Tag Archives: Poetry

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.

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.”