Jim Harrison

3 posts

When Truisms Beget Poetry

trains

Sometimes, as a writer, an idea strikes you so much that you decide to honor it as a personal truism. You hold this truth to be self-evident; the job, then, is explaining how the sun rose on this dawning.

Today’s poem, by the late Jim Harrison, is a great example of one of these abstract truths made concrete. If you can build the idea to the poem’s last line as Harrison does, so much the better. And if the raison d’être is rooted in imagery (here the sounds and sights of trains powered by coal furnaces), better still.

What I like especially is the concept of something appearing to be eternal: the poet ages from boy to man (subject to both change and eventual demise), but the object of his poem seems to be eternal. For me, this idea often springs from animals and nature, but for Harrison, the old train works equally well.  Let’s see how.

All aboard!

 

Kooser called from Nebraska to say he’d found…
Jim Harrison

Kooser called from Nebraska to say he’d found
a large cinder on a long walk along abandoned
country railroad tracks, a remnant of steam
trains, the cinder similar to those our fathers
shoveled from coal furnaces in the early winter mornings
before stoking the fire. In your dark bedroom
you’d hear the scrape of the shovel and the thump
when cinders were dropped in metal washtubs.
Now the trains are all diesel and in Livingston at night
I hear them pass, Burlington & Northern, the horn
an immense bassoon warning the drunks at crossings.
Some complain but I love this night music,
imagining that some of the railroad cars are from
my youth when I stood in a pasture and thrilled
to my favorite, “Route of the Phoebe Snow.”
To be excited by a cinder is to be excited about life.

 

I don’t know about you, but I love “In your dark bedroom / you’d hear the scrape of the shovel and the thump / when cinders were dropped in metal washtubs.” Even if you’re too young to have known these sounds, Harrison makes them real through his description. This talent is a must in the poet’s toolbox.

Then, the train’s horn: “an immense bassoon warning the drunks at crossings.” And the lovely flourish at the end: “To be excited by a cinder is to be excited about life.” That says it all, no? And the readers know it, because each of us could replace “a cinder” with something—seemingly small—that makes us excited about life. Think about it.

Though nowhere near as accomplished, my poem “Here and Gone” was going for the same strategy as Harrison’s: the concept of eternity in the form of something from the past (in this case minnows, dragonflies, and small-mouth bass) looking the same while time works its cruelties on its observer. It’s from my second collection, Lost Sherpa of Happiness:

 

Here and Gone
Ken Craft

excluding a war zone
human death remains
the mad relative
hidden from sight
while nature
files and catalogues
its dead on the public
narrative of roads

why then
looking down on these shallows
at this same school of minnows
hanging in the same green-peg balance
as last month;

looking at
this same dragonfly
stutter-flying the water’s stippled surface
as last summer;

looking at
these small-mouth bass
swimming over the same soul shadows
against gold-gilled sand
as ten years ago;

am I reminded of you

and why would this moment
choose me to endure the eternity
inherent in minnows, dragonflies,
and soul shadows

 

What about you? What sounds, smells, sights, tastes, or touch sensations seem eternal and timeless in your world? What simple thing makes you excited about life?

Write about it!

Spring-Inspired Poems

warbler

As has been the habit these past few years, winter has saved itself for March. Until Sunday night’s snowstorm (over a foot of snow, scorning the 4-8 inch predictions of our so-called “weathermen”), the winter was laughable, snow-wise. Cold? Yeah. But snow? Hardly enough to roll Frosty, taking him for all he’s worth.

March isn’t the most popular of months. Supposedly coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb, it is the advent of mud season (bad), red-winged blackbirds (good), and St. Patrick’s Day (if you like beer, very good).

