Jim Harrison Essay - Harrison, Jim (Vol. 6)

Harrison, Jim (Vol. 6)

Harrison, Jim 1937–

Harrison is an American poet and novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Jim Harrison is a good poet, who deserves to be better known than he is. Not that his kind of poem can be expected to be popular; it is usually long, and its method requires attentive reading. Mr. Harrison's characteristic poem in [Locations] is a suite whose theme is continuously unfolded, expanded, and transmuted. There is a constant movement outward into many directions; still, the focal point is never lost. Almost invariably, these are "nature" poems; I am using quotation marks to forestall any impression of pastoral or rustic verse. Mr. Harrison sees the natural world in a way that is often identified with oriental thought: all is one and one is all; only the manifestations vary. In his Suite to Appleness, for example, he makes the life and eventual destruction of an apple take in human life as well, without being simplistic and without ignoring the "inner" life. The openness of his method and his gift for the image allow him to enlarge the meaning of the apple rather than reduce the life of man. In The Sign he creates an astonishing human reality out of the shifts and fusions of a zodiacal sign and a constellation; and in War Suite he creates a deliberate confusion of terms in order to be able to contrast natural wars, i.e. life-struggles, with the unnecessary, impersonal violence of man-made wars…. Mr. Harrison frequently ignores the conventions of English syntax, so as to be able to maintain a constant flow of shifting symbols.

Jim Harrison grew up in Northern Michigan and shares with that other Michigan poet, Theodore Roethke, not only the longing to be part of the instinctual natural world, but also the remarkable knowledge of plant and animal life that comes only with long familiarity and close observation. This raises an incidental question: how many more poets of his kind will we see in the United States? It is a melancholy thought that Mr. Harrison may be one of the last of the species. (pp. 322-23)

Lisel Mueller, in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1971.

Jim Harrison is one of our finest young poets. He has a racy Michigan lingo (backwoods-wry-huntin' and fishin'-dirty-gone to hell) that he mingles a little too readily with notes from the high lyric tradition. He is relentlessly hard on himself: his past life, his present plights, his character in general. But he redeems the poems from grimness by a buffoonery of anguish and by something else that is more elusive.

The something else is an open, volatile atmosphere. It involves a sense of comic slovenliness originating in the self-ironies of folkspeech and unexpectedly convertible into an almost physical precision, that of a workman who knows just how to use his tools. I don't want to make too much of the point, but it just may be that Jim Harrison, in spite of—perhaps even by way of—Apollinaire and all the other literary influences he is assimilating, has a good deal to show us about the psychic landscape of working-class American life.

A good example of the atmosphere and process I have just described comes in the poem "Awake." Here we find the insomniac speaker, late at night, recalling the violent deaths and suicidal dreams of earlier poets and moving through an exhaustive catalogue of anxieties and complaints, both trivial and drastic. He has had ill luck of all kinds, including car breakdowns, encounters with rattlers and hammerheads, the general earth-pollution, and being a "renter." He sees himself as "a bad poet broke and broken at thirty-two." Just as one decides that at best the poem is a slightly earthier specimen of Berrymanic confessional, it suddenly ends with an image out of the common life that changes everything:

             … my soul, my heart, my brain,
             my life so interminably split with
               an ax
             as wet wood splits bluntly,
               mauled into
             sections for burning.

This image is itself a keen ax-blow, a definitive experience. Its literal impact has the quality of understatement after all the gaudy whining, yet the insight conveyed is irreversible, absolute. "Awake" reveals one way in which the best new poets assimilate their elders' methods while moving into their own styles and realities.

A bitterly depressive state dominates the book as a whole. Against it Harrison mobilizes his resources of sensuality and sometimes nasty grossness (a residue of "candid" adolescent speech and humor), and a capacity for unpretentious dreaming of the Huck Finn variety….

Harrison is both helped and hampered by a sweet-spirited tenderness toward everything vulnerable that he quite properly distrusts and tries to hold off at a distance. "He writes," he says of himself, "with a putty knife and goo."… The Baudelairean heritage has mingled with the broad social alienation of modern youth; in Harrison it is at war with his pastoral immediacy and enchantment by nature. There is something at once incompletely convincing and deeply engaging about the unresolved relation of these motifs in "Outlyer and Ghazals."

