A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Jim Harrison’

OS v1.0

In Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on February 20, 2013 at 6:00 am
Jim Harrison's new book.

Jim Harrison’s new book.

In his new book, The River Swimmer, Jim Harrison says the most succinct and astonishing thing:

“How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language.”

This is an observation in direct opposition to something I wrote many years ago (1992) and (re)published here recently in a post called In The Beginning Was the Word:

“It is said that we do not readily store memories until we have language; consequently, we cannot remember a pre-lingual existence with accuracy. If we were a computer we would be functioning without an operating system. The switch is on, but the screen is blank. Words are the difference; the well-written word is altogether different again.”

Harrison is, by his own reckoning, a poet first, and this comparison of quotes supports Osip Mandelstam‘s observation that “What may be meaningful to the prose writer or essayist, the poet finds absolutely meaningless.” Where Harrison calls language a compromise, I deem it functionally necessary, like an computer operating system–call it OS Version of Being 1.1. Harrison is an example of what Susan Sontag calls the “poet as elevated being.” He runs OS 1.0, the original and unadorned Version of Being.

* * *

OS Version 1.0, the Version of Being the poets run, functions on what Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 – 1941) called the “insatiability for the genuine.” Perhaps it is captured in an algorithm. Most of us run the “upgraded” version, OS 1.1, which fixed this perceived bug. Who wants to be “insatiable,” regardless of how provocative it sounds? Consequently, we non-poet mortals find ourselves sated 24/7. There is a profundity to a Russian poet that I cannot fathom, but I once watched Harrison drink in a bar in Michigan and he didn’t seem so elevated, though I was assuredly mistaken. He did, now that I reflect on it, prove to exhibit a high degree of the genuine, however. They say the Buddha taught for forty years after enlightenment. Elevated insatiable beings walk–and drink–among us.

* * *

I experienced a phase

Of writing poetry a year or so ago.

It felt good and right, but I stopped.

If someone were to tell you: Do this thing,

You will become an “elevated being,”

You would likely do it,

Wouldn’t you?

One would think.

Most of the time I don’t know

What’s the matter with me.

* * *

Here is a video of Harrison reading. He is asked “What language do you speak when you talk to animals?” “You just squawk,” he says.

On writing

In Creativity, Reading, Writers, Writing on June 4, 2012 at 6:00 am
20120601-172425.jpg

Writing, old school.

There are some very popular–and quite good–blogs out there for writers. Dispensing advice to writers is one of those popular themes that help make a blog successful. I mentioned the advantage of this approach recently (see Blog as metaphore), the value of being an expert and sticking close to your expertise.

On writing specifically, I gather from the popularity of these blogs that there are a lot of aspiring writers seeking help and advice. I would probably be well served to better study some of this stuff. But, truth is, I don’t much like reading about writing. I like to read good writing, but don’t have patience to read about the craft of it. I suspect at work is the same distrust I hold toward the MFA degree. There too, I know I would benefit, but am more inclined to go it alone. That should come as no surprise.

A couple of years ago, with time on my hands, I considered taking the MFA. I went to a well-known school and attended a graduate seminar. Within minutes I knew I would not be able to sit the next two years listening to students read their works in progress. It was not a bad experience, and was likely quite beneficial for those participating. I simply would rather be home reading Nabokov or Cheever.

Reading about writing is like reading about sex rather than having sex. It’s okay, I guess, but why bother?

Yet, here I am writing about writing…

I recognize good writing when I see it. And when I see it I long to be a better writer. That is my school of writing.

A writer I greatly respect, Jim Harrison, said to a writer friend not long ago, “Just concentrate on the writing. That’s all that matters.” I admire the elegance of that advice and keep it noted on a card at my desk.

Sometimes, as happened just yesterday, I pick up a book, read a word or two, realize inspiration, put the book down and start writing. This does not happen frequently, but when its does I recognize it and take advantage of it. It’s a cosmic gift. Most of the time, however, I simply sit down and go to work.

About four or five months ago, I upped the ante here at “…house…” and started posting everyday, six days a week. It is a yeoman’s task I set for myself and we will see how it turns out. I decided that since this blog has evolved into my major writing project, I would work at it everyday hard and with discipline. That is how one approaches the important things.

Carole has noted that this discipline carries with it a weight. I occasionally exhibit evidence of this burden. Somedays I worry and fret that I won’t have anything to write about tomorrow. She admonishes me. She reminds me that I’ve grown a nice little audience of readers here at “…the house….” Further, she points out that I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. What more could I want? I know all this to be true. Yet, still…

There is value in being worried enough that you won’t be good enough to do the job well enough. And therein lies motivation.

I believe that summarizes my thoughts on writing.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate your support.

Blog as metaphor.

In Life, The Examined Life, Writing on May 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

Büyük Menderes River in Turkey (Meander River)

I read recently that a successful blog should have a core theme or topic, and that the postings should not stray far from the topic. Scanning the blogosphere I see the common wisdom in this. You can find and read a blog on any and all manner of themes. Yes, it appears that the successful blog stays on message: cooking, travel, sex, love, health, family, and so forth. It must be refreshing to be so singular. So limited.

