Poet, novelist, and essayist Jim Harrison died Saturday at 78.
Poet, novelist, and essayist Jim Harrison died Saturday at 78. Michael Friberg

Jim Harrison's most widely known book was Legends of the Fall, a novella that was made into the eponymous 1994 film starring Brad Pitt. But I only knew him—surprise—by way of his poetry.

I was having a talk with another poet friend at my tiny table in my cramped apartment in the CD. We were playing my favorite game. The game has no real name, but it might be called something like, Why Are We Still Writing Poetry?

To the play the game, you and a friend must first admit that you're bored with poetry. That no one reads it, and none of it is that great anyway, and that probably it'd be best to focus on essays or something else that people care about.

Then the most dissolute and despairing person must pull from the shelf five or six books that used to do it for you, the old standbys you return to every time. Then you read poems back and forth to each other until you come across a line or a logic that returns you both to the original joy. Drinking is happening the whole time. The goal is to find that poem or poet before you fall asleep.

Anyone who's practiced any form of art with some level of seriousness will tell you that they experience fallow periods. At four years deep into poetry school I was in such a place. I'd grown tired of the experimentalist v. traditional arguments, the M.F.A v. pick-your-acronym bar talk. I was even getting tired of the gossip, and I loved the gossip.

I picked up Frank O'Hara—Uncle Frank!—and couldn't be moved. We went through several poems, but then I'd gotten to a book my friend hadn't heard of, Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin.

The book's a collection of numbered epistles (poems in the form of a letter) that Harrison's persona is writing to an young Russian poet who'd committed suicide, Sergei Yesenin.

The conceit is that Harrison's living on hardscrabble farm and wondering whether or not he should end it all. His family life doesn't seem to be going well, he's drinking a lot, the world seems to be going to hell, and his writing life has screeched to a halt. So he's writing to the ghost of this dead Russian poet, and the exercise seems to be, at least, productive.

I started reading from this book, and the character was so much more dour and bleak than we could ever possibly be that we started variously cracking up and nodding reverently in sympathy. In the fourth letter to Yesenin, Harrison lists a number of failed romantic encounters:


I didn't fall in love/ in Palm Beach or Paris. Or London. Or Leningrad. I wanted to fall
in love at the ballet but my seat was too far back to see faces
clearly. At Sadko a pretty girl was sitting with a general
and did not exchange my glance. In Normandy I fell in love but
had colitis and could not concentrate. She had a way of not paying
any attention to me that could not be misunderstood. That is
a year's love story. Except Key West where absolutely nothing
happened with romantic overtones. Now you might understand why
I drink and grow fat. When I reach three hundred pounds there
will be no more love problems, only fat problems. Then I will
write reams of love poems. And if she pats my back a cubic yard
of fat will jiggle.

The casual self-deprecating humor in these lines was like chicken soup. The character travels all around the world, visiting the capitals of romance, and yet still he can't find love. But the flat affect of his telling makes his hunt seem mundane: his search for affection is no different than anyone else's. This tonal lightness takes a sharp left turn in the closing few lines of the poem:

Last night I drank a hundred proof quart
and looked at a photo of my sister. Ten years dead. Show me a
single wound on earth that love has healed.
I fed my dying dog
a pound of beef and buried her happy in the barnyard.

Suddenly the tone drops from cheerfully self-deprecating to I-am-wasting-my-life-and-love-cannot-save-me. Life passes so quickly and dully that his dog, who seems to be the only living thing that loves him, is alive at the beginning of the last sentence but is dead by the end of it.

This combination of earnestness and humor in a book of poetry was not in fashion the year my friend and I played this game. But, reading it, we saw a model for the kind of thing we wanted to do, or at least one of the things we liked. We were re-energized and excited to write more, to fail more, for better or worse.

The overwhelming concern of Letters to Yesenin is boredom, deep boredom, and in its form the book offers writers a way out. If you're bored, find a poet you fell in love with early on in life and then write a bunch of stuff to that person. It's a way of engaging with the tradition, with the writer who got you into this mess in the first place, and, most importantly, it gets you working again. The poems will probably suck, but, who knows—Harrison's didn't.

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Of course, the breadth of Harrison's published works also stands as an example of how not to be bored as a writer. The NYT obit mentions that, in addition to engaging in "the essential, monosyllabic pursuits that defined the borders of his life: to walk, drive, hunt, fish, cook, drink, smoke," he wrote 21 books of fiction, 14 books of poems, two books of essays, a memoir, and a children's book.

Stay busy, write variously, eat, drink, and move around. Sounds busy enough for me.

Harrison's latest book of poems is called Dead Man's Float, out from Copper Canyon Press. Judging from the lines everyone's quoting in the many different remembrances of Harrison, it looks like another good one.