Most of the book is taken up with a group of 65 ghazals. In a ghazal, according to the Urdu poet and scholar Sajjad Baqir Rizvi, "there is no strict logical continuity. Each couplet is complete in itself and need not have any relation with the preceding or following couplets. The continuity is that of a metrical pattern or a mood. As each couplet expresses one complete 'experience,' the poem as a whole can give only an abstract pattern; hence it is charged with many diverse suggestions related only by that pattern." (p. 7)

As Harrison puts it, "Ghazals are essentially lyrics and I have worked with whatever aspects of our life now that seemed to want to enter my field of vision…. I've tried to regain some of the spontaneity of the dance, the song unencumbered by any philosophical apparatus, faithful only to its own music."

Actually, these poems made up of five or six couplets each reflect a tendency of modern poetry as a whole and of Jim Harrison's poetry in particular. Many of his earlier pieces, as well as the longest poem in ["Outlyer and Ghazals"], are small sequences or what he calls "suites." That is, they are groupings of tonally related or contrasting effects rather than clear narrative or intellectual structures, a field or fluid medium of associations rather than a purposeful movement from beginning to end.

Within each ghazal, and in the ebb and flow and shifting emphasis of the clusters within the entire sequence, all the poetic faces and voices of Jim Harrison make themselves felt. It is sometimes exasperating, sometimes cheaply facile, often heartbreaking, often exquisitely beautiful as the waves of language and sense-impressions and uncontrollably black moods and randy philosophizing and esthetic balancings sweep over the pages. This is poetry worth loving, hating, and fighting over, a subjective mirror of our American days and needs. (pp. 7, 18)

M. L. Rosenthal, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 18, 1971.

"Wolf" [is] a first novel … by the poet Jim Harrison. It is a raunchy, funny, swaggering, angry, cocksure book; it is also a poignant, handsomely-written self-exploration that deserves comparision, if it does not quite reach such heights, with Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes" and Frank Conroy's "Stop-Time"—and, for that matter, with the novels of Thomas McGuane, to whom it is in part dedicated. (p. 4)

Harrison has, in "Wolf," sharply portrayed the conflict between the urge to live—fully, meaningfully, exuberantly—and the circumstances we have created for life. He has a keen eye for the problem, but his strategy for survival is a fantasy. (p. 38)

Jonathan Yardley, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 12, 1971.

Ghazals, indeed! Arabic-Turkish-Persian-Michigan ghazals. I thought ghazals were made of rhymed couplets, five or twelve couplet stanzas on a theme. Jim Harrison's ghazals in Outlyer and Ghazals don't rhyme and they vary in length—and, whatever they are, they are marvelous: the leaping ghazals of a furious imagination and intellect working out of northern Michigan…. Harrison takes a terrible pleasure in himself as a moral creature. Man and beast in the rounds of their dying—Harrison can tolerate it. He can celebrate it. Harrison at his best is right there with James Dickey and Hugo and Huff and Roethke. (p. 37)

James Whitehead, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 18, 1971.

Humor, irony and, above all, energy animate Harrison's prose [in Wolf]. And Swanson [the protagonist] bristles into being—a man mean in the fashion of a child or an animal, a creature who snarls and spits at would-be tamers who hold out the meat of mediocrity and uniformity as he struggles to keep open all the possibilities his free-wheeling youth once afforded. Yet, despite his intensity and greed for life, this loner is in more ways than one a cold number. He is, in fact, a crybaby. Ultimately, his rages against life as it is and people as they are come to sound like the long howl of a mangy timber wolf unable to run with the pack—or perhaps merely unwilling to tolerate anyone's company except his own. (p. 30)

H. L. Van Brunt, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 25, 1971.

The "false memoir" of Jim Harrison, Wolf, is a young man's novel which never loses its youthful delight with its own processes, the total recall of memories of Home, New York, Boston and The West. The hero, Swanson, is lost in the uninhabited Huron Mountains, and passages dealing with his predicament are alternated with passages of memory. He is lost in the wilderness, and, we assume, he has always been lost; his life is as shapeless as nature itself. (p. 462)

