Of Charles O. Hartman’s New & Selected Poems, David Antin writes: “Charles is a precisionist of language, an improviser searching familiar scales for a wrong note, a word or phrase, that can take him past regular habits of meaning or melody to some new kind of right place.” Spot on. Now let’s shelve this momentarily.
Hartman is a poet of strategic diversity who writes poems widely locatable across the aesthetic spectrum—from “traditional” narrative and formal poems, to “experimental” Oulipian feats of constraint and computer-generated verse. Even more impressively, however, Hartman unifies various poetic methods not simply through stylistic bricolage but, more fundamentally, from a conviction that opposing aesthetic philosophies are ultimately not only compatible with one another but even harmonious.
If Hartman is interested in the practice of something, it seems likely that he will also be interested in the theory and technical analysis of that enterprise. He is a poet and a theorist. In addition to his six books of poetry, he has authored three scholarly books, including the seminal Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody. He is a jazz guitarist, who has published several musicological articles on song structure. He has composed poems using computer programs, some of which he himself has written—among those, DIASTEX5, a diastic text selection program that Jackson Mac Low used to compose his Stein series. Hartman also coauthored a book of computer poetry with Hugh Kenner.
By wading through this bit of the poet’s history, I mean to emphasize Hartman’s commitment to formal and structural analysis and theoretical knowledge, which in the practice of his poetry results in a widespread technical virtuosity. His resources do not end there, however, which is why I find Antin’s remark so apt. As much as Hartman is a “precisionist,” he is also an “improviser.” His poetry is by turns technically precise and freewheeling—now exhibiting a deft command of craft, now trusting spontaneity to lead to new ground. His technical approach, to which formalists of the mid-twentieth century might claim the status of forebear, produces poetry that can feel at home with the poetic descendents of Beat, New York School, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.
In “Glass Enclosure,” the title poem of the 1995 collection from Wesleyan University Press in which it originally appeared, Hartman writes:
my side, but the secret
how every note impeccably affirmed
with every chord
some way, if you fool right.
For Hartman, “fooling right” seems part skill, part luck.
I would like a drink, crow
I would, my skylight
and my friend the moon, pour me out
you fine dipper full I sing you
a sweet song that go so fast
not Bird can make it not Ray
or any man it run down
my right arm like ice.
Here, Bird is Charlie Parker, and I believe Ray is Ray Brown. The song Hartman sings is not purely the product of his making, or any man’s, the poem tells us. He asks for a drink, and the song just runs. In a poem from 1999’s The Long View from Wesleyan, Hartman describes Charlie Parker’s lucid discussion of Ornithology as “A mind writing its way across the sky, / driven by will, drawn by curiosity.” These lines present Hartman’s ars poetica.
Much of Hartman’s poetry seems as driven by craft as it is drawn forth by grace. One poem describes just this balance. The speaker remembers making a headboard back when he and his lover were newly a couple.
my small skill to it
—fitting and making smooth,
planing and, where the plan
ran off into the wild wood,
improvising. I got it
as right as I could get it, love
After getting used to the headboard and gradually ceasing to notice it, the speaker observes:
to a shape I woke to
just this August morning, more
lovely than any work
I ever intended.
Hartman, like his speaker, seems to exercise skill until he serendipitously happens upon results better than anything he could have crafted. His poetry both meditates upon chance and uses it as a compositional method.
In a long poem titled “Monologues of Soul & Body,” Hartman explores the nexuses of chance, strategy, chess, royalty, war, language, artificial intelligence, creativity, and authorship. He weaves a complex web that includes chess master Anderssen’s “Immortal Game,” Alan Turing’s “Imitation Game,” in which a computer tries to demonstrate its intelligence by convincing a human interrogator that it is in fact human too, and “The Turk,” a fake machine that purported to play chess when in reality it was a human chess player hidden in a secret cabinet who defeated most of “the automaton’s” opponents. His title alludes to Andrew Marvell’s “A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body,” which in some ways Hartman conceptually riffs off of, but in Hartman’s poem, the “soul” sections refer to those he composed himself, while the “body” sections refer to those he selected from computer output. He fed the soul sections into Kenner and O’Rourke’s Travesty program and selected the best results to form the body.
In Virtual Muse, his critical book on computer poetry, a chapter describes his process in “Monologues of Soul & Body.” Hartman explains how Travesty randomly generates a new text from its source:
For any same-size group of characters—call the size n—it’s possible to make a frequency table for a particular text. From that table, another text can be constructed that shares statistical properties, but only those properties, with the first one. That’s what Travesty does. It produces an output text that duplicates the frequencies of n character groups in the input text. To put the same thing the other way, it thoroughly scrambles its input text but only down to level n.
So the smaller n is, the more garbled and therefore less intelligible the output. However, if n is set to 9, Hartman explains, “the output text largely duplicates the input text.” The program thus statistically but randomly reproduces a writer’s idiosyncratic, unconscious stylistic decisions in the form of nonsense.
In Hartman’s poem, the soul and body sections alternate, the latter of which works its way up from N = 2 to N = 9. The poem is an impressive collaboration with an inhuman partner, alternately offering discursive meditations and recursive fragments that tease the reader to make sense of them. The Travesty verse even seems to advance, however obliquely, the contemplative legwork of the more straightforward parts. The section N = 7, for instance, opens, “Possible which chance had no part,” and N = 8 ends, “The duration of / the boring owes no more than one category, seems / to be a machine—this is Maeterlinck—the / years teach every man that truth alone is marvelous.” The line drips with irony in the context of the poem.
In “Tambourine,” the opening poem of his 2004 collection Island, also from Ahsahta, Hartman experiments with a pi mnemonic form. For this particular pi mnemonic, there are a number of subsidiary rules, but the main restriction is that the number of letters in each word is dictated by its corresponding digit in pi. So for 3.1415926535897932384626433832795, Hartman writes:
I walk a coast brilliant as dragon glass
for water flinging splinters chaotic alongside
and in the distance long orders of island
spun for the occasion out of morning
Counterintuitive though this might be, the formal restraint seems to liberate Hartman’s lyrics. It’s as if pi’s determinism looses chance and opens up an unusual opportunity for free play. Or as Hartman writes, “After all / if I signify / I do it before thinking // Chance / choose a way.”
Throughout the New & Selected Poems, Hartman exhibits an extraordinary range of poetic resources and intellectual modes. He has a talent for cleverness—“The difference between a cleaning-woman and a cleaning woman begins with pay-structure”—for subtle, ironic humor— “Sound-effects specialists, who make thunder from hammered tin and decanting wine from the rapid popping of tongue against palate, imitate breaking glass by breaking glass, in a box or bag for neatness”—and for syntax that will make the reader sit up and pay attention—“I think you saw everything you were doing / like a birthing mare, like time, like an old man / who splits wood to the quarter-inch you want / and knows which way the tree will fall, will fall.”
If, dear reader, you align your readership with certain poetic “camps,” then you will find that your sensibilities will sometimes share common ground with Hartman’s and other times not. But you’re sure to find something that will grab you. This collection is well worth spending time with, especially since it shows that its poet is getting better as he goes. The new poems showcase a deftness of touch and a sureness of pitch that tend to come only after decades, if ever at all:
I like the way the light changes over the bay
too slowly for a movie camera, nearly too fast
to see, any time you look up it’s new again
dawn to dark.
And later in the same poem, he writes, “Pouring honey in the dark / is a waste of joy.” Antin’s “new kind of right place” indeed. This collection marks a culminating point in this poet’s career. I hope his readership swells. An ear as fine as his deserves ours.