Homage to Jonathan Holden

By Low, Denise | The Midwest Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Homage to Jonathan Holden


Low, Denise, The Midwest Quarterly


When Gary Snyder visited Lawrence, Kansas, in the late 1970s, I remember him comparing a community of poets to compost. All of them create the nurturing conditions needed for the great poets of the generation. His implied point was: Poets do not exist in isolation. They sustain friendships; they exchange letters, poems, and books; they listen to each other read; and collectively, they reflect on poetic traditions. In the 1970s I also met Ted Kooser and William Kloefkorn for the first time, when they visited from Nebraska, and even though I did not see them again for decades, I knew they were nearby, writing and editing and publishing. Their existence encouraged me.

I also met Jonathan Holden in the late 1970s, and he is an important aspect of my writing education. He is one of the first nationally known Kansas poets who made himself available to aspiring local poets like myself. At that time, the Kansas Writers Association (KWA) was a state-wide organization of mostly college creative writing faculty, students, and some professional writers. We were modeled after the national Associated Writing Programs (AWP) organization. The KWA hosted conferences at colleges around the state where members and allies listened to each other's work, mentored each other, drank some, gossiped, and told stories.

I remember reading my own poetry at a KWA event, at Washburn University in the building dedicated to international students and, on occasion, writers. The elegant living room was paneled in dark wood, and we sat in upholstered chairs and deep sofas. Jonathan and others read, and then it was my tuna. I remember being nervous as I read a poem about my son, "Looking for Your Blue Spot." As I returned to my seat, feeling exposed, Holden congratulated me on the poem. He only may have been exercising good manners. I demurred, and he again affirmed his appreciation of the poem.

This was a turning point for me, the validation I needed to sustain me through the apprenticeship years ahead. His comments made me feel like training wheels could come off my two-wheeler. I felt I could continue writing and engage in the life-sustaining dialogue of contemporary poetry.

In the next years I saw Holden at AWP meetings and occasionally at Kansas State University events. He moved in a privileged realm, it seemed, but one that occasionally dropped to ground level, where I lived. I knew he was writing well, publishing in good places, and teaching. I knew Scott Cairns had moved to Manhattan to work with him and went on to his own substantial career. I knew I had a lot to learn from him.

I bought Holden's books and studied them, both poetry and criticism. I chose some poems for Kansas-related anthologies that I edited through Cottonwood Review Press at the University of Kansas, including "On a Mild October Evening" and "Tornado Symptoms," which begins: "As you step outdoors you'll enter a hot barn/ with a moist haystack inside" (Kansas 38). Here he chooses the metaphor "hot barn," which is so close to the Midwestern landscape that it amplifies the realism. He is not just inventive; he is precise. I learn about sensory imagery from these poems. And Holden instructs me how to use verbs, as in "How To Throw Apples": "Choose a rotting orchard/where crabapples clot/the grass" (Kansas 39). I was buying raw milk in the country during these years and churning my own butter, so I knew exactly how a "clot" formed its irregular fractals, both in milk and in blood.

I corresponded with Holden on occasion, and even though he was not a mentor, he shaped how I thought about poetry. I remember the first time I heard him use the term "po-biz'" in reference to the business-like careers of some academic poets. I remember his astonishing ability to recite from memory pages and pages of poetry, mimicking authors' accents as well. I remember his long poems "River Time" and "Lust" from The Names of the Rapids. I remember his Kansas poems and his math poems and poems about trying to be a decent, or "moral," human being. …

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