Jim Harrison: Poet Penitentes

I think it was in 1960 that I first read the poems of Pablo Neruda. The discovery of a "master," of a poet of the first magnitude... - Jim Harrison, A Natural History of Some Poems, 1965

June 17th, 2012: Falling headlong into a food obsession, I watched Anthony Bourdain interview an author named Jim Harrison. Bourdain treated him with uncharacteristic, reverential awe.

Who is Jim Harrison?

Harrison is an icon in France where his books sell in the hundreds of thousands. Many consider him America's greatest living writer and though a large percentage of American readers might not be familiar with his work, they are undoubtedly familiar with those who befriend or esteem Harrison. Mario Batali, Jack Nicholson, Thomas McGuane, Ted Kooser, Elmore Leonard and many more of literature and Hollywood's elite lionize Harrison. (Nicholson financed Harrison's writing for an entire year resulting in the novella and the movie, Legends of the Fall). Regarded for the raw masculinity in his work, a preponderance of his articles have been published in magazines such as Esquire, Outside, and Men's Journal, writings that reflect a hard life well-lived, far from the academic milieu that suffocates the pulchritude of the ordinary.

Excessively compared with Hemingway, Harrison's resemblance easily applies as a matter of persona but it's a wonder more don't utter his name in the same sentence as Jack London, Faulkner, Steinbeck, or better yet, Rimbaud, Lorca, and Neruda. Though his novels, novellas, screenplays, and non-fiction works are consumed by a passionate following, it seems Harrison's poetry tends to dwell in a tiny corner of his colossal literary shadow. Harrison stated that "Some of the best poets are also equally fine novelists: Momaday, Welch, Silko, Erdrich, and Viznor. This is less frequently true among white poets". (1) Less frequently true except, of course, with Harrison. When considering his entire oeuvre, I wonder if Harrison feels about his poetry the same as Momaday does about his own poems:

Poetry is the crown of literature. I think it’s the highest of the literary arts. To write a great poem is to do as much as you can do in literature ... I think of myself as a poet, I’d rather be a poet than a novelist, or some other sort of writer. I think I’m more recognized as a novelist, simply because I won a prize. But I write poetry consistently, though slowly. And it seems to be the thing that I want to do best. - In the Presence of the Sun, N. Scott Momaday,

Harrison, cognizant of the lunatic fringe associated with poetics, comments on it frequently, from "The Penitentes":

It is hard not to see poets as penitentes flaying their brains for a line….At night the stars sprinkle down upon them like salt. At noon they are under porches with the rest of the world's stray and mixed-breed dogs, only momentarily noticed, and are never petted except by children and fools.

But it is to Harrison the penitentes I frequently turn. Following is an excerpt from his poem "Age Sixty-Nine" (In Search of Small Gods):

Often, lately, the night is a cold maw and stars the scattered white teeth of the gods, which spare none of us. At dawn I have birds, clearly divine messengers that I don't understand yet day by day feel the grace of their intentions.

Harrison is not merely a penetrating seer but also a prodigious student of poetry. In interviews, Harrison is known to parcel wisdom through his droll Midwestern cadence, constantly dropping verbal bread crumbs from bards he reveres, enshrining them on the level of demigods, hence the reason I'm amazed there isn't more discussion about Harrison's thoughts on poetics for they are profound, for example (2):

Poetry at its best is the language your soul would speak if you could teach your soul to speak.

Poets are folks who know they are going to die someday and feel called upon to make up songs about this death and the indefinite reprieve they are traveling through.

A poet is supposed to be a hero of consciousness, and the most destructive force in his or her life is liable to be the unwritten poem.

The unanswered question is why a poet transforms experience, not so much to make it understandable, but to make it yield to its aesthetic possibilities.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "magical realism" doesn't seem unrealistic in South America but you don't have to go that far to discover a different way of looking at things.

The lesson of imprecision: the poet has to be a butcher, a hunter, a soldier, a baker, a candlestick maker - in other words an artisan of dough and wax and death and frosting.

Your work will never appear miraculous to you because it has cost you so much effort and pain.

I hate to use the word, but form must be an "organic" revelation of content or the poem, however otherwise lively, will strike us false or merely tricky, an exercise in wit, crochet, pale embroidery.

To quote Harrison out of context leaves his admonitions to seem weaker than they really are but an example of the profundity of Harrison's advice is wrapped in perhaps the single greatest piece of counsel I took to heart. It ripped the shackles off any amount of supposed pretense about my being a writer (worse, a poet) and released me from the prison of fearing what others thought about my peculiar obsession:

He's a bright enough boy to know that to write something truly durable owns nearly the same odds as a plow horse winning the Kentucky Derby, but why should that deter him? He's a clumsy old breed of terrier and with the deaths of his father and sister, those he loved most, when he was twenty-one he no longer had the slightest reason to be careful to hold back. When the father and sister die you follow your heart's affections in their honor (italics mine). (3)

Harrison's distance from academia has protected his salt-of-the earth poetics and as you read his memoirs and essays, you sense fear and trembling at the bedrock of his work. He has never ceased to walk in awe of the world around him and to the craft he has so lovingly devoted his life. That same day, on June 17th, when I watched Bourdain and Harrison, I discovered more of Harrison's writing online and felt the same about his poetry as he did of Neruda's, "the discovery of a 'master,' of a poet of the first magnitude".

Recommended articles:

As an aside: I love the area around Bartlesville, OK, on my last trip, stopping often to snap a few pictures of the countryside. As an Oklahoman, imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the following quote from Harrison:

This time we had spent a pleasant five hours zigzagging through Oklahoma where there are relatively unknown areas of astounding beauty, especially the country surrounding Bartlesville and Ponca City with great vistas and hills densely wooded with blackjack oak. (4)

"Geopiety" aside (Harrison's marvelously adept word that describes how many of us refer to where we live as "God's country"), I would surely be able to draw from Harrison the admission that this area of the country elicited from him at least the beatific.

(1) Just Before Dark, Poetry as Survival, Jim Harrison

(2) Quotes taken from Outlyer and Ghazals, Just Before Dark, and Off to the Side.

(3) Off to the Side, Jim Harrison

(4) ibid