Jim Harrison: a brief recollection

 

Jim Harrison, author of 21 volumes of fiction,  14 books of poetry, a couple books of essays, a memoir, and a children’s book, died Saturday, March 23, at the age of 78. I was lucky to meet him twice. This is a recollection of one meeting. Forgive this rambling recollection. Death always sneaks up on us, an invisible wave in the night.

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Harrison is hands down my favorite poet. Like lightning he conducts a charge generated by the differing poles of earth and sky. He soars with his feet planted firmly on the ground. My kind of poet.

I imagine that in some ways being a fellow Michigander has something to do with my admiration for this man’s work, yet I know this explanation will not do. On a more basic level there is something elemental in our shared experience, a love of snakes, rivers, food, drink and all manor of wild life. 

I met Harrison while working as an assistant to a U.S. congressional candidate. The campaign would lose the election but the experience traveling around the upper half of the lower peninsula and the entire upper peninsula of my native Michigan taught me a lot about politics and human nature. I suggested a meeting between my candidate and Harrison — maybe he would contribute to our liberal cause — this wasn’t to be, yet the meeting was warm, cordial, with plenty of wine to drink.

We met at his cabin near Grand Marais in the fall of 1984. I was surprised by its small size and rustic condition. I thought an author of his stature would have more comfortable digs. I thought of him as a giant from reading his poetry. I did not yet know most poets go hungry. This was before his wide spread success, which came when his epic novela, Legends of the Fall, was made into a movie in the early ’90s.

He is a man whose imagination flowed in great curling leaps. I hear the rain drops on my dark window tonight and think what fodder Harrison would have made of them in his poetry. So much of his poetry feature water imagery: streams, rivers, oceans, our own watery bodies, and the patient tapping of the fingers of fate. He inspires us to think back and forth across our short, little, self-important lives for the earth-bound epiphanies seemingly but not out of reach. Harrison offered no sugar coat on our existence.

We met as the sun was beginning to cut the cool air of the morning. We sat at a plank table inside his spartan cabin. Jim sat looking outdoors. A quart bottle of wine between us from which he poured libations in small glasses. His wandering eye, lost in childhood scuffle, roamed as wide as he talked. He kept returning the conversation to the animals he was keeping an eye out for. As the conversation deepened between all three of us, I was unable to keep up with his rangy references from philosophers to scientists to oriental landscape painters. Yet all through the conversation he returned again and again to the animals — a bear and a coyote, in particular. Every time he turned the conversation around and up and over lesser things, namely politics of the day, he left me with the impression he was simultaneously working on a poem or piece of fiction. I remember he said, though I cannot recall his exactly his words, something to the effect, ‘That bitch coyote came by last night. She’s waiting out there beyond the edge of the woods.’ Obviously his muse of the day or week.

Gracious but unwilling to follow the drift of the conversation my candidate and I initially attempted to bring to him, he led us on a two hour journey of the heart and mind. When we left I realized I never met a man so inspired, so big-hearted, so radically honest with himself and others.

That day resounds like a bell in my memory. Though his literary references were off the charts of my newly minted bachelor of arts education, I saw in him the fruits of intense listening in the world inside and outside my head. Learning to see without reserve takes guts. He drove me deeper and to question more ruthlessly. He woke me up.

He stuck me that day, and at a subsequent chance meeting at a bar in Marquette, as a man deeply witnessing the foibles and profound depths of his own being. He inspired me to remain fixed on the struggle to witness the authentic in all experience, despite the depth of our own and our culture’s titanic deceptions, and to jettison what we can too often cavalierly brand as true. I left looking for that next image haunting me at the edge of the dark wood.

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Larson’s Holstein Bull
by Jim Harrison

Death waits inside us for a door to open.
Death is patient as a dead cat.
Death is a doorknob made of flesh.
Death is that angelic farm girl
gored by the bull on her way home
from school, crossing the pasture
for a shortcut. In the seventh grade
she couldn’t read or write. She wasn’t a virgin.
She was “simpleminded,” we all said.
It was May, a time of lilacs and shooting stars.
She’s lived in my memory for sixty years.
Death steals everything except our stories.

