Geoffrey H. Hartman, Who Saw Literary Criticism as Art, Dies at 86

Long associated with the Yale School of criticism, Professor Hartman examined a wide range of subjects, including Wordsworth, Judaica and trauma.

Source: Geoffrey H. Hartman, Scholar Who Saw Literary Criticism as Art, Dies at 86

I met Dr. Hartman in 1985 when he was lecturing at Northwestern, where I had landed with an NEH Summer Seminar fellowship to study the British Romantics. He seemed like a friendly, American element in the massive fortress of Yale School criticism. That was also the summer I heard Umberto Eco lecture—a presentation that was followed by a Q & A taken over by Stanley Fish, who tried to undercut Eco’s optimistic pragmatic approach to language with his own slick nihilism, but wound up gutted like a flounder, standing there in his ice-cream suit at the back of the auditorium while the somehow rumpled & elegant Eco turned to speak with a group of undergraduates. I was there when titans grappled! That was a good day to be a fly on the wall.

The Unofficial Hiatus / What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Hmmm. Seems like I haven’t been posting much during the recent dog days. We finally got some summer weather here after a couple of cool, wet months. I think if I looked back over my eight or nine years of blogging (who’s counting?), I would notice that I often take a short vacation from the blog about this time of year. It’s not really intentional, just a loss of motivation. And this year I’ve actually been occupied with a couple of projects and with making a couple of changes in the old “lifestyle” (hate that word). About a year ago I stopped drinking alcohol. I’d had a bad reaction to a sleep medication I had been prescribed and it seemed to be related to my evening beer consumption, so I stopped, without much difficulty. I also stopped the medication and ironically began sleeping better than I have in years. I did notice that I would have spikes of anxiety (that I would have in the past treated with a couple of drinks) and during those periods of anxiety I was given to repetitive, morbid thinking — I’ve been a secret hypochondriac since I was six years old, always imagining I have some fatal illness. About a month ago, though, I began meditation practice using the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh’s little book The Miracle of Mindfulness as a guide. I’d tried  meditation before, but for some reason this time it took and I have sat for half an hour or more every day since I began. It took a while, but I have noticed pretty dramatic shifts in my thinking and my internal dialogue / monologue over the last week or so. I am calmer and happier. Nothing dramatic, just a bit lighter in the head. And speaking of a light head, I have had, over the years, mild to moderate vestibular / balance problems that seem to come and go, perhaps related to stress. Several years ago a physical therapist gave me a set of exercises to do in which I look at a target (a large letter B) on the wall while walking toward it and moving my head back and forth. At first the B jumps around and I see a double image, but after doing the exercise for ten minutes twice a day for a couple of days, the target stabilizes. There is also an exercise in which one walks while throwing a ball up and catching it, following it with one’s eyes. The idea is to retrain the brain / ears / eyes to track together. It works. After I came back from Vietnam early this summer and had a bad chest cold with fever, I noticed I wasn’t balancing as well as I had been, so I’ve been doing these exercises very aggressively for the last two weeks, with noted improvement. I have even taken up juggling, which I used to be able to do, but so far without much success. I’ll certainly post video when I can keep three balls in the air! Finally, on the theory that if you don’t use it you lose it, I have begun memorizing poems. When I was a kid, I did this easily, getting long swatches of Kipling, Edna Milay, and Coleridge by heart in my early teens, but I didn’t keep it up. Over the last couple of weeks, I have memorized Jack Spicer’s “Berkeley in time of Plague,” Blake’s “The Sick Rose” and Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (both brief, as warm ups), then I went on to Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me,” which I have always loved and Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” ditto. I’m now working on Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt,” which is harder for me to get into my head because of its antique syntax and the fact that I had never encountered it before. This is a practice, like meditation, I hope to keep up indefinitely.

So, I don’t often write about my personal life here in this public space, but I wanted to mark what amounts to a fairly large change in my way of being in the world. I’ll return soon to grousing about politics and making notes on literary matters.

Adrienne Rich & Graphs of Experience

In her later work, Adrienne Rich has developed a poetic technique that presents the reader with a graph of experience. By experience, I mean the moment by moment tracings of conscious perception. There must of course be a a process of editing during composition, but the poem presents itself as a graph — the poet operating like one of those old-fashioned weather instruments in which a stylus scrapes a line upon a rotating drum covered in smoked paper. Here is an example:

Ever, Again

Mockingbird shouts Escape! Escape!
and would I could. I’d

fly, drive back to that house
up the long hill between queen

anne’s lace and common daisyface
shoulder open stuck door

run springwater from kitchen
tap drench tongue

palate and throat
throw window sashes up screens down

breathe in mown grass
pine-needle heat

manure, lilac unpack
brown sacks from the store:

ground meat, buns, tomatoes, one
big onion, milk and orange juice

iceberg lettuce, ranch dressing
potato chips, dill pickles

the Caledonian-Record
Portuguese rose in round-hipped flask

open the box of newspapers by the stove
reread: (Vietnam Vietnam)

Set again on the table
the Olivetti, the stack

of rough yellow typing paper
mark the crashed instant

of one summer’s mosquito
on a bedroom door

voices of boys outside
proclaiming twilight and hunger

Pour iced vodka into a shotglass
get food on the table

sitting with those wild heads
over hamburgers, fireflies, music

staying up late with the typewriter
falling asleep with the dead

Well, it’s a sly artlessness I see now while typing it out. First, the registered patch of experience is a memory & memories can be edited, consciously or unconsciously. (The way one edits memory, consciously or unconsciously, counts for everything, morally & aesthetically, which for me, increasingly, amount to pretty much the same thing.) The telegraphic registration of small details add up to a record of an experience that has been recovered and reexperienced, perhaps more intensely that it was the first time. (What is the positive term for nostalgia?) And as readers that recovered experience becomes our own through the graphing of details. Also, we all know that rich is a “political poet,” but I think that leafing through the newspapers “Vietnam Vietnam)” has the effect of placing the speaker’s recovered experience in the context of a particularly intense moment of history. It is also, of course, a poem about making poems inside both personal and national histories.

[The poem above is from Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006 by Adrienne Rich, published by W.W. Norton.]