Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

A Spiritual Topography: Northern Michigan in the Poetry of Jim Harrison

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

A Spiritual Topography: Northern Michigan in the Poetry of Jim Harrison

Article excerpt

The nature poets of our own time characteristically approach their subject with an openness of spirit and imagination, allowing the meaning and the movement of the poem to suggest themselves out of the facts. Their art has an implicit and essential humility, a reluctance to impose on things as they are, a willingness to relate to the world as student and servant, a wish to discover the natural form rather than to create new forms that would be exclusively human. To create is to involve oneself as fully, as consciously and imaginatively, as possible in the creation, to be immersed in the world.

--Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony

BEST KNOWN FOR his work as a writer of fiction and, more recently, screenplays, Jim Harrison, whose reputation and following have increased markedly during the last decade because of the success of Hollywood productions of Legends of the Fall, Wolf, and Revenge, oddly enough began his career as a poet, publishing five volumes before the appearance of his first novel in 1971. While since 1971 much of Harrison's energy has been consumed by his work as a novelist and screenwriter, he continues to write a poetry that defies current trends and conventions, and, perhaps not surprisingly, many reviewers of his fiction see his allegiance to the art of poetry as a strength in his practice as a novelist.

As a poet, Harrison has provoked strong reactions from reviewers and fellow poets alike. His admirers and critics shout loudly and passionately across the river of Harrison's words with little agreement about the worth or legacy of his substantial body of work. In an often-repeated story, Harrison has explained that his own career began when he sent several poems to the hilly acclaimed poet, Denise Levertov, after hearing her read, Harrison remembers that "she wrote back that she'd just become the consulting editor at Norton and if I had more poems like this she would publish a book" ("Interview," 65). Harrison seems to enjoy recounting his next move: the writing of twenty-two pages of poems to satisfy the fifty-page limit at Norton and the subsequent publication of his first book, Plain Song. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his publishing debut, Levertov insists that Harrison remains "one of the most authentic voices of his time," and the famed critic Bernard Levin agrees with her assessment, stating that Harrison "is a writer with immortality in him."

In reviewing Locations, Harrison's second volume, the poet Lisel Mueller contends that Harrison might be among the last truly great American poets (322), while James Whitehead suggests that Harrison's poetry "is right there with James Dickey and Hugo and Huff and Roethke" (37). In an unsigned review of Selected and New Poems, which appeared in Publishers Weekly, the reviewer remarks that Harrison's poetry is "unclassifiable," making him "one of the most unappreciated writers in America.... Harrison will shock and delight readers who think they already know what a poem is supposed to be. The experience is something like coming across a Whitman or Dickinson, a Keats or Rimbaud after a long diet of formal and classical verse" (114). This reviewer seems to praise exactly what Harrison's detractors vehemently speak against. It is clear that Richard Tillinghast does not appreciate Harrison's rule breaking. In his review of Selected and New Poems for The New York Times Book Review, Tillinghast offers the following critique: "Jim Harrison unfortunately has little feeling for form, rhythm, pacing and development in a poem. While the language is often vivid and colorful, a typical poem of his will not conclude; it will simply stop. One sometimes feels, particularly in the long poems, that one is reading diary entries chopped into lines" (14).

But such criticism seems to ignore what the poet Hayden Carruth has succinctly explained in his review of Returning to Earth: Harrison's poetry is hard-boiled ... some of the best of its kind, and one is not supposed to know that Harrison has written very tough novels and many magazine pieces about sports and outdoor life. …

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