The Scholar as Poet: Remembering Geoffrey Hartman (1929-2016)
Geoffrey Hartman, who died in March 2016, was known as one of the most eminent literary scholars of the past half century, going back to his book based on his doctoral thesis, The Unmediated Vision (1954). His book on William Wordsworth, published ten years later, remains a standard work, perhaps the single most searching study of Wordsworth’s poetry to appear in the twentieth century. He subsequently became a leading figure in the turn toward literary theory beginning with the essays collected in Beyond Formalism (1970) and The Fate of Reading (1975), as well as a general study, Criticism in the Wilderness (1980). In the 1980s his work took yet another direction: towards Jewish issues, including biblical and Midrashic interpretation, as well as the conditions for understanding and assimilation of the Holocaust. Along with his wife Renee, a Holocaust survivor, he was instrumental in the founding of the Yale Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, which paved the way for the much larger archive of oral recollections created by Steven Spielberg after the worldwide success of Schindler’s List.
I met Geoffrey Hartman some fifty-five years ago when I was a fledgling graduate student, quite miserable, and he was on the verge of leaving Yale, having been unaccountably turned down for tenure. I looked him up in one of the college’s remote basement office after reading an essay he wrote for the Chicago Review on Maurice Blanchot, a mesmerizing European critic altogether unknown to me. Soon afterward I ambled down York Street to the offices of Yale University Press, where I bought one of the few remaining copies of his first book, The Unmediated Vision, still available at its original price of four dollars. I never studied with him, but we formed a bond rooted perhaps in mutual unhappiness along with an instinctive sense of intellectual kinship. In the Yale of 1961, a gentleman’s university still dominated by complacent academic and social routines, we both felt like outsiders.
Undoubtedly, there were also shared Jewish feelings neither of us mentioned. He became an informal mentor to me — in both the new currents of literary theory wafting over from Europe and the nascent revival of interest in Romanticism that had already attracted me as an undergraduate at Columbia. Geoffrey was working on his Wordsworth book, which would come to make his reputation. It would mark a signal turn in the new Romantic scholarship, transforming Wordsworth from a decorous nature poet and Victorian icon into a probing, dark modern poet of consciousness. Soon after the book came out I began work on a thesis on Keats, far more modest but along the same lines.
But Geoffrey was far more than an admired and fitfully emulated scholar for me. I loved his genuine warmth, his sparkling and urbane intelligence and wit, his cosmopolitan range of interests. He was a living heir of the émigré comparatists and philologists like Erich Auerbach and René Wellek who had been his teachers at Yale. Ideas and texts had an almost visceral reality for him; his exhaustive scholarship was part of the air he breathed. This might help explain his brief romance with deconstruction; the sheer ingenuity of Derrida or de Man must have proved irresistible for him. When his own essays turned knotty, dense with learned puns and allusions, it was because he loved being playful, challenging. The plain style, he once told me, held little interest for him, though he mastered it effectively. The Hebraic side of his later work, his unexpected engagement with issues of Holocaust memory and representation, spoke more directly to me. In helping to create a pioneering archive of oral witness, he became a public person, an actor as well as a thinker. But above all else I’ll always recall and cherish the sweetness of his personality, along with his scrupulous attentiveness and insight as a reader and essayist. He served as a beacon and role model for many former students, just as he did for me.
That Hartman, had also written and published poetry, was not so widely known — though a small volume, Akiba’s Children, appeared in 1978. In 2013, he published The Eighth Day: Poems Old & New, which includes selections from that book along with later work. The differences in style between the older and newer poems make it seem like two books in one. The poems from Akiba’s Children are intensely worked, almost impacted with terse and constantly shifting linguistic detail, but also at times gnomic, even opaque. Hartman’s criticism is celebrated for its close readings of poetic language but has been at times poetic itself in its compression and density. This is true of these early poems, which belong to the latter end of a phase of high modernism which aimed for a maximum of compression and allusiveness, sometimes by deploying a fragmentary discontinuity in the manner of Eliot’s Waste Land. This kind of writing was promoted by the New Critics and welcomed in the classroom. Here not simply intensity but difficulty itself was seen as a mark of authenticity, an exorcism of the prosaic and the extraneous. In exactly this vein, note, for example, the telescoping of the opening lines of Hartman’s “Mariner’s Song”:
After he had maimed the dragon deep
and throned us in new limbs of everlasting
opening to fable the mortal stars
we wept praises and harped the flood of his word.
It’s hard to know what to make of phrases like “harped the flood of his word” or enjambments like “new limbs of everlasting/ opening to fable the mortal stars.” The poem seems to be referring suggestively to a known myth yet the actual allusion remains out of reach, to me at least. The language is at once rich and subtly deformed, at least by any prose standard. In another early poem, “The Middle of the Garden,” the thing not named, clearly, is Adam and Eve, but even if we catch the allusion it scarcely makes the poem more accessible. The best of these poems are those with an overt biblical subject and/or a clear narrative thread, such as “Abraham,” “Passage to Ithaca,” “The Silence,” “Ahasuerus,” “In Honor of the Master of the Good Name,” and especially “The Reporter.” This last poem is a fine biblical meditation of the passage in the Book of Samuel in which the Holy Arc is captured in battle by the Philistines. The poem has sweep, clarity, and fine continuity. But in many other poems from this part of the book, there is instead an overall sense of dark mystery; the poems seem to have been conceived as enigmas, encoded challenges to the reader to experience them as language and feeling without fully understanding them.
