Category Archives: On writing

Amusing Monday: Poet Sadakichi Hartmann and images on the sea

I was captivated by a brief but richly infused poem, “Why I Love Thee,” which arrived last week in my email, thanks to a free subscription to “Poem-a-Day” from the Academy of American Poets.

It’s been several months since I posted poetry in “Amusing Monday.” I believe the last time followed an enjoyable struggle through the long and symbolically laden poem “To Brooklyn Bridge” by Hart Crane. See Water Ways, Nov. 26, 2018.

Why I Love Thee?

By Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944)

Why I love thee?
Ask why the seawind wanders,
Why the shore is aflush with the tide,
Why the moon through heaven meanders
Like seafaring ships that ride
On a sullen, motionless deep;
Why the seabirds are fluttering the strand
Where the waves sing themselves to sleep
And starshine lives in the curves of the sand!

Sadakichi Hartmann, poet and art critic, was born in Japan and grew up in Germany with lifelong cultural influences from both his German father and Japanese mother. He came to the U.S. at age 15, and at age 17 introduced himself to Walt Whitman, and they became lifelong friends.

Sadakichi Hartmann

Juliana Chang, who has explored the history of Asian American poetry, described Hartmann as “one of the most intriguing and overlooked figures in the history of American poetry.”

Hartmann popularized Japanese forms, including haiku and tanka, which are based on strict syllabic structure. But he playfully crossed the boundaries of form to focus on imagery and what he called “pictorial suggestion.” That’s what I see in the poem, “Why I Love Thee?” It really needs no further analysis.

Edward Moran, a literary historian, wrote in “The Massachusetts Review” that Hartmann lived in a liminal era between Victorianism and Modernism, where he “held court as the quintessential jack-of-all-trades: a poet, a playwright, an art critic, a pioneering photography critic, a newspaper reporter, a proto-beatnik/hippie (he was crowned King of the Bohemians in Greenwich Village exactly a century ago), silent-film extra (he appeared as the court magician in The Thief of Baghdad), and self-styled court jester to a Hollywood rat pack of the 1920s (John Barrymore described him as ‘a living freak. . . sired by Mephistopheles out of Madame Butterfly’).”

Additional academic discussion of Hartmann’s influence can be found in a piece, “Missing Link,” by Floyd Cheung, professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College in Massachusetts. In 2017, Cheung edited a book of Hartmann’s poems and letters.

Here’s another poem by Hartmann

Tanka

By Sadakichi Hartmann

I.
Winter? Spring? Who knows?
White buds from the plumtrees wing
And mingle with the snows.
No blue skies these flowers bring,
Yet their fragrance augurs Spring.

II.
Oh, were the white waves,
Far on the glimmering sea
That the moonshine laves,
Dream flowers drifting to me,—
I would cull them, love, for thee.

III.
Moon, somnolent, white,
Mirrored in a waveless sea,
What fickle mood of night
Urged thee from heaven to flee
And live in the dawnlit sea?

IV.
Like mist on the leas,
Fall gently, oh rain of Spring
On the orange trees
That to Ume’s casement cling—
Perchance, she’ll hear the love-bird sing.

V.
Though love has grown cold
The woods are bright with flowers,
Why not as of old
Go to the wildwood bowers
And dream of–bygone hours!

VI.
Tell, what name beseems
These vain and wandering days!
Like the bark of dreams
That from souls at daybreak strays
They are lost on trackless ways.

Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year

In October, I was grabbed by a headline on a column by Margaret Sullivan, who writes about media issues for the Washington Post: “The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters.” See Water Ways, Oct. 23.

Margaret Sullivan
Photo: Michael Benabib

As I wrote in my blog post, “Climate change is not a subject that generates happy news. It is not a subject that most politicians wish to address in any form, but it is one subject that separates those who care about the future of the planet from those who care only about short-term economic benefits or political gains.”

Nearly every time I write about climate change, someone reaches out to me to ask that I keep telling the climate story in my blog. I do a lot of reading about water-related issues, of course, and I am constantly learning about climate change — from detailed studies by scientists to government plans to address a future with greater floods, larger forest fires and extensive loss of marine life.

I have decided this year to share some of the more fascinating, ground-breaking or inspiring reports that I come across during my reading. I may provide just a link to an article or scientific report with a brief commentary, as opposed to a full-blown discussion. I’m going to label these brief references “Climate Sense” — as in the headline on this blog post. I hope we can all become better informed about this issue so vital to the future of humanity. (As always, one can subscribe to this blog in the column to the right.)

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New online magazine describes life in and around Puget Sound

John F. Williams, a Suquamish resident who has been creating dramatic underwater videos for years, recently launched a new online publication called Salish Magazine. Its goal is to help people to better understand the ecosystem in the Puget Sound region.

