The Bad Poet: Marsden Hartley and modernism

Last Friday, Sept. 29, the Colby College Museum of Art hosted a noontime art talk in the Lower Jette Gallery. Visiting Assistant Professor of English Jacquelyn Ardam and Mirken Director of Academic and Public Programs at the Colby College Museum of Art Lauren Lessing discussed modern art, modernist poetry and Marsden Hartley.

Marsden Hartley’s Maine opened this summer at the Colby Museum of art, giving the public a unique opportunity to view a show of this size in his home state. Here, “Knotting Rope” (1939-40) shows the raw and complex emotion Hartley felt towards Maine.

Lessing began by discussing Hartley’s style as a painter in the context of “modern” art, given the backdrop of the 20th century and the rapid change in industry that came with it.  This rapid change touched many parts of life, including the art that was produced at the time.

Hartley’s style, as Lessing noted – and as was clear from sitting right under the work in the gallery – is geometrical.  In keeping with the modernist movement, there is a clear rejection of rationality, meaning that the forms are not naturalistic. The burly Maine men that Hartley depicts are not exactly realistic – their heads too big for their bodies, their skin tone muddy and lifeless. Hartley was not interested in realistic representations of figures in the world. This is evident in not just his portraits but also in his images of buildings and spaces. There is always an adjustment of reality in his work, exemplified by the tilted ground on which buildings stand. Lessing points this out as simultaneity; a phenomenon in art where the viewer is simultaneously seeing two points of view at once.

Hartley’s interest lies in contemporary landscapes and people of his time – seen in some of his portraits, bathing suits suggest a gesture towards modern life and influences.

Professor Ardam articulated what it meant to be an early modernist poet. 1912 seems to be the widely agreed beginning of modern poetry.  This signifies a shift to what Ezra Pound, one of the leaders of the modernist poetry movement, called “the direct treatment of the thing.”  This meant that that there was no longer flowery language present in poetry and superfluous words would be removed altogether from the prose. Poems in this style all have a commonality of concise wording and a lack of rhythm. This was all to disorder nearly 100 years worth of traditional poetry.

As part of the discussion, Ardam had a member of the audience read an example of modernist poetry aloud. The example is as follows:

In the Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals    on    a    wet,    black      bough.
-Ezra Pound

This clearly exemplifies what Ardam points out as the key characteristics of modernist poetry.  Very few words are used and, in fact, this might be one of the shortest poems in history, yet so much is packed into two short lines.

Mirroring the style of this poem, short yet highly descriptive, Hartley’s artwork can be seen to have similar stylistic qualities, in both subject matter and execution.
Despite these similarities, Marsden Hartley is considered to be by most, a bad modernist poet.  An example of his work brought to the discussion is as follows:

Light of Night

Orb of all pervading light
taking thy sure and gradual flight
adown the ages. What might
is thine, what sight hast thou cast light upon: Dawn of never
ending day doth shine resplendent.
Thou are dependent still for day
to end to fill the earth with
mystic night. White those rays
of thine and bright, wonderous light.
-Marsden Hartley

As both Ardam and Lessing point out, he attempts to emulate Shakespeare’s language, which does not make sense in context of modernist poetry. He was a contemporary of, and friends with, of some of the greatest modernist poets, yet he interjects flowery and unnecessary words that they would likely turn their noses up at.

Further, this complicates his work as a painter.  The short to the point representations of people and the brushwork of his work seem to be quickly forgotten as he puts his pen to paper.

Professors and educators of two different disciplines came together in the Colby Museum of Art so that we can understand Hartley’s work in the context of the modernist movement. This quite literally paints a larger picture of the life and work of Marsden Hartley – bad poetry and all.