“Open Form in American Poetry: Essays” by Burton Hatlen; University of Maine Press, Orono, Maine, 2021; 309 pages, hardcover, $35.

In cultures with deep traditions of respect for learning, such as in China and Eastern Europe, to name two of which I have firsthand experience, students generally keep a lifelong respect, sometimes veneration for their teachers. It’s almost a family-like relationship, in which the students not only appreciate but feel permanently obligated to the elder. Not a sense of pesky, annoying duty, but a sense of a cherished responsibilities eagerly undertaken.

This is a subtext you get from Bruce Holsapple’s introduction to “Open Form in American Poetry,” a selection of Burton Hatlen’s essays in literary criticism edited by poet and scholar Holsapple in cooperation with Michael Alpert, director of the University of Maine Press. Hatlen, who died in 2008 at age 71, was a well-respected, well-loved English professor at UMaine beginning in 1967. Holsapple, Alpert, Stephen King and others of his students across five decades went on to make marks in the literary world, and by putting together this selection from Hatlen’s literary critical writings, Holsapple and Alpert recognize and honor that wide influence.

Hatlen worked as a young professor with Carroll F. Terrell, who made Orono a world center for the study of the writings of Ezra Pound, maybe the most influential figure in 20th century poetry. As Terrell’s career wound down in the 1980s, Hatlen led the activities of the National Poetry Foundation. (Terrell himself wrote copiously, including an autobiography, “Growing Up Kennebec,” about life in his native Richmond. Many UMaine students, including me, counted him among our most valued teachers. He died in 2003 at age 86.)

Terrell had a significant influence on his younger colleague Hatlen, and “Open Form in American Poetry” offers 10 essays that outline Hatlen’s ideas about poetry – some of them very large – over his long career. Holsapple in his introduction tells us that Hatlen’s thinking about poetry evolved into a sense of a “Modernist Sublime,” in which poetry is seen as a sort of gateway to, or unfolding of, the numinous in the world as we experience it. The essays focus in sharp literary detail on such themes and their background, in the poetry of modernists Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams and Basil Bunting; objectivists Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen; and prominent Black Mountain poets of the 1950s and ’60s Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Few of these poets are household names, but they loom large in the development of 20th century poetics.

These essays are not casual reading. But they can be illuminating for experienced readers, not to mention specialists, interested in how modern poetry works.

Burt Hatlen’s influence on literary studies was far-reaching through his journal articles and conference talks, as represented in “Open Form in American Poetry,” but moreover through the intensely human relationships he formed with his students and colleagues. “Only emotion endures,” Pound declared in one of his terse essays on writing, and this book is a testament to that numinous truth about poetry and reality.

Hatlen published a volume of poetry, “I Wanted to Tell You,” in 1989, and a second volume, “Elegies and Valedictions” edited by his widow, Virginia Nees-Hatlen,  was published in 2017. Holsapple is the author of “The Birth of the Imagination: William Carlos Williams on Form” and many books and chapbooks of poetry.

“Open Form in American Poetry” is available from University of Maine Press.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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