In The Cantos, Ezra Pound includes a memorable lament for a “lost legion” of modernist figures, including a particularly pointed concern for the lost work of Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944):
as for the vagaries of our friend Mr. Hartmann,
Sadakichi a few more of him,
were that conceivable, would have enriched
the life of Manhattan
or any other town or metropolis
the texts of his early stuff are probably lost
with the loss of the fly-by night periodicals.
Less concerned with his staying power, Gertrude Stein would echo Pound’s praise for Hartmann when she remarked that “Sadakichi is singular, never plural.” Indeed, much of what has been remembered about Hartmann has, like other liminal figures of the age, been formed by a cult of personality perhaps more so than any direct appreciation of literary work. Alongside many publications regarding the work of Hartmann one inevitably finds comments of praise from the likes of Pound (“If one hadn’t been oneself it would have been worthwhile to have been Sadakichi”) and Walt Whitman (“I have more hopes of him, more faith in him than any of the boys”).
In the case of Hartmann, such keen interest in the poet himself is understandable. The son of a German father and a Japanese mother, Hartmann was born in Japan, spent his youth flitting from Germany to the United States and across Europe, striking up friendships with Whitman, Pound, and Stein, Mallarme, Heyse, Brandes and Maeterlinck. He brought symbolist-inflected poetry and drama to the U.S., became a respected art critic publishing in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work and Alfred Kreymborg’s Others, wrote some of the earliest English-language haiku, and even became a Hollywood showman later in life, famously playing the court magician in Douglas Fairbanks’s The Thief of Bagdad, before dying on a trip to Florida, having lived out his later years in relative obscurity.
For a long time, Pound’s worry that Hartmann’s work would be lost to history rang true, with much of his poetry and criticism remaining in archives or hidden under various pseudonyms in the contents of the modernist little journals. Yet Hartmann’s obscurity and the unavailability of much of his work has been at least partially remedied by attempted recoveries since at least 1971, which saw the publication of three of Hartmann’s symbolist dramas, and the 1991 publication of some of Hartmann’s criticism in an indispensable collection put together by Jane Calhoun Weaver titled Sadakichi Hartmann: Critical Modernist. Despite the increasing attention to Hartmann given in various anthologies, not until this collection, beautifully put together by Floyd Cheung in a Little Island Press edition, do Hartmann’s achievements in the lyric come into full view.
The anthology includes four collections that Hartmann himself put together—Naked Ghosts (1903), Drifting Flowers of the Sea and Other Poems (1904), My Rubaiyat (1916), and Japanese Rhythms (1933), with the addition of roughly forty pages or so of miscellaneous poems, a helpful introduction by Cheung, and one of Hartmann’s essays. This last addition, a compelling and informative 1904 essay titled “The Japanese Conception of Poetry,” tips an editorial hand as to the collection’s main conception of Hartmann’s poetic import, though Cheung’s introduction does much to demonstrate Hartmann’s wide-ranging poetic sensibilities, encompassing the symbolist aesthetics of Europe, the democratic and transcendental poetics of Whitman, to the Japanese (and, notably, Modernist) veneration of the precise image.
It is this last element, pictorial suggestiveness, which probably marks Hartmann’s most distinct contribution to the poetic moment. In his introduction to My Rubaiyat¸ Hartmann describes his highly-attuned sense of poetics as one driven by an “overlooked” quality of “pictorial harmony.” As Hartmann himself has it, “My long and persistent association with art makes me not only see but think things in pictures. Pictures abound throughout My Rubaiyat for all who have the mental pictorial vision to see them.”
Indeed, such a pictorial imagination abounds throughout the collection. Even earlier poems like “A Strain in Red” bear the marks of both the pictorial and the symbolist styles which enamored him:
An eager tongue between parted lips, a garnet
glow within argent hips, the blood of roses.
Yet what is most notable in Hartmann’s poetry is the way he weaves the senses, as in the sights and sounds of “Cyanogen Seas Are Surging”:
Cyanogen seas are surging over fierce
cinnabarine strands, where white amazons
are marching in the radiance of the sands.
With synesthetic lines like “while silently through / the meadows the sighs of her fragrance swept,” Hartmann’s poetry bears the marks of Japanese forms and styles, yet they often include a heady mix of multi-sensory lines right out of Symbolism. Having been a perfume peddler in his younger days and conducting what he called a “scent concert” which promised a trip to Japan in sixteen minutes, Hartmann’s poetry unsurprisingly takes advantage of the sense of smell, as in his highly syncretic “Parfum Des Fleurs”:
Oh, frail and fragrant visions,
Sweet nomads of the air,
That rise like the mist on the meadows
And cling to my darksome hair,
Are ye the souls of roses,
Of memory’s vagrom lays,
Sent to caress my senses—
Faint murmurs of bygone days?
While much of Hartmann’s poetry insightfully establishes its own idiom, a unique multi-sensory vision for poetry, much of it seems to suffer from Hartmann’s belief, as he insisted in 1919, “not in art for art’s sake or art for humanity’s sake, but art by the few and for the few.” In short, the quality of Hartmann’s poetic vision and practice is uneven. But perhaps this ought to be expected in a collected works, especially given the characteristic excesses of his milieu. Indeed, as with many of his contemporaries, Hartmann’s poetic oeuvre can seem as solid as any other before disappearing into opacity, demonstrating flashes like that of his poem in praise of New York City’s “Flat Iron” building:
All else we see fade fast and disappear,
Only your prow-like form looms gaunt, austere,
As in a sea of fog, now veiled, now clear.
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