Braided Creek: reflections on conversation and literature

Braided Creek Braided Creek: a conversation in poetryJim Harrison, Ted Kooser; Copper Canyon Press 2003WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder
This is an old favorite, which I first blogged about back in 2004. I re-read it yesterday, sitting out on my porch on a lovely spring morning and savoring each of its 340 short poems (four to a page), so even though today is May 1, this still counts for my April poetry-reading challenge. I want to say a little bit about both this book and what I’ve learned during this past month, the third time I’ve marked National Poetry Month in this way.

Braided Creek is the result of a poetry correspondence between two old, white male poets at the top of their literary game, struggling to come to terms with aging and all its associated ills. There are no blurbs, no preface or afterword — no background on the project aside from the description on the back cover, so let me quote most of that because, while the poems could still be appreciated without it, knowing how they came into being adds so much more to the reader’s experience:

Longtime friends, Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser always exchanged poems in their letter writing. After Kooser was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, Harrison found that his friend’s poetry became “overwhelmingly vivid,” and they began a correspondence comprised entirely of brief poems, “because that was the essence of what we wanted to say to each other.” […]

When asked about attributions for the individual poems, one of them replied, “Everyone gets tired of this continuing cult of the personality… This book is an assertion in favor of poetry and against credentials.”

I love that last bit especially, and it’s worth pointing out that Kooser was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States for the first of two terms the year after this book was published, so these guys aren’t exactly unknown poetry bloggers.

Bloggers, hell — they wrote letters. I think we’re meant to understand that they literally sent these through the post, on paper, a practice that some younger readers may know about only from history class. I’m not sure that really makes a difference, although from the sound of things Harrison’s cabin may not have had much in the way of Internet access:

The big fat garter snake
emerged from the gas-stove burner
where she had coiled around the pilot light
for warmth on a cold night.

One of the things that makes this exchange work as a collection is that both poets live in rural areas in the American Midwest, Harrison in Michigan and Kooser in Nebraska, so they draw on a common body of imagery. Having read a number of Japanese linked-verse sequences (renga) over the years, I’ve been intrigued by how well a free-verse “conversation in poetry” can work without anything like renga’s welter of rules. Some of the same principles of connection do seem to apply: adjacent poems usually connect in some way, as in renga, often in less than obvious ways that only reveal themselves to the slow, meditative reader. Any two adjacent poems may be read as a two-stanza poem for an even richer reading experience, especially given the way the publisher has placed them on the page, with nothing but a wide space between them.

But aside from those casual resemblances, no one would mistake these poems for traditional Japanese verse. They are very much in the Western micropoetry tradition as represented in the Greek Anthology, the two-line meshalim of the Hebrew Bible, etc. The poems on page 33, for example, are clearly linked by a didactic and not merely an imagistic thread, and they bristle with metaphors:

How can Lorca say he’s only the pulse
of a wound that probes to the opposite side?
I’m wondering if he ever rowed a boat backwards.

 

The black sleeve falls back
from the scalded fist:
a turkey vulture.

 

At 62 I’ve outlived 95 percent
of the world. I’ll be home
just before dark.

 

All my life
I’ve been in the caboose
with blind glands
running the locomotive.

One gets the impression they’ve included the entire correspondence, not weeding out the less-than-successful poems (such as the last one above), which is refreshing. Because they’ve chosen not to attribute the individual poems, a dud here and there shouldn’t tarnish either of their reputations. As on the Internet, it seems that semi-anonymity enables greater risk-taking.

When I watched her hands
as she peeled a potato,
I gave up everything I owned.

As far as I’m concerned this is the most satisfying collection of poems either of them have written — which is saying a lot because Harrison is a genuinely great poet. But he does have a tendency to go on a bit too long, to beat dead horses, and the brevity of the form kept that tendency in check here. Kooser, for his part, has often struck me as a bit too obvious, but epigrammatic verse is too close to riddling for that to be as much of a danger in this collection.

That winter the night fell seven
times a day and horses learned
to run under the ground.

Nice to see the American tall-tale tradition making its influence felt here and there. The frequent self-deprecating humor and wise-cracks also contribute to the distinctly American and Midwestern feel of the collection.

“What I would do for wisdom,”
I cried out as a young man.
Evidently not much. Or so it seems.
Even on walks I follow the dog.

[…]

Sometimes fate will steal a baby
and leave an old man
soft as a bundle of rags.

Nor do they shy away from political remarks — side-swipes at the Republican Party, or condemnations of politics in general:

DNA shows I’m the Unknown Soldier.
I can’t hear the birds down here,
only politicians shitting out of their mouths.

[…]

All those spin butchers drooling
public pus. Save your first
bullet for television.

Conversation of one sort or another is at the root of inspiration, in my experience. Though like most writers these days I rarely collaborate explicitly, and value solitude for the removal of distractions, I’d have a hard time writing if I couldn’t at least imagine an interlocutor. Ever since the Romantic era, we’ve imagined the lone artist as someone who takes inspiration direct and unmediated from Nature, but that’s nonsense: the cultural template comes first. I don’t think I’m at all unusual in needing often to read something before I write in order to prime the creative pump. Braided Creek has been that something more often than I can count.

We are in conversation with authors whenever we read, regardless of whether we’re writers ourselves. I mean, we let their voices into our heads. How more intimate can you get?

Suddenly my clocks agree.
One has stopped for several
months, but twice a day
they have this tender moment.

This past month, my poetry reading was wondrously improved by the addition of an interlocutor over Skype: a very active listener with uncommonly good short-term memory, whose comments on the poems I read were often more perceptive than my own — and she didn’t have the benefit of the text in front of her. Sharing the poems in this fashion, which I was able to do for at least part of about 2/3rds of the books I read, also made me more attentive to word music (or lack thereof).

This was such a successful experiment, in fact, that I think it’s more than likely we’ll make it a regular (weekly or bi-weekly) thing. In the short-term, though, blogging may be a bit light for the next couple of weeks, as the interlocutor will be gracing Plummer’s Hollow in person.

3 Comments


  1. Thank you for all of your poetry blogging this month. I particularly enjoyed this post, and these poems. Thanks for opening up this collection.

    Have a lovely visit with your interlocutor!

    (…is that what they’re calling it nowadays? ;-)

    Reply

  2. Dave,
    Thanks for the collection of reviews. This “Braided Creek” response is particularly valuable. Looking forward to more NaPoMos and collaboration. Thanks for hosting this exciting exercise. Cheers and Salud.
    Albert

    Reply

  3. What an appealing appreciation of the book and Harrison and Kooser, Dave. Really enjoyed it. And I can see how congenial with you this book would be.

    I have two “paper” correspondents who are much-published writers, and I do treasure those letters. And I look them over more than my email letters from other writers, I believe. The whole little process–finding the letter in the mail basket, opening it with a blade, pulling out a surprise, reading the letter and any enclosures–is satisfying.

    Reply

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