 

 

 

 

THOSE SEDUCTIVE 30-DAY WRITING CHALLENGES, PART II; more time to write less

In my senior year of high school I had burned myself out with school activities, sports, a job and dating. One day my mother noticed the dark shadows under my eyes and my lack of enthusiasm. A doctor visit resulted in a diagnosis of mononucleosis. I spent the subsequent two-week a hospital with tentacles of I.V.s, and a complete bed rest order. I learned a hard lesson from this. I tend not to take care of myself.

I remembered that stint in the hospital as I was thinking about budgeting my writing time. After some reflection, I decided to take a hiatus from 30-Day writing challenges for the rest of the year. I don’t have anything against challenges; I simply need more time to write.

To be more precise, I need more time to write less. Yeah, you heard me right; I need more time to write less. I’m a poet, after all.

I know this goes against the grain of many writing gurus. There are bucket loads of advice that push writers to generate more words by doing every possible writing activity. We are told to read more, create more and, of course, generate more media buzz about your work. To write faster we are told to either write madly by a stopwatch or write doggedly until a certain word count is reached. Well, I don’t believe any of this will lead to better poems. Underlying all this faster is better advice is the idea that a writer must do it all or it won’t happen. To me this is the old Faustian bargain. Sell your soul for a chance, just a chance — mind you, of publishing success.

When it comes to taking advice on writing or anything else, I tend to be the proverbial salmon swimming upstream. I tend to buck popular trends. I believe that what is most popular is usually the easy way out. I imagine all these quick little lemmings jumping from that cliff, happily following each other to conform to the cliff jumping trend.  I question, therefore I write.

I think most writers agree that good writing requires more than a draft or two. From initial motivation to finished product involves multiple steps and a seeming lifetime of fixing and fretting. I remarked on some exception to this in my previous post here. I also referred to the danger of writing becoming like fast food – tasteless and fat. If you’re one of those writers satisfied with the first draft as the finished product, one of two things has happened; you are unable or unwilling (because you don’t have time) to evaluate good writing or you are a certified writing savant, of which you can count yourself as among the precious few. In either case, read no more.

America poet, Lorine Niedecker ended a by saying, “What would they say if they knew/ I sit for two months/ on six lines of poetry?” (Find the poem here.) The stories of drafts of poems and novels taking decades to “get right” abound. I think the reason for this is not self-defeating obsession or a Calvinistic perfectionism.  It has everything to do with the next-to-impossible-task of producing vital and indispensable art. A writer knows that words are difficult animals to tame or seduce into revealing their secrets. We’re not after the obvious, the already-been-told-tale or the cliché. , we’re after the gold beneath the hard-packed overburden of our souls.

Though it isn’t typical of the poems I compose, I have worked on one long poem for more than six years. It’s a good poem but I know it has yet to reveal all that it is capable of becoming. So I keep pecking away at it in the hope that one day it will finish saying what must be said instead of what I think it should say. There is an important distinction here between ideal and revelation. I want the revelation. I want the words to show me the way not the other way around. I don’t care how long it takes. This is why I will take more time to write less.

See you next week.

Pitcher: a baseball poem by Robert Francis

This being baseball season, and my beloved Detroit Tigers winning the American League Pennant from that big money monster team from New York, I thought it might be fun to reflect on a baseball poem.

There are many odes to baseball in the annals of American poetry, (just as there are from Canada, the Dominican Republic and South American), so I wanted to look at a particularly good example of this subject genre. Pitcher by Robert Francis is a poem I have read and reread over the past several years. It is one of those poems that once  read take up residence inside your head. Each time I return to this poem I see more or rather I see what I missed before. That’s part of the miracle of poetry and something this poem considers.

Here’s the poem.

Pitcher
by Robert Francis

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.