For those of us who live in the region, John and his Still Hope Productions have helped us visualize and understand what lies beneath the waves and up the streams of Puget Sound. The video “Is this where Puget Sound starts?” (shown below) is a good example of the video production. Other videos can be found on Still Hope’s website.

The new online publication shifts to the use of more words, along with photos and videos, to explain the connections among living things. The first issue includes extensive articles on sea anemones, barnacles, sea stars, mussels and glaciation, spiced up with art, poetry and personal stories. Download the magazine as a huge PDF (56.6 mb) file or open it in iBooks.

The second issue of Salish Magazine is about the importance of forests, with articles on forest character, forest restoration, barred owls and more, as well as poetry, essays and lots of photos, all combined in a web design that combines variable scrolling with pull-down menus.

As John describes it, “A key focus of the magazine is to illustrate the interconnectedness woven through our ecosystems, using lenses of history, science, and culture.”

The first two issues are free, although a subscription is expected to be announced next year. Meanwhile, one can sign up for newsletters on the Subscribe webpage. Salish Magazine is published by the nonprofit firm SEA-Media.

Speaking of environment news, I hope everyone is familiar with Puget Sound Institute and its online newsletters. The December issue includes a quiz on Pacific herring and articles on rockfish, Puget Sound vital signs, the Clean Water Act and recent research papers.

Puget Sound Institute, an independent organization affiliated with the University of Washington, strives to advance an understanding of Puget Sound through scientific synthesis, original research and communication. PSI receives major funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.

One can subscribe to the PSI newsletter, blog and alerts to articles in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound on the Subscribe webpage.

Full disclosure: I am employed half-time by Puget Sound Institute to write in-depth articles about scientific discoveries and ecological challenges in the Puget Sound region.

Further note: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that Still Hope Productions is a nonprofit company.

Email notifications for blog posts are back following disruption

Some of you may have noticed that you were no longer receiving email notifications of posts to the blog “Watching Our Water Ways.” Somehow, around the middle of October, this function just disappeared. I’ve been trying to get it back, and now, thanks to some behind-the-scenes work, email notification of new blog posts is back in operation.

I’ll concede that some people probably never noticed the lapse, and others might have been happy to avoid the email. But I’m pleased that many people continued to read the blog and offer their comments. This email function, along with RSS, allows people to quickly see a topic and decide if they would like to continue reading.

If you want to sign up for email notifications, simply type your email and zipcode into the box in the right column under the recent comments.

As always, my primary goal is to focus on issues related to Puget Sound, but I’m open to conversations about anything water-related. Each Monday, I try to feature something a little off-beat, humorous, artful or amazing.

I’m always open to comments and suggestions. If you have a moment, please let me know if you think this blog is worthwhile, and let me know what kind of topics you would like to me to write about.

Here are some of the Water Ways headlines (with links) from the past six weeks that you might have missed:

Amusing Monday: Finding a pathway to enjoy great poetry

I’ve been reading at least one poem a day for awhile, thanks to the Academy of American Poets, which delivers a poem by email each day of the week. Anyone can sign up for this service, called Poem-a-Day.

One poem I read a few months back has stayed with me, and I’ve read it again and again. It’s called “To Brooklyn Bridge” by Hart Crane, and it is part of a “long-form” poem presented in a book published in 1930. I was captured by the mysterious symbolism, as I struggled to piece together what the narrator was observing and what Crane was saying in his lyrical manner. Here’s the poem, followed by some personal observations about writing:

To Brooklyn Bridge

By Hart Crane, 1899-1932

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

“To Brooklyn Bridge” apparently is one of the poems by American poets studied in college courses, but I never encountered it before. It offers a challenge of interpretation that was sometimes within my grasp but often just out of reach. I eventually succumbed to seeking out analyses of the poem by others, and I found it mentioned in a number of student study guides. I was drawn to a description by Schmoop.com, which includes this comment:

“Published in 1930, The Bridge was panned by many for being too darned difficult and wordy. We’ll say it straight up: This poem, like much of Crane’s work, is incredibly difficult in the sense of, ‘What the heck is this guy even talking about?’ But the payoff is worth it, because Crane is such a master of language that you’ll be carried away by the emotion and musicality of the poem even when you’re scratching your head. (Don’t worry – Shmoop is here to keep your head-scratchings to a minimum.)”

If you read on in the study guide, you learn about the stark, literal meanings in the poem, at least from Shmoop’s perspective. It did help me to fill in some blanks and complete the puzzle in one sense, but I rushed back to read the poem with its imaginative images and rhythmical style.

