden Hartley, 1904–1943 , ed. Gail R. Scott (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sun Press, 1987).


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magazine Contact . Hartley contributed to its first issue. Again and again Hartley shows up, so to speak, in the annals of the period as when one reads this passing reference to him qua explanation in Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:

We were fond of Rönnebeck [a German sculptor who was Hartley's particular friend at this time] and besides the first time he came to the house he quoted some of Gertrude Stein's recent work to her. She had loaned some manuscript to Marsden Hartley. It was the first time that anyone had quoted her work to her and she naturally liked it . . .

His rapport with active contemporaries is very impressive and they range from John Reed to Alfred Stieglitz, his primary dealer at 291 (1909). There is a lovely snapshot of him sitting with Pound and Léger at the Dôme in Paris, 1924. A year earlier his first book, Twenty-Five Poems , had been published in the same city by McAlmon as the Contact Publishing Company, whose other ventures included early work by Stein and Hemingway. He appears in the definitive journals of the time, Others, Poetry, The Dial, The Little Review , et al. Yet such a simple image of success is deceptive, and some sense that he shares in the intensive literary definitions of the period—as do Pound, Williams, Marianne Moore, Stein or yet another friend, Hart Crane—would be untrue.

Hartley's poetry is specifically personal, an expression of feeling, a various response to the world out there he feels he can afford. It is also, in Emily Dickinson's words, his "letter to the World/ That never wrote to Me— . . ." Recalling the painful situation of his childhood in Maine—born in Lewiston, his mother died when he was eight, and four years later, after marrying Martha Marsden (the source of Hartley's subsequent first name, to which he changed from Edmund in 1906), his father moves to join family in Cleveland, leaving Hartley with an older sister in Auburn, whose own family he not long after helps to support by leaving school early and getting a job in a nearby shoe factory at $3.00 a week—one must think that his art, no matter its sources otherwise or its exceptional gifts, has a great deal to do with what one can call, albeit loosely, compensation, an attempt to gain psychological respite or balance. For example, the family itself as a human term had almost fetishistic resonance for him as a letter of an old friend, Adelaide Kuntz, makes clear:

The last time I saw Marsden was on a hot summer Sunday late afternoon, just before he set off on his last visit to Maine. He had lingered late in town as if loathe to depart and as if saying many wordless


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goodbyes. We met by chance in the Museum of Modern Art and I had with me my son, then sixteen, whom he had known from the time he was born, but had not seen for almost a year because the boy had been away at school. Marsden was overjoyed to see him again, and now almost a man, and very formally invited us to dinner "out of doors on a terrace." He finally decided to take us to the roof of his hotel, where we dined in the sunset overlooking "the towers of New York" which he loved. He seemed completely happy and proudly introduced us to some of the inhabitants of the hotel as we went to and from our table. "Now they can see that I am not just that weird lonely man they have thought, but that I have a family too—May I call you that?" It was infinitely touching to me, especially as I sensed his pride in being able at last, after all the years of fear of spending, to entertain his friends with some lavishness. I shall always remember him like that, with his extraordinary gaze steadfast under the glow of the late sun in his face . . .

The prosody of Hartley's poems is also "personal," which is to say, it is primarily his own invention, the heightening of a prose line so that it can move with the flexibility of music (which he loved indeed). The way he turns in (plows under , I want to say!) rhyming is fascinating in its effects, and his ear for cadence, especially in the late poems, is very articulate:

When the surf licks with its tongues
these volcanic personal shapes, which we,
defining for ourselves as rocks, accept
them as such, at its feverish incoming—
isn't it too, in its way, something like
the plain image of life?
Those restless entities disturbing solid
substances with a curious, irrelevant,
common fret— . . .
("Indian Point")

I recall first seeing this poem sandwiched in between those of Eliot and Robinson Jeffers in Conrad Aiken's Modern Library anthology, Twentieth Century American Poetry (1944), and finding it then, as now, unique.

Hartley emphasized markedly the objective resources of art, both in painting and in poetry. He was defensive concerning any sense that art came of itself, without an intensely conscious deliberation. Yet in a 1941 letter to McAlmon he writes: "All my poems are written first draft and left." That apparent ambivalence as to


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whether one's art is deliberately or intuitively made is especially familiar to American artists, and the more so if, like Hartley, a large part of their background has been self-taught. His training as a painter was one thing, but as a poet he had only his own interests and instinct to guide him, and he clearly felt a vulnerability pertaining. However, his feelings are never absent in any instance of his art and like his hero, Walt Whitman, he so places himself in his poems that "Who touches this book touches a man . . ." As he says in "The Business of Poetry," a magnificently various discussion which he published in Poetry in 1919: "We present ourselves in spite of ourselves."

It is, then, this curious, reflecting voice that becomes so moving. Its authenticity, of course, is immense and it is both intensely local and universal at one and the same time. Its size is intently human, thinking the world into meaning, piece by piece. Again his friend, Mrs. Kuntz, says it most aptly:

He was not really a talkative man—but he saw more with his blazing blue eyes than anyone I ever knew, and he thought constantly and he wrote a great deal. His mind functioned with little rest—he told me once that he always kept pencil and paper by his bedside and that when he woke in the night and couldn't sleep, he could write down what he was thinking. Marsden Hartley was an honorable man, a really loyal friend . . .

Here he can speak for himself.

Waldoboro, Maine
July 30, 1986


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