In the spring of 1956, the popular poet and critic John Ciardi, fresh off his iconic translation of The Inferno, became the poetry editor of Saturday Review. He announced his editorial mission in an article titled “Everyone Writes (Bad) Poetry,” beginning with a lament: “The office mailbag bulges daily with envelopes full of bad poems that bear paper-clipped to them laborious little notes that breathe, however shyly, the most grandiose hopes.” One such note was sent by James Harrison, an 18-year-old from rural Haslett, Mich. A football player who loved hunting and fishing, Harrison had a brief stint as a fundamentalist preacher before turning his devotions to John Keats.
The ambitious young Harrison sent Ciardi a poem titled “The Existentialist,” which, appropriately, he said was influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard. Ciardi didn’t publish the poem. Undeterred, Harrison kept writing, and within a decade the poet and editor Denise Levertov released Plain Song, Harrison’s debut, with W. W. Norton. He would go on to publish across several genres until his death in 2016—from a heart attack, mid-poem. A poetic end for a writer who has reached the level of legend, although Harrison never did much to cultivate his own mythos. He was never a recluse. He taught at a college for a few years but found more independence outside the academy. He was a traveler, but he wasn’t hiding from anything. “I never get an idea while sitting still,” he explained. “Someone has to stay outside.”
More than anything, he wrote. There was his fiction, of course: novels, and his best form, novellas. He could be tragic and expansive, as in Legends of the Fall, or punchy and parodic, as in A Good Day to Die. He is often lumped in with Hemingway but said he “never cared particularly for either Hemingway or Fitzgerald beyond temporary flirtations.” He could be cutting and clever in his literary criticism. In a 1968 book review, he wrote: “Even worse anthologies are made by the sycophants, the general cutpurses and literary castrati, the faddists, who find a new great poet every month and totally change their affections within that same period.”
He wrote essays for Sports Illustrated during the 1970s, including one about his father’s job as a government agriculture agent, who offered “advice to farmers in a hopelessly unfertile countryside of jack pine, scrub oak, cedar swamps and fields” and helped run the county fair during three hot, dusty days in August. Think prize vegetables, livestock judging, Ferris wheels, and a horse-pulling contest. Harrison often wrote with a smirk about such things, but these were his people. He wasn’t a fake, and never took himself too seriously.
“I have an inordinate amount of time to think and wander around,” he said. “The main reason I wrote screenplays for a living was so that the only consideration for my novels and novellas would be that of art. It also gave me freedom to write poetry untainted by what could have been my academic peers.” Poetry was his fount, his refrain — which makes The Essential Poems appropriately titled. Harrison was, foremost, a poet.
He published nearly a thousand poems in 14 books, and this collection is a sampling. Readers unaware of his verse will find much pleasure here. “My left eye is blind and jogs like / a milky sparrow in its socket,” he writes in an early poem. “Now self is the first sacrament / who loves not the misery and taint / of the present tense is lost” — lines from Plain Song that unfold against pastoral pieces set in northern Michigan. Here are back roads where “stump fences surround nothing / worth their tearing down // by a deserted filling station / a Veedol sign, the rusted hulk // of a Frazer, ‘live bait’ / on battered tin.” He writes of the county fair, where a “buck- / toothed girl cuts her honorable-mention / cake; when she leans to get me water / from a milk pail her breasts are chaste.” Later at the fair, sitting in the car: “I think of St. Paul’s Epistles and pray / the removal of what my troubled eyes have seen.”
Those lines evoke the writing of Harrison’s longtime friend and fellow Michiganite Thomas McGuane. Before he moved to Montana, where his life slowed down and his sentences became more lyric, McGuane wrote sarcastic novels about sclerotic characters. Harrison’s work isn’t that spiteful, but there’s a consistent humor in it about the often beautiful absurdity of life.
It’s in poems such as “Walking,” though, from his second collection, Locations (1968), that life feels almost mystical. Here, he’s patient, walking crooked routes in the woods among lakes and gullies. He eschews metaphor in favor of the specificity of detail: the mucky bottom of a shallow lake, a spring among cedars on an island, night birds wakening in response to his footfalls.
Other poems are more casual and conversational — you can hear Harrison blurting them out past a cigarette, his one good eye squinting from the smoke. “Drinking Song,” from Outlyer & Ghazals (1971) sounds like his ars poetica: “An enemy of civilization / I want to walk around in the woods, fish and drink. / I’m going to be a child about it and I can’t help it.” In his sequence of ghazals, he writes with humor and sadness: “My father is dead and doesn’t care if his vault leaks, / that his casket is cheap, his son a poet and a liar. // All the honest farmers in my family’s past are watching / me through the barn slats, from the corncrib and hogpen. // Ghosts demand more than wives & teachers.”
His poems often have moments of self-deprecation. In Letters to Yesenin (1973), he quips: “All those poems that made me soar along a foot / from the ground are not so much forgotten as never / read in the first place.” They often seem to be about his body: worn-down, weary, withering. In Returning to Earth (1977), he writes, at “nineteen I began to degenerate, / slight smell of death in my gestures.” And he feels resigned to his end: “Let the scavenger take what he finds. / Let the predator love his prey.”
The poems of the final decades of his life tended to be characterized by a few recurring traits or themes: visceral description of the outdoors, a playful tone by turns mystical and surreal, and the consistent presence of his broken body. “The rivers of my life,” he wrote, are “moving looms of light.” We almost drift along with Harrison, riding his lines of melancholic verse. The Essential Poems reveals that Harrison had been writing his own elegy for years. What else could a man so in love with the possibilities of language do? “The days, at last, are stacked against / what we think we are. / Who in their most hallowed, sleepless / night with the moon seven feet / outside the window, the moon / that the river swallows, would wish / it otherwise?”