Ostensibly this is a short poem about a baseball pitcher’s mode of operation — the intention of “his art.” The reader is told he is eccentric and aims not to hit the mark (make a strike) but rather to seemingly avoid it. We understand this is a pretty straight forward description of pitcher’s attempt both to fool the umpire and the batter. All pitchers aim to hit that moving edge of the strike zone. They intend to make the batter swing at a bad pitch or not swing at a good one and for the umpire to call a ball a strike. Pitchers accomplish this by using a variety of pitches that veer off, sink or curve or at times jump around (my favorite, the screwball), as they near the plate. A pitcher’s pitches are intentionally deceptive.

So the question here is why did the poet focus on this one aspect of the pitcher’s art? Seeing that this poet is familiar with baseball and pitching, why use these particular words for his poem? Most curious, why did this poem compare the intention of the pitcher’s throwing with that of the other players. “The others throw to be comprehended.”Why the word “comprehended?” You’d think if the poet was describing the intention of throwing a ball on a baseball field he would have said something like ‘The others throw to be caught.’ In fact, the poem doesn’t use any baseball jargon at all. This is a poem, like all good poems, that is intentional about its word choice.

Obviously, by throwing in a seemingly odd word, the poet is able to describe more than baseball. He was talking about intentions, deception and the need to appear to be one thing but actually be another. It is a poem not just about the “pitcher’s art,” but also about the art of pitching words, something we all do, whether writers or speakers.

One way of looking at this poem, and there are many, is to think of the pitcher here as representing a poet and his craft. “His passion how to avoid the obvious.” The poet consistently pitches words in a way others don’t. We are told the others want to be “comprehended.” Journalists and scientists write words that denote a literal meaning. In this kind of game the others throw one type of ball. The intention is known. They desire that their meaning will be caught. A pitcher on the other hand, wishes to be a “moment misunderstood.” Not forever misunderstood but for a moment. Why?

I don’t want to ruin the poem for anyone by saying this is the only interpretation of this poem. I would never say that, lest I ignore the other mysteries in the poem. There are lines here that go beyond baseball or poetry. I think this poem could also be read as advice to readers. It could also be taken as the art of handling yourself with others. I only mention these because it may be a way into the poem for some who may wonder why the language seems to make a kind of sense but not perfect sense. It’s the same feeling that a batter feels when he swings at a seemingly perfect pitch and misses. Most batters “understand too late” but they been duped by a sinker.

You can throw your own ideas around on this one. Maybe one of you reading will hit on an idea strong enough to leave my ideas behind. Go ahead, take a swing. Leave a note  if you like.

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Here are some other baseball poems. Though the Francis poem was not included, a commentator correctly pointed out that it should be. There is also a good discussion of two baseball poems linked at the bottom of that page.

Click here to hear a recording of the poet, Robert Francis, reading and commenting on several of his poems in the last year of his life. Several times he addresses his need to choose the curious, rather than the expected word. 

The poem above can be found in the anthology, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men, or in the Orb Weaver by Robert Francis. It is available at Amazon here.

Postcard Poems: an experiment in form

The final challenge over at Khara House’s Our Lost Jungle was to create your own poetic form and write a poem or two using that form. In some ways this was a daunting challenge but after I gave it some thought I realized all poetry forms come out of some poetry writing. The daunting part was Khara, bless her heart, wanted us to write the form and fit the poem to it. I suppose it wouldn’t be a challenge to place the horse before the cart.

I am big on postcards (I’m postcardkris.blogspot.com) so this was a way to combine my lifelong postcard hobby and my poetry pursuits. I’ve written and collected a lot of postcards and written lots of poems on the backs of postcards but never thought of them as postcard poems per say.  This was an opportunity to set out on for some new territory.

Here are my postcard poetry form guidelines. There are seven of them. This seems like a lot but I wanted to incorporate all of Khara’s eight challenges.  If you want a simpler version skip down toward the bottom. I’ve summarized them there.

