An Interview with Retiring Poetry Professor Charles Hartman

Photo courtesy of Connecticut College.

After nearly 38 years at Connecticut College, Professor Hartman will be retiring at the end of this semester. Professor Hartman began teaching at the college in Fall 1984, and has taught courses on poetry writing, Bob Dylan, science fiction, and many classes combining poetry and music. Most notably, he has co-directed 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, sometime in the ’80s or ’90s, and the subsequent poetry workshop course, ENG 340, was born shortly after.

Anyone who has had the honor of taking a class with Professor Hartman might remember him for his witty remarks, pensive demeanor, and broad worldly knowledge. His praise from him is not freely given, but once earned can shift your perspective and brighten your entire day. Professor Hartman said that he was always conscious of his decision to teach in an institution with no graduate students, and that he was giving up the opportunity to be more well-known. He said that his goals from him “were not to produce the next poet laureate” but rather to teach the people who might never write another poem again how to read a poem and be “aware of poetry as a thing that they can turn to. ” For that, ENG 240 was wholeheartedly his favorite class of him, knowing that “a large number of people have gone through the course and come out with something that supports their lives.”

When asked about the most influential moments from his career at Conn, two stand out. One was while trying to explain the slightly complicated point of view in a poem by Yeats (“When You Are Old”), and during the discussion, one student remarked, “If someone said that to me, I’d melt!” Professor Hartman noted that this moment was the first time he’d ever witnessed poetry acting as a “blow torch” in the classroom, watching 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 might figure out how to feel when everything around them was urging them to feel primarily angry (on which, Prof. Hartman notes that if asked today, he would respond, “primarily angry”). But, on that day, he explained how poetry can be “a way of thinking that acts against mass psychosis” and can help us have faith that above all, poetry allows us to understand another person’s point of view.

Professor Hartman’s journey to becoming a professor at Connecticut College was an interesting one, in part due to what he called his “somewhat unusual” educational background. During his undergraduate years, he was equally passionate about both poetry and music, but eventually decided on poetry. At the time, pursuing a Ph.D and a career in poetry were not compatible aspirations, so he ended up completing a combined literary Ph.D along with a creative MA from Washington University, one of only two such programs in the country. Because of this background, Professor Hartman mentioned that he “has always taught poetry from a critical perspective,” thinking about the parts and how they are related, similar to music theory. He first taught at Northwestern University for three years before moving to the East Coast, working as a freelance tech writer for companies working on speech recognition and linguistics. Prof. Hartman notes that the computer world had just blossomed, and it was a really exciting field to be working in for a while, but over time it began 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 to no interest in poetry on this campus when Professor Hartman first began teaching. But, demand increased fairly quickly, with two sections being offered by ’85. He eventually began teaching full-time, and accepted a tenured position by 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 onward, three sections of the introductory poetry class were being offered. In the meantime, theses honors in poetry were starting up, and in 2002, a record five students completed year long honors projects, many of whom went on to publish books later on.

Now, Professor Hartman has rented an office in town where he has moved half of his books, the rest populating shelves in Blaustein, free to go to a new home. He has “the essentials, a desk and a chair, but no music goals.” He plans to rotate between writing and reading, and to work on some poems or essays, with one book of poetry nearly complete. At some point, he also plans to audit language classes at the College, and maybe do a poetry reading in the fall. When asked if he will miss being a professor, he replied with an emphatic “no,” but said that he will miss his colleagues in the English Department and his students not as a category but as individuals, or a group like the current ENG 340 class. Although Professor Hartman might not miss his teaching role, one thing is for certain: we will definitely miss him.

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