An audio recording of the poem accompanied by music and images can be enjoyed in the first video on this page. The second video is from Annenberg Media’s series “Voices & Visions,” which describe the life and work of 13 of America’s most famous modern poets.

Poetry is much different from news writing, of course. When writing about complex issues, I try to explain the concepts in a simple way without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Helping people go deep into a subject is like adding layers, one by one, while staying on firm ground. I try to be explicit, leaving little to the imagination.

Poetry is about describing things in ways that have never been said before, to encourage the reader to think and feel about things while stretching the imagination. Poetry can help writers of all kinds find a voice that is both familiar and grounded, yet imaginative and exciting.

I’ve written a lot about bridges and culverts and salmon-passage problems — the physical structures, the engineering challenges and the dynamic forces of water. But bridges also serve as a powerful symbol of change, representing movement from one place to another, passage of time from past to present to future, and, for some, a transcendence to a higher spiritual consciousness.

As one analyst mentioned in the Study Tiger guide:

“As mankind could build the Brooklyn Bridge in physical space, Crane seems to be saying that mankind can build the same kind of ‘bridge’ in their spiritual life to find a connection to God. Because Crane never states these poetic themes explicitly but leaves them for the reader to discover themselves, the act of reading and studying Crane’s lines can be thought of an another type of bridge, where learning the meaning of the poem is ‘walking across’ the bridge to a new kind of knowledge.”

Amusing Monday: Value of water featured in art contest for students

More than 1,300 students entered this year’s Water Resources Art and Poetry Contest, sponsored by New York City’s water utility, known as the Department of Environmental Protection. Some 60 winners were named as “Water Champions” by a panel of judges.

Art by Lily H., grades 6–7.
Photo: New York City DEQ Art and Poetry Contest

“For more than three decades, DEP’s annual Art and Poetry Contest has given young New Yorkers a wonderful opportunity to use their artistic abilities to learn about and express the importance of protecting our environment and water resources,” DEP Commissioner Vincent Sapienza said in a press release announcing the contest winners. “Nearly half the State of New York relies on the city’s water supply system, so this is a terrific way for students in both New York City and beyond to celebrate our shared natural resources.”

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Amusing Monday: How one composer connects music to nature’s wonder

Classical composer Alex Shapiro, who lives on San Juan Island, has a nice way of connecting music with her passion for the local waters in Puget Sound.

“When I’m not crawling around the shoreline and shooting photos of wildlife, I’m working on becoming a more adept note alignment specialist,” she writes in her blog “Notes from the Kelp.” “I compose music, mostly for chamber ensembles and symphonic wind bands who kindly offer my notes to the air and anyone within earshot.”

“Notes from the Kelp” is a nice play on words, since it is both the name of a blog and an album of music, two ways of communicating with people about what Alex calls a “heartbreakingly beautiful part of the planet.”

The first video on this page is Alex’s composition “Deep” from “Notes from the Kelp.” When I close my eyes and listen to this piece, I think about scuba diving along the bottom of Puget Sound in very cold waters. In my vision, I first encounter all sorts of bottom-dwelling organisms, such as sea pens and sea urchins, but the music also inspires a feeling of doom, which I associate with low-oxygen dead zones where nothing can live.

Here’s what Alex writes about “Deep”: “Sometimes I make the mistake of believing that I’m not being unless I’m doing and moving. This piece was my challenge to myself to be still and present. And in doing so, I’ve never been as much before. Like the sea, my truth lies below, and I am happiest when I am immersed.”

The second video shows clarinetist Jeff Gallagher performing Alex’s “Water Crossing” during a concert in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2016. Alex writes about what she was thinking during the composition process in the “Recordings” section of her website. She describes a mythical voyage in a canoe that turns into a sailboat. Dolphins dance ahead of the boat before it returns to the safety of shore.

I have spent some time lately perusing this “Recordings” page for a smorgasbord of music and observations on life. It’s here you can find a list of Alex’s musical contributions, listen to recordings and read about her music.

I first learned about Alex and her work from the third video on this page. It was created as a promotion for the University of Washington, yet Alex finds a way to talk about the importance of science and how her music is like scientific exploration. The San Juan Islands, where she lives, has always been an important place to study sea life and shoreline dynamics — and it’s not just because the islands are home to the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.

Alex has been traveling a lot lately and working on various projects, as she freely describes on her Facebook page. Also, as it turns out, she is moving from the home on San Juan Island that she has written so passionately about. But she’s not going far, since her new home is another waterfront location on San Juan Island. I look forward to further notes from the kelp.

Composer and music professor Kyle Gann wrote about Alex and her life in Chamber Music magazine (PDF 108 kb) in May 2008.