Postcard Poem

  1. A prose poem of not more than 36 words.(rule #5)
  2. Consists of three monostich sentences each of 12 words or less and 12 to 18 syllables. (rule #’s 1,5,6)
  3. The poem will contain, refer to or mention three elements: 1) some type of travel or destination or means of conveyance, 2) reveal a secret (personal, social or cultural, etc.,) or a humorous truth about yourself or someone else that the addressee does not know, and 3) be an ekphrasis, referring to a real or imagined image postcard image.  .  Here is a list of ekphrastic poetry. (rule #’s 3, 4,7)
  4. The first two sentences will be grammatically parallel; the third can be any structure. (rule #,4,7,8.
  5. Two of the sentences will have either an internal rhyme, alliteration or end rhyme. (rule #’s 2,6)
  6. There must be at least one figure of speech or trope (see list here), metonymy, metaphor, simile, personification, synecdoche, allegory, symbol (to name a few) in the poem. (#6,7)
  7.  Finally, the poem must be addressed to a person’s first name (real or imagined) and have a closing. (rule #8)

This may seem like a lot of rules (OK, I admit it is a lot of rules) but it is not so different than writing a postcard message. Hopefully, it will serve as a kind of literary echo of the normal postcard message. The rules should function to enhance the writing and bring forth something out of our poetry compost (Khara’s lost jungle) that may grow into a poem that blooms for us and may hold significance for readers in each season of our lives.

Simple version

If you don’t like these rules, try this. Write a poem of one and no more than three sentences of roughly equal length with a maximum of 36 words total that resembles a postcard greeting. Imagine writing to a loved one (or hated one) back home from an exotic (or boring location) and mention the image on the postcard you are writing on. Use colorful language (figures of speech: metaphor, simile, hyperbole. End with a short closing phrase and your first name (real or imagined). Include a closing phrase with your name if you wish.

The advantage of postcard poetry is that you never can run out of inspiration. All you need is a postcard and some imagination. Here is an example.

Julia,
Here’s Picasso’s two hands with flowers. You and I now know love is never that bright or simple.
I’ll sign the papers before we get to Vegas.
Don’t look back, Kris

Now, it’s your turn. Try your hand at a postcard poem. Let me know how it comes out.

The grieving muscle; a challenge prose poem

I’m sailing well into the month of August’s poetry challenges. I’m doing two this month that requires a poem a day, plus another two or three on one challenge once a week. These end up being drafts of works I may or may not take up later but so far I’m keeping pace.

This weeks challenge over at Khara Houses’ blog, Our Lost Jungle, is to write a prose poem, that curious hybrid of poetry and prose. I’ve written many over the years, most in the form of letter poems. I have a provisional title for a book and a good portion of the “letters” written for them. I hope to make these the basis of my second book of poems after publishing my first next year.

Another related form of the prose poems, another of my personal favorites, is the postcard poem. I’m doing a challenge over at August Postcard Poetry Fest(ival) blog to write a postcard poem a day sponsored by Striped Water Poets and hosted this year by Brendan McBreen. The only requirement for a postcard poem is that it fit on a postcard. To date I’ve sent out 15 poems and received eight. That’s a pretty good average, according to Brendan.

Below is one prose poem I wrote for Khara’s challenge this week. The other, on a lighter topic I posted on Khara’s blog comments. As you will see, my prose poems are prosy, letter like. I imagine speaking to an intimate friend, once capable of following my tortured thoughts and feelings. I like this voice because it gives me a platform and some leeway to speculate on a variety of subjects and themes.

