‘I contracted myself to words’: Geoffrey Hartman’s luminous poetry


What happened on the eighth day of creation after God’s long day of rest on the seventh?

According to poet Geoffrey Hartman, God remembered all those things he forgot to make during the first week:

On the eighth day God saw what he had not created.
And it was good. And he blessed it saying:
This is the silence of my breath. This is
the voice in the stillness of the wind.

Creation, in other words, exists in a counterbalance with contemplation.

Hartman is a figure much to be envied. He bestrides two worlds — as a Holocaust scholar and as a literary critic and poet (maybe that makes three worlds). And as a refugee from Nazi Germany who describes the Kindertransport in his book The Longest Shadow (ok, make that four).

8thDayThese many worlds inform his exquisite book of poems, The Eighth Day: Poems Old and New (Texas Tech University Press).

How could they not? Open this book to any page, begin reading, and immediately you’ll find that you are quickly descending into metaphysical depths normally reserved for  books three times its size (this volume is just under 100 pages, including notes). History, especially in its tragic moments, echoes in these poems, along with encounters with unexpected figures, like the following one:

…I who passed over
saw and told what I had seen:
Once more I contracted myself to words.
A clerk of bloods, as sure in his counting
as the idiot voice of command…

says the Wandering Jew in “Ahasuerus.” It’s an extraordinary poem of reclamation and redemption for that cursed mythical figure — here, his eternal status enables him to stand as a witness for all who perished in the Holocaust. His wandering isn’t condemned or without purpose; now, he is a record-keeper, a “clerk of bloods,” for all those whose memory would otherwise be forgotten.


What you’ll also find here is the presence of a poetic tradition, the grand tradition that T.S. Eliot envisioned. It moves through these poems like a pulse.

When the wind blows in these poems, the English Romantic understanding of inspiration is behind it (Hartman established his critical career with his magisterial study of ‘Wordsworth, The Unmediated Vision); the Song of Songs dances lightly among the imagery of  “her lashes dark spears,/dawn at the hem of her skirt”; and a multitude of quests shimmer around the narrator of “Quest” who comes upon “another door. Rough planks/as in a country john, moldy unmarked greens.”

A recent volume of Hartman’s critical essays, The Third Pillar, explores a broad, formidable terrain — ranging from biblical themes and the validity of Judaic Studies in the groves of Academe to the complexity of midrash, which is “neither literature nor commentary and yet simultaneously both,” notes Monica Osborne in her view of Hartman’s book for The New Republic.

But to get an appreciation of Hartman’s work, you won’t have to turn to this book or the Wordsworth one.

No, all that you need are just two simple things to get started: this book of poems  (which also includes helpful notes and a marvelous introduction by Hartman that manages to capture the essence of his career and concerns in a short amount of space) and a quiet contemplative moment … like the one God probably enjoyed on the eighth day.

4 thoughts on “‘I contracted myself to words’: Geoffrey Hartman’s luminous poetry

  1. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! You’re the best! I’m going to send you a copy of a poem Michael Odom just sent me in response to this post. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


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