Fortunately–or unfortunately–I have taken a different approach. Long before reading Nietzsche, I recognized the stink of the herd and trained myself to move in opposition. I confess to nurturing the contrary, seeking out the different. There is truth in resisting the pull of the common. If my blog is a metaphor for my life, I am a trained generalist, specializing in the nature of the other.

I have identified thirty themes to “…house….” (Located at the bottom of the home page.) They are:

I like that alphabetically dogs follows depression and precedes faith. At any point a reader can click on a theme and will be directed to relative posts. Of course it is a mishmash. I’m not a scholar or academic, given to a trained mind. Rather, I’m a person who embraces the meandering, nurtures a tangent, and exercises walking the crooked line. I realized years ago that I would never be really good at any particular thing. No matter my pursuit, falling short of mastery was to be my fate.

I am grateful that my major interests can be captured in thirty simple categories. A herd cannot navigate thirty options, ensuring that I’m free to make my own way. To this end, Harrison observed that the writer’s gift was one of “excessive consciousness.” Perhaps that is the difference between blogging and writing. But that is a stale semantic.

The generalist does not know what he thinks about a subject until he writes about it. This is the lesson of Montaigne and is the raison d’être for “…house….” I was asked recently about the title of this place, “…the house I live in….” A house is where we keep our junk, as well as our prized possessions. It’s where we sleep and shit and fidget and relax and ponder and love. A house is a place of refuge. It can be private or shared, boisterous or quiet, filled with light, or a place of lurking darkness. Pick a room in the house and you have a speciality, a kitchen, or a bedroom–but the architecture of house is encompassing. That’s why I titled this place as I did. I want to be encompassing.

It seems to have resonated with some. Readership has climbed significantly since the resurrection of the site. I find great comfort in this. One might avoid the herd, yet still appreciate the assurances of company. I salute my fellow generalists and applaud the meandering life.

Thanks for reading.

Of poets.

In Books, Creativity, Writers, Writing on April 10, 2012 at 7:00 am

I have one poem memorized, W.B. Yeats’s The Second Coming. I thank Joan Didion for this singular accomplishment. Her book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) brought the poem directly to my attention. It is a famous poem and I suspect I read it in high school and perhaps college, but am not sure. For a guy who has lived with books center to existence, poetry has been ill represented.

Yeats ends his great poem with this line:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I wanted to memorize the poem because I loved it. (David Orr, in his book, Beautiful and Pointless, a Guide to Modern Poetry, writes “…people who read poetry have a tendency not simply to say that they ‘like’ it or ‘enjoy’ the art form, but rather that they ‘love’ it.”) It was to be the first of many poems I planned to discover and commit to memory. Imagine the magic of carrying all that around in your head. In a wonderful piece, Got Poetry? (2009), New York Times essayist Jim Holt argues convincingly the benefits of memorizing poetry. He says he has hundreds of poems memorized. “I recite them to myself while jogging along the Hudson River, quite loudly if no other joggers are within earshot. I do the same, but more quietly, while walking around Manhattan on errands — just another guy on an invisible cellphone.” He ends his essay on a light note: “Everyone needs an iPod. You do not need an iPod. Memorize poetry instead.”

My project never got past Yeats, sadly.

_________________________

Last summer poetry introduced itself properly. It snuck up and rattled me by the shoulders. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, and still don’t. I can’t explain things like that but accept them as they happen. It seems to happen to me a lot.

I took a workshop for poets. I’m not a poet. That’s a title one has to earn, in my opinion. My friend Gibson Fay-LeBlanc told me that he does not subscribe to the school of the born poet; that becoming a poet is the result of “putting in the work.” Gibson has put in the work. His new book of poetry Death of the Ventriloquist was released last month.

I’ve been working with Robert Frost Award-winner, Megan Grumbling. Megan is a wonderful teacher and has been encouraging my effort to put poetry pen to poetry paper. I’ve published a little bit of everything over the years, except poetry. And as a life-long reader, I’ve read a little bit of everything over the years, except poetry. Discovering poetry has been like finding a secret door in a house I’ve lived in all my life.

Another poet-friend, Ken Rosen, told me to write a poem every day for a month, “Pluck it out of nothing,” he said. “Create somewhere out of nowhere, mercilessly. Force yourself to do it for 30 days and see if that changes your brain chemistry.” I don’t know about the resulting chemistry, but it was excellent discipline. Ken’s lastest book is The Origins of Tragedy and other poems.

I’ll leave you with a few lines from another poem I love, “Bars,” by Jim Harrison:

Once in the driveway

a female wolf stood in my headlights and nodded,

obviously the reincarnation of a girl I knew

who drowned in Key West where I first discovered

that one drink can break the gray egg that sometimes

encloses you, two drinks help you see this world.

Three drinks and you’re back inside the gray egg.

“…to adopt another life.”

In Dogs, Life, Memoir, Nature, Travel on March 4, 2012 at 6:42 am

The classroom did not particularly work for me. I found sitting in the lecture hall difficult; and reading the books I was told to read, rather than the ones I wanted to read, was annoying. I’m stubborn that way. So it was that an autodidact was born.

