An interview with retired poetry teacher Charles Hartman


Photo courtesy of Connecticut College.

After nearly 38 years at Connecticut College, Professor Hartman will retire at the end of this semester. Professor Hartman began teaching at the college in the fall of 1984 and has taught courses in poetry writing, Bob Dylan, science fiction, and many courses combining poetry and music. Most notably, he co-led the development of the current creative writing program at the College. He invented the curriculum for ENG 240: Reading and Writing Poems, an introductory poetry course, in the 80s or 90s, and the poetry workshop course that followed, ENG 340, was born shortly after.

Anyone who had the honor of taking a class with Professor Hartman might remember him for his witty remarks, thoughtful demeanor, and vast knowledge of the world. His praise is not free, but once earned, it can change your perspective and brighten your entire day. Professor Hartman said he was still conscious of his decision to teach at an institution without graduate students and was giving up the opportunity to be better known. He said his goals “were not to produce the next Poet Laureate”, but rather to teach people who may never write another poem again how to read a poem and be “aware of poetry as a thing towards which they can turn”. For this, ENG 240 was wholeheartedly his favorite class, knowing that “a lot of people have taken the course and come away with something that sustains their lives”.

Asked about the most influential moments of his Conn career, two stand out. One was when trying to explain the somewhat convoluted point of view in a poem by Yeats (“When you’re old”), and during the discussion one student remarked, “If someone told me that, I would melt!” Professor Hartman noted that this moment was the first time he had seen poetry act like a “torch” in the classroom, observing the effect it had on a student and knowing it had the potential to shape and reshape who you are. Another memorable experience was a contemporary poetry class held on September 12, 2001. Not everyone was on campus that day, but Professor Hartman and his small group of students were. The students that day were asking how they could figure out how to feel when everything around them was causing them to feel mostly angry (whereupon Professor Hartman notes that if asked today he would reply, “Mostly angry”). But, that day, he explained how poetry can be “a way of thinking that acts against mass psychosis” and can help us to believe that poetry above all allows us to understand the point of view of others.

Professor Hartman’s journey to becoming a professor at Connecticut College was interesting, in part because of what he called his “somewhat unusual” background. During his undergraduate years, he was also passionate about poetry and music, but eventually settled on poetry. At the time, pursuing a doctorate and a career in poetry were not compatible aspirations, so he ended up completing a literary doctorate combined with a creative master’s degree from the University of Washington, one of only two programs in this guy in the country. Because of this background, Professor Hartman mentioned that he “always taught poetry from a critical point of view”, thinking of the parts and how they relate, as in the case of music theory . He first taught at Northwestern University for three years before moving to the East Coast, working as a freelance technical writer for companies working on speech recognition and linguistics. Professor Hartman notes that the computer world had just blossomed and was a really exciting field to work in for a while, but over time it started to become less interesting. Eventually, when someone from Connecticut College found him and asked him to teach a class, he was happy to accept the opportunity.

His first class had only two or three students, and there was little or no interest in poetry on this campus when Professor Hartman began teaching. But demand grew fairly quickly, with two sections being offered in 1985. He eventually began teaching full-time and accepted a permanent position in 1990. In 1997 he hosted a group of students on Study Away Teach Away ( SATA) in Greece who took ENG 240 there, and from that year onwards three sections of the introductory poetry course were offered. Meanwhile, honors dissertations in poetry were beginning, and in 2002 a record number of five students completed year-long honors projects, many of which went on to publish books.

Now Professor Hartman has rented an office in town where he has moved half of his books, with the rest filling Blaustein’s shelves, free to move to a new home. He has “the essentials, a desk and a chair, but no musical goals”. He plans to alternate between writing and reading, and working on a few poems or essays, with a book of poetry nearing completion. At some point, he also plans to check out language classes in college and maybe do a poetry reading in the fall. When asked if he would miss being a teacher, he answered with a definite “no”, but said he would miss his colleagues in the English department and his students not as a category but as a as individuals, or a group like the current ENG 340. class. While Professor Hartman may not miss his teaching role, one thing is certain: he will certainly be missed.

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