Finding the grief muscle

To die or not to die is not the question. The questions don’t matter since most are easily answered and the complicated ones we study to be entertained for a time and only after a hard time come to learn they were the wrong questions. Like the one about what it feels like to be dead, which cannot be known, since the evidence is scanty or suspect — being based on near-death accounts, which by definition are not death experiences, only approximates, mere near misses with death, not death itself. No, the only questions are to the living, those who clean blood from concrete or carpet, those who empty the clothes closets, those who must sort through favorite toys, those who must ponder death as they lay dying and survivors who carry the additional, seemingly intolerable burden, of months and sometimes years of grief  — an experience always soaked in the rain of their imagination which only prolongs the inevitable day of liberation, spending their days within an encapsulated heart, setting up shop in a back alley with the freeway roaring like hell overhead, dutifully producing. We grievers cannot miss the important practice of watching through a blur children play or couples at a fountain sharing themselves or the faint stars appearing in the opposite sky at sunset. These signs, these twilight stars are stars of life and death, true avengers, like a child saviors born in the midst of grief and death, small beginnings, lights given us to resurrect our experience of innocence, a new muscle capable of lifting us off the shore of our sorrow each day, so we may once again fly into song with the sweet dying people who remain.   

Poet laureates help bring poetry to public schools

Poetry for the people

“Poetry is really for people. It’s not just for professors. It’s not just for poets. Poetry should be reaching a broad audience, maybe not everyone, but a broader audience.”  Dana Gioia — from the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Off the Shelf podcast.

Gioia was talking about the office of the U.S. Poet laureate and how that office has worked to bring poetry to more people. He was prompted to comment Natasha Tretheway’s appointment to the office this year. He had nothing but praise for her as a poet and her selection to the nation’s highest literary office. I hope she will be effective in promoting poetry in the public school with more innovative programs.

What Poet Laureates Do

Besides reading their own poetry once a year at a big shindig in Washington D.C. and adding to the archive of recorded poetry at the Library of Congress, each poet laureate initiates projects that they become known for. Gwendolyn Brooks promoted the writing of poetry with elementary school students. Billy Collins made poetry easily available to high students. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan’s created Poetry for the Mind, including a community college poetry contest. These are all great programs but more are needed. Hopefully, Natasha Trethewey’s appointment as poet laureate will continue this fine tradition.

Poetry in Public Schools

As a parent of children in public schools I can say we need a better way to get poetry in the hands and hearts of our students. From a parent and poet’s perspective, we need more and higher quality poetry programs so students can benefit from a vigorous literary education.

Schools need to get with it in terms of using poetry in the classroom. My son and daughter have seen little poetry in their schools. When they do a lot of it is sub par sing-song ditties or passionless, cliché ridden ballads guaranteed to steer students away from poetry. These texts tend to lower student expectations that poetry can provide a powerful culturally enriching activity. Text books seem to use poetry like fillers or something fun to drink so as to wash down the otherwise dry subject matter. The problem is the drink is sour.

My daughter’s ninth-grade English text-book throws in a few poems and follows them with the usual questions to put people to sleep. These do more damage by convincing the vast majority of students that poetry is simply an extension of science class where poems are simply frogs to be dissected to see what makes them tick. Of course, this is approach is backward. First you want students to like and enjoy poetry not kill it and pick over its bones. The fun is in the reading and reciting. Students own voices reading poems is enjoyable and brings the poems to life, even poems from centuries past.

Here’s some sample questions:

“How does the poet see himself in this poem?”

“Why does the poet use the term ________ to describe his experience?”

“What do you think the poet saying about contemporary america?”

Rolled eyes and snores from around the room. Questions like these will just about guarantee there will be no poets, let alone poetasters, coming from this class.

Reading poetry is a gas

The fun of poetry is in the reading and reciting. Students own voices bring poems to life, even poems from centuries past. With few exceptions, poems were made to be read. The meter of good poems brings them to life with the students own breathing. There is an intimate connection between the life of the student and the life of the poem. This is usually found in voiced recitation and is appreciated by an audience at a public reading. There is no substitute for this. No recording or pod cast can duplicate this social and cultural experience.

My son discovered this in the fourth-grade. Unfortunately, he will begin attending high school this fall but has only seen one poetry assignment in his entire school career. In the fourth-grade he was required to pick out a poem, memorize it and recite it in front of the class. He was then to ask the class if they had any questions about the poem and be able to discuss the poem and offer facts about the author.

