The Poet as a Storyteller

Alta Journal publisher Will Hearst shares his personal memories of Jim Harrison.

jim harrison
Scott Baxter

I used to tell students…the difference between poetry and you is you look in the mirror and say, “I am getting old,” but Shakespeare looks in the mirror and says, “Devouring Time, blunt thou thy lion’s paws.”

—Jim Harrison, from the documentary The Practice of the Wild

Any portrait of the artist must overcome the limit of a single perspective. Jim Harrison, several of whose last poems are included in a special booklet within this issue of Alta Journal, was a writer, a human being, with multiple dimensions: husband, father, friend, fisherman, bird-watcher, dog lover, cook, gourmand, wine enthusiast, among many other roles. He penned screenplays, emails, and more than a dozen novels and novellas, but I think in his heart he was always first a poet.

Jim was resistant to editing. He worked hard to craft his sentences, create his characters, and tell the story in the way he wanted it to unfold. He had already thought about the sequences of words, and images, and actions. He didn’t want some editor rearranging things, or suggesting an alternative ending, or missing the point. “You don’t edit poetry,” he would tell them, and as a poet he would not be subject to such indignities. Nobody requests a rewrite of a poem, or even suggests that a different word might be a better choice. The poem is accepted or rejected. In a single swoop. Take it or leave it.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
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The Jim I knew was a storyteller. Writing was a craft, but also a job. He had a place, a kind of studio, and like Picasso he went to his studio every day. It was something he needed to do. Part occupation, part therapy, partly a way to approach the world—to contemplate and reimagine its sadness, finiteness, and also transcendence.

This work was done in a private space, away from friends and family. When it was finished for the day, Jim was a lively conversationalist. He had a way of telling you a story, always keeping your attention, but the boundary between fact and fiction was blurred.

I remember a meal at his house, with his wife, Linda, in Patagonia, Arizona. We were discussing turkey as the traditional protein for Thanksgiving. I asked him whether wild turkeys might be an alternative. They’re known to be tough birds, but perhaps a young one might be tender enough and offer a taste less synthetic than the factory farm–raised variety, more like wild game? It would not be difficult to harvest one. I said we had huge flocks of them on the California coast.

Jim said, yes, he thought so; in fact, there was a special species of wild turkey down there in Arizona. They were common, habitually roosting on the roofs of houses, and the locals often shot these “roof turkeys.” It was a routine occurrence.

I replied: “Wow…that’s remarkable!”

Linda couldn’t take it anymore. “For God’s sake, Jim, he is believing you!”

This was when I finally realized that Jim was writing all the time. Every story was launched on fact and observation, but his telling was also a performance, a test case. Which was better, the literal truth or the alternative version, recast through the poet’s imagination?

A sentence could begin with journalism but often end in poetry and illumination. Like the Bard’s, Jim’s stories were sparkling, holding his audience, seeking to recast from his own experience new tales: how adversity shapes courage, how malice can be so commonplace, and how Romeo felt about Juliet.•

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