'Poetry Is Not on Par Anywhere'

If one hadn’t been oneself it would have been worthwhile to have been Sadakichi
— Ezra Pound
 
Sadakichi is singular, never plural
— Gertrude Stein

An innovative writer, critic, performer and bon vivant extraordinaire, Hartmann helped to introduce Japanese poetic forms to the English literary tradition, championed photography as an art form, conducted ‘concerts’ with smells instead of sounds, and drank riotously with everyone from the Symbolist poets of Paris to the Bohemians of Greenwich Village to the movie stars of Hollywood.

Hartmann in Fairbanks' Thief of Baghdad.

Hartmann in Fairbanks' Thief of Baghdad.

Yet this singular figure wore many masks. For instance, Hartmann wrote under several pseudonyms. Besides using his birth name (though omitting ‘Carl’ to balance his biracial heritage between ‘Sadakichi’ and ‘Hartmann’), he published as ‘Sidney Allan’, ‘Caliban’, ‘Hogarth’, ‘Juvenal’, ‘Innocent De Salle’, ‘Chrysanthemum’, and even ‘A. Chameleon’. Sometimes, two personae appeared side by side in the same publication.

Hartmann could read, write, and speak English, French, and German, though not Japanese. He made up for his lack of Japanese language, however, with his performance abilities and striking physiognomy. Referring to his biracial heritage, a friend called him ‘a living freak presumably sired by Mephistopheles out of Madame Butterfly’. Hartmann even played the court magician in Douglas Fairbanks’ film The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

I personally never think of myself as a German or Asiatic. Others do it for me.
— Sadakichi Hartmann

Throughout his life, he secured speaking engagements – billing himself sometimes as Sadakichi and other times as Allan. When lecturing on a Japanese topic, Hartmann donned a kimono. When a more sober, less racially marked persona was required, he wore a suit. Although he liked saying, ‘I personally never think of myself as a German or Asiatic. Others do it for me’, he clearly knew how to modulate his mixed-race ancestry for different audiences and purposes.

Hartmann understood the significance of the newly coined concept ‘Eurasian’, and saw that the turn of the twentieth century might be a good moment for his emergence as a singular personality with plural aspects.

Hartmann believed that his contemporaries did not pay enough attention to the sense of smell in particular. In one book, he reminds his readers that when the character Ulysses returns to Greece disguised as a beggar, his dog recognizes him: ‘Undoubtedly by smell. And does not smell constitute a notable (in human beings neglected and unconscious) part of memory?’

A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes

To demonstrate the potential of smell to transport an audience, Hartmann conducted a ‘Perfume Concert’ in 1902 with the aid of giant electric fans. He planned to take his audience on ‘A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes’ with eight scents. Alas, a lack of technological advancement and audience patience doomed his performance, and he was booed off stage. The experimental and audacious quality of this attempt, however, attests to Hartmann’s fearlessness and imagination as an artist.

Even though it has taken us 100 years to begin to acknowledge Hartmann’s contributions as a poet, he would have considered himself a success from the start. Among possible titles for an autobiography that he never completed Hartmann included Success in Failure. He understood that ‘true artists’ like himself were not likely to succeed in terms of fortune or fame: ‘The true artist … has ever preferred to worship his lofty and often narrow ideals in poverty and obscurity, rather than to waste his genius on the vain world, which has but little in common with his dreams and aspirations.’

His poems live on, each one making its own glorious racket.
— Floyd Cheung

In particular, he understood his audience’s limited taste for poetry: ‘With current devaluations, poetry is not on par anywhere. When only material progress is at stake, poetry does not function.’ Hence, Hartmann self-published most of his poetry in limited manuscript editions not to make a profit but to share his art with a limited few. In the third person, Hartmann wrote of himself in 1919: ‘He has always remained true to his own belief not in art for art’s sake or art for humanity’s sake, but art by the few and for the few.’

Hartmann’s ambition with My Rubaiyat aimed at chambermaids and businessmen was an exception. For the most part, Hartmann was willing to be recognized as a success ‘by the few’. At the end of his life, which he spent in a shack he built near his daughter Wistaria Linton, on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Banning, California, Hartmann continued to create art by painting and writing, and he continued to communicate his ideas about art by lecturing and corresponding.

During his final year, Hartmann composed his own characteristically unconventional obituary, part prose and part poem. In it the speaker describes the sounds of ringing bells and ocean waves that rise in alarm and perturbation as Hartmann’s death approaches. At the end, however, these sounds cease, replaced by one more epistemological surprise. Falling flowers make an incredible racket: ‘Sadakichi Hartmann is gone a new scene is on / sounds like flowers drop one by one / / Bing! Bang! Bung! Bing! Bong! / Bung! Bing! Bing! Bong! Bang!’

Hartmann died in 1944 while visiting his daughter in St Petersburg, Florida, but his poems live on, each one making its own glorious racket.


This article was taken from Floyd Cheung's editorial introduction to Sadakichi Hartmann: Collected Poems, 1886–1944.

Floyd Cheung teaches in the Department of English Language and Literature as well as the American Studies Program at Smith College. His most recent work includes editing H.T. Tsiang’s novel And China Has Hands. Kaya Press, 2016; Sadakichi Hartmann: Collected Poems, 1886-1944. Little Island Press, 2016; and
H.T. Tsiang’s novel The Hanging on Union Square. Kaya Press, 2013.