He chose,  Lewis Carroll’s, “Crocodile,” a short poem that suited his tastes for dangerous animals and adventurous story themes. With this assignment I thought we were getting somewhere and we were. By memorizing it he learned a lot about the poem. The most valuable lesson was that he leaned that poems have hidden depths that only reveal themselves in reading and rereading to memorize. Things that didn’t come out on the first, second or third read came through on subsequent readings. He even looked up pictures of crocodiles to see if indeed they smile, as it says in the poem. It turned out, no surprise to me, the poem was true to life.

Not only did he learn poems were cool, he learned how to speak loudly and clearly in public. He could have learned this by reciting anything but the poem’s diction and meter helped him wrap his young tongue around some challenging vowel and consonant combinations. All this from looking and reading over one poem for a recitation.

What other teaching moment miracles would come if schools seriously taught poetry from kindergarten on up? I bet reading scores would soar, public speaking would improve and being conversant in complex social thought would well serve the student on entering the market place. Students would also become conversant in what makes a good poem.

I hope Natasha Trethewey will lobby the Department of Education, the National Education Association, the National Association of Teachers and any organization that has influence on curriculum development that using poetry as the meat and potatoes, not the side dishes, of English studies will reap great rewards for students. She could tell them the role poetry played in her life and education. She should tell them we need more poetry appreciation, recitation and writing in schools at every grade. I hope she will read them some of her fine poems. Maybe she can go on a reading tour to public high schools in each state. I’m sure she’ll come up with more imaginative ways to bring more poetry to more people. I just hope she does not forget our nation’s public schools.

Hey, Poet, grab that tool over there

Bent steak knives and poetry.

While preparing dinner the other day I noticed the tips of two steak knives were bent. I asked my son about it and he owned up to using them unsuccessfully as a screw driver. Just for research purposes, I asked if he got the screw out. No, it didn’t work. I showed him where the miniature Philips screw drivers were in my tool box. I explained that the design and metal used in steak knives do not  lend themselves for use as screw drivers. Though I had to admit I’ve used them for such myself on occasion, when I was too lazy to walk out to the garage and find the Philips, I found they didn’t work either.

After the bent steak knife episode, I began to think that whatever your profession, even poetry, it is essential to use the right tool for the job and regardless of age, the novice and the apprentice need instruction on tool use. You don’t want a metaphor when a simile will do.

So, what do poets, mechanics, carpenters, electricians, surveyors, and opticians have in common?

They all use tools to make their jobs easier and achieve the results they desire. Any skilled artisan has a variety of tools at their disposal and they need  competency to use them. Neglect these tools and the work suffers.

What tools does the poet use?

Here is a short list: symbols, similes, rhyme schemes, end stops, alliteration, and various forms (sonnet, haiku, ballad) are some of the tools in the poets tool belt. They are employed to bring the poem to life. When disregarded or used without understanding, they short-circuit the poem’s impact or worse, kill it.

Sound mechanics amplify visual images 

No matter how titillating or interesting a poem’s subject might be, it won’t mean squat if the music the words make are tortured. A poet stands a better chance of keeping their reader’s attention when they practice sound mechanics — diction, internal rhyme, a sprinkling of assonance, a peppering of long or short vowel sounds, end stop and run on lines. Contrary too much popular practice, poems are not simply visual creatures, they also growl and snarl, coo and woo. Without some attention to sound mechanics to help carry and enhance the visual elements of the poem, the poem may read like a dry treatise on chemical theory in a scientific journal — even when shouted out in a Slam event. A lot could be said but basically you don’t use a sledge-hammer to pound in a finishing nail.

Poets and carpenters need skill.

Poets also need skill in handling the tools they use. If a poet uses a strong a metaphor instead of a softer simile to express a delicate mood the reader will be distracted and the experience of the poem will be interrupted or destroyed. Robert Frost wrote, “Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.” This was hyperbole but the truth is we can easily underestimate the impact of our tool of choice.