Matters are very different in the later sections of the book. Here, in line with more recent trends in American poetry, the verse forms are more free and irregular; the language is marked by an almost colloquial and conversational flow, as in “Day of Remembrance,” a Passover poem but also a Holocaust poem, which begins: “This is the flat bread/ nothing rises/ this is the time/ nothing can rise.” Later he writes: “In the ovens/ overt/ the loaves are/ flat corpses:/ unpardonably/ only nightmares lurk,/ words like a tired bell,/ a maimed and graying sun.” At this seder “Elijah’s cup/ stands untouched../ Through the door echoes fly/ and unreadable ash.” The remembrance of liberation, the very matzoh itself, as turned to flattened corpse and ash. Here, he concludes, “We break bread with each other/ in the bitter dawn of night,” a scene of both dark and light.
Another late poem, “Elegy at the Bodensee,” not only has a narrative shape and flow but seems based on a real experience, not simply meditation and allusion. These poems are less like riddles, more like diaristic notations recording both intimate feelings and external happenings. “Psalm,” for example, though its title points to a biblical antecedent, reads like personal poem with a real rather than a narrative “I,” a self wholly present though elusive: “My soul, who has anointed you,/ are you still thirsty like the east winds,/ or sated, ready to be poured out?/ Whose dark dew floods you and I do not know it?” This is an interior language reminiscent of the Psalms, but also an accessible voice. A poem like “Passing By,” about the descent from the cross, has a clear narrative spine, as if it were a recollection of an actual experience. It is reader-friendly in a quiet, unassuming way. “I saw them take a man down from the cross,” it begins, and it proceeds to take the point of view of a witness, a mere passer-by, who, without knowing what he is taking in, provides us with descriptive details, such as the lowering a body that feels like “dead weight,” the sight of inserting it awkwardly in a shroud while others are simply looking on, murmuring or weeping.
I was curious to know what crime the corpse
had committed, but no one seemed to care
about the bearded, not unbeautiful face,
except to dispatch the dead in good order,
to lay the body carefully from sight
with lavings, myrrh, and linen grave-clothes:
so I too committed his face to the earth.
The strength of these later poems can be seen in “The Memory of Paul Celan,” a tribute to the German poet whose spirit presides over some of these works. It is a jagged poem, like so many of Celan’s own, with a rhythm that reflects the experience of rupture and dissonance, the very difficulty or writing, the challenge of finding language to express almost unspeakable memories and experiences.
Somewhere in Kadesh, color of shard and sound,
pen’s mouth stopped up, my fingers broken teeth,
I who feed on memories rotting like manna
strangle words near his darkened breast.
Hartman’s poems represent a lesser known, more personal side of his work. They show him wrestling with Judaism and the Bible in ways that surfaced only much later in his critical prose. Hartman never claimed to be anything more than a Sunday poet but he was able to express things in verse — misgivings, meditations, evocations of moments in Jewish texts and the Jewish calendar — that he could not find expression in his critical writings. “Yoma” was his last poem - it’s deeply wrenching lines written during his final illness, grappling with it in terms that link the anguish of the Psalms with moods and images from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s so-called “terrible sonnets,” poems of spiritual crisis, but also Eliot’s Waste Land, with its evocation of a dry season of the soul. The poem’s title “Yoma,” is the tractate of the Talmud that deals with the preparations for Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance and Judgment. Projecting a heart-rending sense of uncertainty, desperation, and contrition, it raises an ultimate but unanswerable question, “Where is comfort to be found?”
See below for “Yoma,” Geoffrey Hartman’s last poem.
Rain in the autumn, rain in the spring
let it rain poetry, dear God,
midrashic parables, rabbinic clichés,
or, better still, the comfort of Psalms.
I know those traps, those enemies, Lord,
help me in my old age, my distress:
this day I stand contrite before you,
eyes, broken images, ears,
dimmed by unceasing sighs.
Where is your comfort to be found?
No longer in the lai-lai-lai of prayersong.
In all your holy mountain what survives
not stained by cries for blood? Where now
the numinous Jordan, the pure Helicon?
Encompassed by my own inanities
I stumble and fade, searching… searching…
Ah, woe betide! the nymphs of memory
draw me under, into a bitter wave
that whelms and does not cleanse.
I am poured out, unrhymed, unrhythmed.
Morris Dickstein’s most recent book is a memoir, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education (2015). He first wrote about Geoffrey Hartman’s work for Tikkun in 2000.