Books have been my ideal teachers, as has travel and nature. I’ve attended many classes by these professors and never grow weary of them. The last lecture is, I hope, many lessons away. My syllabus is inconclusive on this matter.

One of my past favorite classrooms found me standing in moving water, chasing trout. In his great poem, The Theory and Practice of Rivers, Jim Harrison writes, “to study rivers, including the postcard / waterfalls, is to adopt another life.” I love the phrase, “adopt another life,” as if there were lives awaiting us, looking at us through kennel wire–not rescue dogs, but rescue lives.

Trout live in beautiful places and that’s as good an excuse as any to pursue them. I don’t know if it was the fishing so much, or rather the opportunity to be outdoors that fueled my obsession; to study the water, to determine the correct fly and pay attention to the natural clues which make for good fishing–these are compelling motivations.

I had a tradition through this period of beginning the year–literally New Year’s Day–fishing. It was more symbolism than anything and made for a short day on the water. If you’re fishing for trout on New Year’s Day in North America you will be cold.

One New Year’s I fished the Youghiogheny River. The Yough (pronounced YOCK) winds north along the Appalachian plateau through West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It is one of the nation’s first recognized “scenic wild rivers” and is protected. The Yough freezes in winter, except for a few spots where the water falls quickly through rapids. On this particular New Year’s Day, layered, bundled and protected, I entered the river where it turned fast on itself then broke over a boulder field. There was no ice at this spot and soon I caught a beautiful little brook trout. Brookies are exquisite fish, with speckles and subtile flashes of color. They are evidence of Thoreau’s remark that, “There are little strains of poetry in our animals.” The fish fought hard and when I brought it to hand I slipped the hook from it’s lip without removing it from the water. It remained suspended at my knees, it’s gills pumping like crimson bellows. I stared, observing. I instantaneously realized that the fish was doing everything in it’s nature to survive the winter. That it needed to conserve energy. That my fly had been interpreted as a rare meal. That our fight had exhausted it. That I had in some fashion, betrayed it. Slowly the fish recovered then drifted away.

My heart for fishing left me that day.

Over the years, as the passion for fishing waned, an interest in birding arose. Where one activity presents a classic battle with nature, the other is an invitation to lay aside weapons and peacefully observe. Such is the changing classroom.

Every morning, I pick up my field glasses and walk my dog, Lucy. Our routine consists of a one mile loop. The trail cuts though a woods and circles a small field. It is a beautiful walk and sometimes I look so forward to it that it is my last thought upon going to sleep.

Lucy relishes our walks and spends most of her time staring up trees. I carry my binoculars and stare up trees too, looking for birds. This morning, there being a lot of snow, we shared the loop with two gliding cross-country skiers. Another dog walker stopped momentarily, as our dogs made their introductions. “See any interesting birds?” he asked. I replied that yesterday I spotted the first red-winged black birds of the season. I told him that I’ve also seen cardinals and robins this week, a sign that winter is losing it’s grip. I made a sweeping motion and announced, “This is my classroom.” I lifted my binoculars, saying, “these are a reminder to pay attention.” He smiled and from the look in his eye I believe he understood. Or perhaps he just thought me daft.

“…largely ignored…”

In Death, Travel, Writers on October 20, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Full quote: “It is good to live in a place largely ignored by the rest of the world.”

The quote is from my favorite living American author, Jim Harrison. It’s from his new novel, The Great Leader. (My review can be found here.)

I was deep in the lake region of Patagonia, maybe five, six years ago, I don’t remember. (Time and space, especially time, escapes me.) I met George, from France, the village of Joan, of the Arc fame. He’d come, as had I, to chase the brown trout that were big deep in the ice rivers of the Andes, the Futalafu and other rivers. Huge trout, weighed, not measured. (Not fifteen inches but six pounds. And more.) Blue green rivers, fresh out of the mountains. One thing leading to another and I discover George is a reader. “Who is your favorite writer,” I ask. “Jim Harrison,” he responds. I jump–yes, jump–“Mine too,” I exclaim. “He is,” George says, “the only writer who combines the life of the mind and the life of action.” Leave it to the French.

But, the point being the quote: What is it that makes a man (me)  what to go further and farther away to the place people largely ignore? Is there a place where a person can hide? Escape? Evaporate? It will happen soon enough, given a few years, or less, and a person, all of us, will be extinct. Gone. Vanished. Dead.  And we will be so very dead as to not even know it. So why rush to the place that is largely ignored, either specifically or, in a more surreptitious manner, figuratively? Can’t answer that. There comes a time, as Hemingway observed, when we (might)  decide to sprint to the finish line. He did. Don’t think I want to sprint. I’m more of an endurance guy, taking my time. But the destination is the same, all together the same.

They say a society is not a civilization until the poets arrive. I believe that. I hold my lantern to the darkness, at the foot of the citadel, outside the drawn gate, alone, peering into the darkness, looking, waiting. Where are the poets? Where is the civilization? Will they arrive before the extinction?