Jim Harrison

4 posts

Pen Pal Poetry


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.)


Jim Harrison’s Complete Poems: Both Great and Outdoors

In “The Whisper,” one of the last poems he wrote before death finally caught up with him, Jim Harrison wrote: “But birds/lead us outside where we belong./Around here all the gods live in trees.

If you don’t get outside as much as you should (and, chances are, you don’t), you can at least get the vicarious thrill (and I would say a convincing argument) by reading the 900-plus paged Jim Harrison Complete Poems.

Though Harrison loved food, drink, and women, his first and most enduring love was the great outdoors. His poetry shows it. Among his gods, he shows greatest devotion to birds, fish, and dogs. And a keen eye for weather, land, and water. Harrison names things with a guide’s eye, and though any lifetime collection of poetry will be uneven, the reader can’t help but appreciate the voice, strong and friendly, that acts like Virgil guiding us through the book. Better yet, the voice only gets stronger as it wends its casual way to the end, too.

Many of the poems are built on memory. A good example is this tale of Harrison’s grandfather:


What He Said When I Was Eleven

August, a dense heat wave at the cabin

mixed with torrents of rain,

the two-tracks become miniature rivers.


In the Russian Orthodox Church

one does not talk to God, one sings.

This empty and sun-blasted land


has a voice rising in shimmers.

I did not sing in Moscow

but St. Basil’s in Leningrad raised


a quiet tune. But now seven worlds

away I hang the cazas-moscas

from the ceiling and catch seven flies


in the first hour, buzzing madly

against the stickiness. I’ve never seen

the scissor-tailed flycatcher, a favorite

bird of my youth, the worn Audubon

card pinned to the wall. When I miss

flies three times with the swatter


they go free for good. Fair is fair.

There is too much nature pressing against

the window as if it were a green night;


and the river swirling in glazed turbulence

is less friendly than ever before.

Forty years ago she called, Come home, come home,


It’s suppertime. I was fishing a fishless

cattle pond with a new three-dollar pole,

dreaming the dark blue ocean of pictures.

In the barn I threw down hay

while my Swede grandpa finished milking,

squirting the barn cat’s mouth with an udder.


I kissed the wet nose of my favorite cow,

drank a dipper of fresh warm milk

and carried two pails to the house,


scraping the manure off my feet

in the pump shed. She poured the milk

in the cream separator and I began cranking.


At supper the oilcloth was decorated

with worn pink roses. We ate cold herring,

also bluegills we had caught at daylight.

The fly-strip above the table idled in

the window’s breeze, a new fly in its death buzz.

Grandpa said, “We are all flies.”


That’s what he said forty years ago.

As he ages, Harrison grows more philosophical and tangos frankly with the more apparent subject of death. It only adds greater depth to his wisdom, nature being the perfect metaphor for the birth-death-birth cycle that so fascinated him.


Midnight Blues Planet

We’re marine organisms at the bottom of the ocean

of air. Everywhere esteemed nullities rule our days.

How ineluctably we travel from our preembryonic

state to so much dead meat on the ocean’s hard floor.

There is this song of ice in our hearts. Here we struggle

mightily to keep our breathing holes opened

from the lid of suffocation. We have misunderstood the stars.

Clocks make our lives a slow-motion frenzy. We can’t get

off the screen back into the world where we could live.

Every so often we hear the current of night music

from the gods who swim and fly as we once did.


Though he wrote novels, novellas, and essays, Harrison considered himself first and foremost a poet, making this lifetime collection that much more important to his legacy. Some compare him to Charles Bukowski (who had less of a connection with the natural world) and Ernest Hemingway (who lacked Harrison’s humor and gentle empathy), but neither comparison is fair. Harrison is Harrison, a one-eyed sage of the flower and fauna, river and ruin. Here is an example of his dark humor:


Poet Warning

He went to sea

in a thimble of poetry

without sail or oars

or anchor. What chance

do I have, he thought?

Hundreds of thousands

of moons have drowned out here

and there are no gravestones.

And here one of love for his wife on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. As is true with many of his works, he approaches subjects tangentially before hitting on this topic – the sort of thing a teacher of poetry would warn you against. Note, too, how he mines some of the same material as “What He Said When I Was Eleven,” only this time, being decades later, with a more mature approach.


Our Anniversary


I want to go back to the wretched old farm

on a cold November morning eating herring

on the oil tablecloth at daylight, the hard butter

in slivers and chunks on rye bread, gold-colored

homemade butter. Fill the woodbox, Jimmy.

Clots of cream in the coffee, hiss and crackle

of woodstove. Outside it’s been the hardest freeze

yet but the heels still break through into the earth.

A winter farm is dead and you want to head for the woods.

In the barn the smell of manure and still-green hay

hit the nose with the milk in the metal pails.

Grandpa is on the last of seven cows,

tugging their dicklike udders a squirt in the mouth

for the barn cat. My girlfriend loves another

and at twelve it’s as if all the trees have died.

Sixty years later seven hummingbirds at the feeder,

miniature cows in their stanchions sipping liquid sugar.

We are fifty years together. There are still trees.

Harrison is what is known as an “approachable” poet in that his style and topic matter is earthly. He is not one to tackle style or form. Rather, free verse is the lingua franca of his land. Don’t be fooled, however. His allusions have deep roots. Harrison read the best and used their names and experiences to leaven his own poetry. In these collected works, you will meet the likes of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Frederico García Lorca, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Virgil, W.C. Williams, René Char, Ikkyū, César Vallejo, Octavio Paz, Su Tung P’o, and, famously (thanks to his collection Letters to Yesenin), Sergei Yesenin.

Whether you read this hefty book cover-to-cover or use it as a side-dipper while reading others, you will feel, at the end, like you are saying farewell to a good friend and, in doing so, saying hello to your own approaching end. Thinking about his boyhood days, Harrison finishes the poem “Seven in the Woods” with these words: “It is the burden of life to be many ages/without seeing the end of time.” And in “The Present,” he meditates on birds yet again before ending on this note of a lifetime: “The cost of flight is landing.”

Alas, Jim Harrison has landed, but reading his collected work in the genre he considered most important, we can only give thanks for what he learned during his long, migratory flight.



When Truisms Beget Poetry

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

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.