voice

3 posts

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.

How Voice Escorts Us into the “Interior of the World”

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It seems fitting that Tony Hoagland’s farewell book to the world would tackle the concept of voice. If any poet knew of what he spoke, Hoagland was the man. Whether you read his poems or his sage essays about poems or writing poetry, you “heard” Hoagland and felt as if you were lucky to have found an open seat in his seminar.

The last seminar you can attend is The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice. The posthumous collection of essays stands as a short, “Hey, wait a minute,” on the matter of hard and fast rules about poetry writing. Chief among them? Your poetry must be as concise as possible to succeed.

The old adages sound logical, but Strunk and White weren’t poets, either. What about voice? With due diligence, Hoagland demonstrates that voice often requires colloquialisms, idioms, asides, etc. — the stuff that leavens our daily speech.

If executed with purpose, voice quickly bonds writer with reader, who is more than willing to forgive linguistic excess in exchange for a temporary soul mate capable of providing an insight or two on the world.

Hoagland provides many examples of poems, some complete and others frustratingly not, to back up his words. Here’s an excerpt he uses from Lisa Lewis’s poem, “While I’m Walking”:

Once I saw a man get mad because two people asked him
The same question. The second didn’t even know of the
first;
Anyone would’ve called the man unfair, unreasonable,
He stormed at the person who approached him
That unfortunate second time, and it was nothing,
Where’s the restroom? or Where could I find a telephone?
He was a clerk, and the second person, a shopper,
suggested
He “change his attitude”…

But though it ruined their day it improved mine, I could rest
Less alone in anger and wounded spirits. That was long ago,…

Hoagland comments, “Lewis’s plain linguistic style might be described as ‘prosaic,’ that is, verbose and unpoetic, yet it compels us because her speaker tells more truth than we usually get, and she does so with a bluntness that tests the conventions of decorum. Lewis is a narrative-discursive poet in style, not a poet of lyrical language, but there is a rhythmic, businesslike terseness in her storytelling and thinking that is riveting in is purposeful informality. Her speaker captivates us for the duration of whatever she wants to say. That’s what a voice poet wants to do: hook us and then escort us deep into the interior of the poem, which is also the interior of the poet, which is also the interior of the world.

“In a world where, socially, we often feel stranded on the surface of appearances, people go to poems for the fierce, uncensored candor they provide, the complex, unflattering, often ambivalent way they stare into the middle of things. In a world where, as one poet says, ‘people speak to each other mostly for profit,’ it is exhilarating to listen to a voice that is practicing disclosure without seeking advantage. That is intimate.”

And so the book leaves practitioners with an oxymoron of sorts. For voice, the poet must practice her intimacy, plan her informality, execute her natural voice for a casually-preconceived cause.

There are some writing exercises at the back of the book, if you wish. And some reader-writers will dive in. But others, like me, will find the book’s encouragement enough. Rereading a 168-page book is an exercise of sorts, too.

Either way, you’ll leave the book realizing that there are more angles than you thought to “voice,” and more “types” of voice, too, such as “speech registers” and “imported voices” and “voices borrowed from the environment.”

Bottom line? Strunk and White were fine for your college freshmen writing course, but maybe not for your poems. Perhaps it’s time to make like Pygmalion and give voice to your art.

Rebecca Solnit on the “Astonishing Wealth” Called “Writing”

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Montaigne would be proud. This week I have been reading more essays, specifically Rebecca Solnit’s in her 2013 collection, The Faraway Nearby.

In an essay called “Flight,” she devotes a few paragraphs to the act of writing and, as is only necessary, reading (because what’s one without the other?). I thought it was interesting. Maybe you will, too:

“Writing is saying to no one and everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

“I started out in silence, writing as quietly as I had read, and then eventually people read some of what I had written, and some of the readers entered my world or drew me into theirs. I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away—first the silent voice that can only be read, and then I was asked to speak aloud and to read aloud. When I began to read aloud, another voice, one I hardly recognized, emerged from my mouth. Maybe it was more relaxed, because writing is speaking to no one, and even when you’re reading to a crowd, you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not yet born, the unknown, and the long gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.

“Sometime in the late nineteenth century, a poor rural English girl who would grow up to become a writer was told by a gypsy, ‘You will be loved by people you’ve never met.’ This is the odd compact with strangers who will lose themselves in your words and the partial recompense for the solitude that makes writers and writing. You have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand. Like digging a hole to China and actually coming out the other side, the depth of that solitude of reading and then writing took me all the way through to connect with people again in an unexpected way. It was astonishing wealth for one who had once been so poor.”

You see the words “faraway” and “nearby” popping up here, how perfect they are for the lonely sharing that is writing and reading, yet the source of the title is alluded to in another essay called “Wound.” Georgia O’Keefe, the great artist who once lived in New York City, moved to the desert boonies (read: Taos, New Mexico), and when she did, she signed letters to friends with the closing “From the faraway nearby.”

Thank you, Georgia, for a theme! One which Solnit stitches like a thread through the collection is this wide-ranging book. Thank you, too, for a metaphor. One elastic enough to cover writing and reading and many other paradoxes afforded by daily life.

As for her pearls of wisdom re: writing, you can see Solnit’s point all too well if you write. As I am the nearest writer at the moment, let’s use me as an example.

Why am I writing this? I could just sip this wonderful first black coffee and passively read emails (easy) and news of the world (not-so-easy). Instead, I’m milling away at this keyboard, watching letters do the ant-crawl thing across this screen.

I’m not writing strictly for myself (though I gain from it, surely). I’m doing it for intrinsic reasons, because I’m compelled to as part of a “odd compact,” as Solnit puts it, an assumption that people I will never know are out there (in the “faraway nearby”) reading words I only recently strung together, enjoying them, relating to them.

Scary, I know. But think of it: Some may start this piece and not finish it. Some may dig all the way to the other side (the end, or what Solnit might call “China”). Some may even return to this webpage regularly to see what I write again.

Almost mystical, isn’t it? But without each other (writers, readers), the magic would be gone. The faraway wouldn’t be nearby at all.