Just a Thought: April 13, 2016
"The language your soul would speak if you could teach your soul to speak."
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
– William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"
April is National Poetry Month – the 20th annual, in fact. So we're a little more aware of those who help us make sense of the world in words; who spend their days tracking bravely through, as writer May Sarton put it, "thickets of undigested experience."
This year I'm mourning Jim Harrison, who had been my favorite living poet. He died with pen in hand on March 26.
When I learned of Harrison's death, I actually wept. "He's not on this earth with us anymore," I said to my husband. It was an absurd thing to say, but – not being the wordsmith that Harrison was – it was the closest I could come to articulating what I saw in my mind's eye: images of conspicuous consumption, rampant indoorsy-ness, hyped-up busy-ness, obsessive gadgetry – and no more Harrison to help me make sense (and light) of it all. His assemblage of reality always felt effortless, belying what was undoubtedly a life of deep and heady labor. That, and the stamina to watch modernity unfold without losing his enormous appetite for life and laughter.
In "Sunlight," Harrison observes:
In the Salt Lake City airport eight out of ten
were fiddling relentlessly with cell phones.
The world is too grand to reshape with babble.
Great poets courageously step out of the dopamine-addled information stream. They press the pause button on the tape loops in our minds. They – like other authentic artists – implore us to see the threads of truth stitching our lives together. To love that truth and laugh at folly. And to remain open to the entirety of life's emotional spectrum.
In "Limb Dancers," Harrison writes:
Of course we're born in the long shadow
of our coffins or urns. So what can we do except
open ourselves wide to life herself
rather than the numbers game of time and money?
As I write this, I am seated at a table surrounded by books of Harrison's poems, from which I've read every day for years. It's comforting to sit amongst these words. I'm grateful that he trusted himself enough to record them. It took great courage, and years of perseverance when no accolades came from the outside. No invitations. No fellowships. No recognition of the genius within.
I think of our community, and the fact that, thanks to the hard work of a number of similar believers, poetry thrives here. From the organizing efforts of current Erie County Poet Laureate, Cee Williams, to the new "Step into Poetry" venture between Erie Benedictine Mary Lou Kownacki and poet and artist Joe Gallagher, we are lucky enough to live among numerous poets who help us to look beyond headlines and statistics and to reimagine what we take ourselves and our city to be.
One great gift of poetry is its ability to shift our perception. We look up from the page with different eyes, even at the city we think we know so well.
In Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry, Harrison and his good friend Ted Kooser collected passages they'd written to each other, including this one:
If you can awaken
inside the familiar
and discover it strange
you need never leave home.
Katie Chriest can be contacted at katie@ErieReader.com.