[Wolf's] recollected details pile up without much emphasis or dramatic organization; the novel might have been cut back neatly to one half its length, made more intense, more compelling. Swanson emerges as an American youth in search of some event which will ritualize his strange formlessness, a youth even at the age of thirty-three, for he can locate no initiatory force that will change him, apart from the impersonal rigors of nature. Wolf is a novel of initiation that comes to no end, and it is, itself, an initiation, the kind of diarylike work many writers must publish before they can write their first significant books. (p. 463)

Joyce Carol Oates, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1972 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Summer, 1972.

Why Harrison is content to waste an excellent narrative talent on [the] kind of super-machismo a-man's-a-man stuff [of which "A Good Day to Die" is made] is certainly puzzling. (p. 4)

Why do novels in this genre (soon to be outdated, I hope) always leave an aftertaste of self-pity and complacency? In spite of his hero's constant assertions that he's variously weak, guilty, self-serving, jealous, small-minded, greedy and self-hating—all true contentions, to be sure—both he and his author clearly want us to see him as somehow tragic, a heroic, if lost figure upon the vast American landscape.

But people who aren't in struggle just aren't grandly tragic or heroic; no matter how aggressively self-critical, and those who mistake passivity and despair for struggle, or some kind of admirable rebellion, are in special trouble. In fiction, they become tedious. "A Good Day to Die" is an adolescent book by a talented writer who, on the basis of it, is experienced enough to know better than to preach its me-burned-out-Tarzan dogma. (p. 5)

Sara Blackburn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 9, 1973.

[A Good Day to Die] is a poet's book. Its metaphors are sharp as jagged bone. Its long cadences plead to be read aloud. Its language as a whole is a half-mad harvest of technical vocabularies….

Yet his book is more sketchpad than novel. Read as fiction, it must be found wanting. And I'm not talking from some old-school insistence on plot, progression of effect, character development, and the like. Even by the looser terms of present fiction, A Good Day to Die offers very little evidence that the writer knows how to find a story and then find his way through it. His characters don't develop, they stagnate and implode….

Despite my admiration for the language and instinctive sympathy for the hero, I felt I was being taken on another facile romp through fields of fashionable despair, ending on a crescendo of modish apocalypse. Then I got hold of Harrison's first "novel," Wolf, and felt a little sick at the error I might have committed.

Because this man is the real thing, and his work is absolutely genuine. One drifts into it with doubt only because the territory is so dangerously literary—Key West, property of E. Hemingway; the road, owned by J. Kerouac; alcohol (M. Lawry); dope (Burroughs); and so forth. But Wolf, part one and key to a two-part song, proves Die is ground Harrision has walked; and Die [proves] that he cries wolf only when he sees one. None of which would be significant except that these books fail as novels precisely because they triumph as poetry, diatribe and personal memoir.

Harrison has several gifts it would be hard to overpraise. Bright, dizzying language aside, he can swiftly characterize certain rural and urban types with a precision close to paradigm….

It's difficult to demonstrate the force of these books, or to justify the claim of their authenticity, without extensive quotation, because since they're a kind of poem, sanction lies in the voice itself. The point is not that A Good Day to Die is real because it's factually accurate about fly fishing—so is the L. L. Bean catalogue—but because it sustains at a true pitch one agonized tone pondering the disasters of an American life—absolutely concrete, partial, particular and fixed in time. It's a work of art. A bad novel but a work of art. What a strange accomplishment!

William Crawford Woods, "What a Strange Accomplishment!" in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 9, 1973, p. 4.

If modern insanity, the bankruptcy of American dreams, and the attempt to struggle for an inner meaning in the midst of chaos have become old hat in American fiction, this novel ["A Good Day to Die"] is nevertheless noteworthy. Its characters are real, its language is genuine and poetic, and its themes are aesthetically embodied in, rather than painted onto, its "Westward" plot. Harrison is a fine writer. (p. 1866)

Choice (copyright © by American Library Association), February, 1974.