Famed for Fiction, Jim Harrison Was Also a Poet of Prodigious Appetites
Edited by Joseph Bednarik
A lot of people know Jim Harrison’s fiction, and there’s a lot of it to know — before his death, in 2016, he published a dozen novels and nine collections of novellas. Still more people, who wouldn’t recognize Harrison’s name at all, have seen films for which he wrote the screenplays or source material: “Revenge,” “Wolf,” the hugely successful “Legends of the Fall.” But even the readers who know him may not know that Harrison began as a poet and remained one for the rest of his life. His first published book was a poetry collection, 1965’s “Plain Song”; his last book of poems during his lifetime, 2016’s “Dead Man’s Float,” was published about two months before he died. In between he published a dozen or so other collections, adding up to a massive and bounteous body of work that would have made Harrison a significant American writer even if he had never published in any other genre.
From the beginning, Harrison wrote about two primary and intertwined themes: pleasure and death. The pleasures of Harrison’s writings tend to the Hemingwayesque, and are set largely in his native Midwest: hunting, fishing, hiking and generally being outdoors; cooking, eating and drinking; sex, women and conversation. Sometimes the pleasures are more reflective, more mental than physical; in all the talk about women, for instance, one senses that for Harrison the talk was half the fun, and the wanting often mattered more, or was more satisfying, than the getting.
Other delights, particularly gastronomical ones, he enjoyed with abandon. Food and drink appear frequently in his poems. Sometimes they are metaphors: “If you can’t bow, you’re dead meat. You’ll break / like uncooked spaghetti.” Or he will put a dissertation about rivers on hold to describe a recent meal, or insert into a long poem a detailed “week’s eating log” with items like
Or he will pause, as he does quite frequently, to worry that he is eating too much, drinking too much, that he is getting fat, is no longer desired by women, that he is growing old before his time.
Acknowledging pleasure’s costs, and its ultimate ephemerality, is the unavoidable flip side of Harrison’s celebratory hedonism. To connect with the body, the source of pleasure, is to connect with death. The first poem in Harrison’s first book concludes with an image of death, rendered in brute material terms with an emphasis on the visual: “the dead, frayed bird, / the beautiful plumage, / the spoor of feathers / and slight, pink bones.” The poems in the last book, “Dead Man’s Float,” dwell obsessively on mortality. “At my age you don’t think about the future / because you don’t have one.” “Because of death my phone book / is shrinking.” “So endlessly dolorous, this sweet death.” Perhaps the bluntest and truest statement comes in a midbook, midcareer poem called “Larson’s Holstein Bull”: “Death steals everything except our stories.”
Death — his own, that is — was something Harrison saw coming from a long way off. “I’m getting very old,” he writes in “Returning to Earth,” a long poem published when he was just 39. Harrison was so in love with youth and its powers that the encroachments of senescence made him bristle. In a poem published when he was 44 he writes,
That second line carries a note of real poignancy, especially for a man who has made his living, and his life, trying to arrange the right words in the right order. The passage hints, too, at the trouble parents have talking to children, and children to parents. How hard it is to speak to those we love, despite our best intentions and shared fate; for we are all, as he writes in “Hakuin and Welch,” “human / beings and creatures flowering and dying in the void.”
Hakuin was a significant figure in Zen Buddhism, and “flowering and dying in the void” is undeniably a Buddhist image. Here and elsewhere, Harrison is clearly drawn to Buddhism, even if he seems an unlikely candidate to accept its prescription that we should detach ourselves from desire. He was, in that way, a very American Buddhist, more interested in celebrating the appetites than in overcoming them. American approaches to the spiritual have always emphasized the physical, either by attempting to purify the body or by embracing its lusts and limitations. Harrison takes the second route, reminding us, as the Christian mystics liked to, that everything that is sacred and holy must become material and enfleshed to enter our lives.
Formally speaking, the influence of Buddhism is reflected in the fragmentary and imagistic structure of much of his poetry, an approach that emphasizes the present moment over a remembered past and hypothetical future. (In this and other ways Harrison resembles his friend and fellow poet Gary Snyder.) It is also reflected in the simplicity and elemental purity of many of the images he draws upon and continually returns to; and, as well, in his skepticism about accepted categories and hierarchies. “All my life / I’ve liked weeds,” he writes in a long poem called “Livingston Suite.” “Weeds are botanical / poets, largely unwanted. You can’t make a dollar / off them.”
The line rings with irony. Harrison spent his career writing about unwanted people, stubborn survivors, and managed to make more than a dollar off doing so. “Legends of the Fall,” in particular, made him a wealthy man. Hanging out in Los Angeles, pursuing the life of the screenwriter, he himself must have felt like a weed, a tough, dogged evolutionary product tenaciously flourishing in an alien landscape. People say he enjoyed Hollywood, hobnobbing and hot-tubbing with celebrities like Jack Nicholson; and this fits, for a man who found a way to find pleasure in anything. But you can’t help feeling that the authentic Jim Harrison was the one who felt anxious to get out of the hot tub and back to the streams and fields of Michigan and Montana, the one who wrote, in “The Theory and Practice of Rivers,” “I can’t find a river in Los Angeles / except the cement one behind Sportsman’s Lodge / on Ventura.”