Thursday, January 24, 2008

Burt Hatlen, 1936–2008

[The "Tributes to Zukofsky" panel, Orono, summer 2004; L-R: Theodore Enslin, Robert Creeley, Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Burt Hatlen]

The girls, tho 2 years apart, are – as Pippa likes to say – "half-twins," in that they share a birthday. There was a point when I was happy with this: think of all the energy & money we'd save on birthday parties! But that was not to be: they're 2 years apart, after all, & have different friends, different interests & likings, different obsessions. So instead, we're facing the annual discombobulation of two preschool birthday parties on successive weekends. Priez pour nous.
The weather is beautiful – warm during the day, chilly at night, little humidity; but a sad, gray time nonetheless. For me the week's been darkened by news of the death Monday of Burton Hatlen – as the obituaries point out, Professor of English at the University of Maine and Director of the National Poetry Foundation. It feels to me – and I know it feels likewise to many of my friends and colleagues – a particularly personal loss.

It's true that when Burt was a newly-minted English professor (he came to Orono, Maine in 1967) he encouraged, even was a mentor to, a wayward undergraduate named Stephen King; that fact's gotten him mentioned in every book about King I've turned over (there's even a photo of Burt in at least one of them). One could do worse, I suppose, than go down in literary history as a prime influence on one of the century's most commercially successful novelists.

But Burt was one of the quiet firesources of American poetry scholarship, particularly of modernist and late (or post-) modernist poetry – what I sometimes call "alt-poetry." Carroll F. Terrell had founded the National Poetry Foundation at U Maine in 1971, largely to disseminate Pound scholarship (NPF would launch Paideuma, its Pound journal, the next year). With Hatlen on board, the Foundation expanded its activities past the high-modernist figures it initially focused on – Pound, Eliot, Yeats – to become a first-choice outlet for scholarship on a wide range of twentieth-century poets. Every Zukofsky scholar knows the indispensible Terrell-edited volume Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet (1979), & NPF followed that one up with a whole series of "Man/Woman and Poet" collections: George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, Hugh MacDiarmid, Mina Loy, David Jones, etc. etc. The journal Sagetrieb was something of a "sequel" to Paideuma, publishing work on poets of a second modernist generation (like the Objectivists) & postwar, "postmodern" figures.

NPF was also printing valuable primary texts: Rakosi's collected prose and poetry; Jonathan Griffin's poems; Ron Silliman's big, eye-opening & (for many of us) mind-blowing In the American Tree (1986). (They're still at it, by the way – in recent years they've published important collections by Theodore Enslin, Armand Schwerner, Helen Adam, Joanne Kyger, & Kenneth Fearing.)

And then there were the conferences, every three or four summers. I gather they began as celebrations of particular poets – Pound, Yeats, etc. – but by the time I started visiting Orono they were decade-themed (poetry of the 1930s, of the 1940s, & so forth). It was like a kind of wonderful poetry summer camp – a three- or four-day conference in isolated campus setting, where every panel was on poetry, where everywhere you turned you were running into someone you actually wanted to talk to. (Think of it as the anti-MLA.) So many fantastic intellectual exchanges, so many grand and moving readings.

By the time I started going to Orono, Terry Terrell had handed the directorship of the NPF over the Burt, & Burt was the moving force behind the Foundation's publications and the summer conferences. (I suspect that there was a good deal of Stephen King's money being funneled into the organization, as well: King has always been outspoken about his debt to Burt for early encouragement.) Somehow Burt managed – on whatever shoestring of a budget – to keep this three-ring circus of journals, book series, and conferences going, & made Orono the hottest ticket in contemporary poetry studies. At the same time, he managed to keep up a steady stream of his own scholarship, an essay or two every year, always lucid, intelligent, & fundamentally solid work. I don't know whether he ever thought to collect those essays – I learn to my astonishment he published over a hundred – but he never came out with a book. Perhaps he was just too busy fostering others' scholarship, promoting poetry, & learning from others to give much thought to promoting his own work.

I met Burt at the Louisville 20th-century literature conference in 1992. I felt very much a kid – I was still in my 20s, I was delivering my first conference paper ever (on LZ and Stevens), & out there in the (admittedly sparse) audience were two scholars I admired just this side of idolatry: Jerome McGann and Peter Quartermain. Sitting with them was a hulking, Johnsonian figure. I invoke Dr Johnson, frankly, out of affection, for there was something of Johnson's imposing bulk, his awkwardness & tics, & his fundamental seriousness about Burt (yes, it was he), who came up to me after the panel and asked "Can I have your paper for Sagetrieb?"

Over the years I learned that Burt had performed similar acts of professional kindness to any number of young scholars (see here for Norman's experience). He published my Stevens/Zukofsky paper in Sagetrieb, & published several book reviews subsequently. He was enormously supportive when I was editing Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky, a collection that mostly drew upon papers delivered at a 1993 Orono conference. And over the 16 years I knew him, I was always astonished to find that he was following my work and my career with a touching avuncular interest. Indeed, even as I write this, I realize that Burt is one of the few people in the academy that I've looked to over the years as a mentor. He will be much missed. I will miss him very much.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Hey Mark/

A lovely tribute to Burt Hatlen. I have a very similar feeling to you about his work, his legacy in terms of NPF & the Orono conferences (which is where, of course, we first met), & the sweetness of his connection to King.

Burt published my first scholarly essay in Sagetrieb, which, like yours, came from a conference paper, though mine was delivered at the 1960s conference in 1996. It was my essay on RJ's "BEAM 16." Having sent it to him without much hope of its being taken, I was shocked one day to get an envelope out of the blue telling me he wanted to rush the essay into print, because he had RJ's Bunting essay, as well as a review of ARK he wanted to run in Sagetrieb. He told me something like, "This essay is good but it need a lot of help." Which he provided in terms of scrupulous line editing, covering each of my poorly phrased twenty+ pages. I was thrilled to have that much attention paid to my work! (None of my diss. advisors were giving me that much time.)

In 2004, at the 1940s conference, I was on a panel with Burt & Steve Fredman. Burt had very flattering things to say about Gnostic Contagion but added, tartly, "However, you didn't cite my essay on Duncan." Believe me, I felt like a bit of an ass. Still do!

And of course if it weren't for Burt, this nevertheless long-delayed Ronald Johnson: Life & Work volume might never even have had a chance to see the light of day. (Fingers crossed that it still will.)

There's certain to be a much-deserved memorial of Burt at this summer's Orono fest. I'll be sure to be there for that.

As you likely recall, your daughters share a birthday with none other so illustrious as mine own self - this year, I become an official graybeard, stumbling downhill past the forty year marker...

Happy birthday to the lasses!