It also heralds the coming of spring (March 20th) in the northern hemisphere, giving poet Jim Harrison the right idea. He knew a sense of humor about March was essential to the season. As evidence, watch what he does at the end of this little poem:

 

Winter, Spring
by Jim Harrison

 

Winter is black and beige down here
from drought. Suddenly in March
there’s a good rain and in a couple
of weeks we are enveloped in green.
Green everywhere in the mesquites, oaks,
cottonwoods, the bowers of thick
willow bushes the warblers love
for reasons of food or the branches,
the tiny aphids they eat with relish.

Each year it is a surprise
that the world can turn green again.
It is the grandest surprise in life,
the birds coming back from the south to my open
arms, which they fly past, aiming at the feeders.

 

Clearly Jim wrote this about parts south of here. Note the specific nouns that matter most to a poem, in this case “mesquites,” “oaks,” “cottonwoods,” and the alliterative “willow bushes” and “warblers.” And like any hot dog, the aphids are eaten “with relish” (sorry, bad joke there).

Harrison uses a new stanza for a shift. The poem’s view pans back to a more philosophical scope. It goes from a particular March to “Each year it is a surprise…,” heaping praise on the earth’s regenerative powers, despite everything man does to it, despite the cynic’s sneaking suspicion that the cold may never let go.

Note how “the grandest surprise in life” is a phrase whose antecedent should be the world turning green but (curveball) turns out to be “the birds coming back from the south to my open / arms, which they fly past, aiming at the feeders.”

Oh, those selfish little birds. Guilty of gluttony, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. But anyone who has fed birds can appreciate the gentle joke here. The cliché, “she eats like a bird” to denote she hardly eats anything is laughably inappropriate. Birds eat many times their weight every day, and I’ve yet to see a chapter of Weight Watchers for Warblers open in any neighborhood near or far.

No, sir. Birds are ripped, as they say. Like charter members of Cross Fit. In great shape, as is Harrison’s sense of humor—a good thing to hold onto in such gloomy months as March.

Pen Pal Poetry

winter

Let’s address the misnomer first and foremost. To exchange poems via post is charmingly retro to the extreme, but if you find a willing poet and want to give it a go, by all means! More likely, this post should be called “E-Mail Poetry” but, like most things technological, it lacks the charm, don’t you agree?

I can up the ante in the charm department, too. The example I’m going to use, pen pals Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison, exchanged poems on the backs of simple postcards. Thus, every mailman (or woman) along the way was welcome to partake of the poetry feast. Can you imagine the postman on his daily rounds pausing at a gate to peruse a poem by two of America’s wilier wordsmiths? It restores one’s shaken faith in the nation.

The postcard poetry exchange occurred some 20 years ago, in the late 90s when Kooser was recovering from surgery for cancer. He captured it in a little book called Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison.

Correction: He captured half of it, as the poems in the book are all Kooser’s, none of Harrison’s. How much richer the book would have been if it contained both! Still, that’s not the point. The point is the idea–a daily exchange with some like-minded writer as your morning constitution.

Too ambitious? Too difficult? Nah. Kooser’s poems are not world wonder sonnets or anything. Snippets, some more complete than others. The type thing that might land in a journal, but instead alights on a postcard with a stamp. Example:

november 14

My wife and I walk the cold road
in silence, asking for thirty more years.

There’s a pink and blue sunrise
with an accent of red:
a hunter’s cap burns like a coal
in the yellow-gray eye of the woods.

And done! Example #2:

november 28

There was a time
when my long gray cashmere topcoat
was cigarette smoke,
and my snappy felt homborg
was alcohol,
and the paisley silk scarf at my neck,
with its fringed end
tossed carelessly over my shoulder,
was laughter rich with irony.
Look at me now.

What’s more, not every day is postal poem day. Just most of them. Still, you have to admit, it’s a nice old-school idea, and it had to make the daily act of pulling open the mailbox door a lot more enjoyable. I mean, who wants three bills every day when you could pluck a poem instead? (Unless, of course, the utilities and health care/insurance robbers start scaring us by billing in iambic pentameter.)