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Writer, Poet Jim Harrison Is a Determined ‘Outsider’

July 9, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Most of Jim Harrison's 32 books have been set in the sparsely populated areas he knows well: Northern Michigan, the Sandhills of Nebraska, the Arizona-Mexico border and in the beautiful "Paradise Valley" near Livingston, Mt., where he now lives much of the year. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, ravens, rattlesnakes, poetry, and a writer named Jim Harrison. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jim Harrison is a walker…

JIM HARRISON, Poet: What are you doing?

JEFFREY BROWN: … these days with his dogs, Zilpha (ph) and Mary. He’s also a hunter, a fisherman, a gourmand, and, as he once said, not incidentally, a writer and poet.

JIM HARRISON: Today, the Gods speak in drunk talk, pulling at a heart too old for this walk, a cold, windy day kneeling at the mouth of the snake den where they killed 800 rattlers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Most of Harrison’s 32 books, including “Legends of the Fall,” “Dalva,” and “Returning to Earth,” have been set in the sparsely populated areas he knows well: northern Michigan, the sand hills of Nebraska, the Arizona-Mexico border, and here in the beautiful Paradise Valley near Livingston, Montana, where he now lives much of the year.

JIM HARRISON: Other than fishing and a little bird-hunting, all I do is write.

JEFFREY BROWN: Harrison is a determined outsider, in all senses.

JIM HARRISON: You really get a hang of the country, rather than be stuck in what I call the geo-piety of the Eastern Seaboard.

JEFFREY BROWN: Careful, because that’s where I am.

JIM HARRISON: I know it, but you deserve it, too. But it does happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now 71, Jim Harrison is a Falstaffian figure: blind in his left eye from a childhood accident, chain-smoking his American Spirit cigarettes, part wild man, part cultivated literary lion, who peppers his speech with talk of birds and great poets of the past.

It’s poetry, in fact, that has remained Harrison’s first love. His new collection is called “In Search of Small Gods.”

JIM HARRISON: You sense those spirits in certain, often remote places, whether it’s the spirit of animals, the spirit of trees. So those are the small gods.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they appear throughout these poetry, so it sounds like they’re coming from the walks.

JIM HARRISON: I think that’s true, you know, because sometimes you have little breakthroughs. I’ve known this group of ravens for 19 years, for instance, Chihuahuan ravens, Mexican ravens. And last year, several times, they began to take walks with me.

JEFFREY BROWN: But then you put them into poetry?

JIM HARRISON: Yes, then you do. You know, what is it that Blake said? How do we know but that every bird who cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight close to our senses five, that perception? What is possible in the natural world?

Distinctions of poetry

JEFFREY BROWN: In the cabin behind his house, Harrison writes every day, longhand, no computer. He's always at work on a novel, which begins, for him, with a particular character whose story he finds he has to tell. Poetry is different.

JIM HARRISON: Poetry, there's still a bit of the burning bush aspect of poetry descending on you, bang, you know? As they say, you never quite see it coming.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in the poetry, I hear what I think is you, Jim Harrison, speaking, that "I" -- I, Jim Harrison, looking out at the world.

JIM HARRISON: It would be the truest "I" I could offer, you know, because -- and it's often fun in fiction to construct layers and layers of ambiguity, which is not possible in a poem.

I hope to define my life, whatever is left,

by migrations, south and north with the birds

and far from the metallic fever of clocks,

the self staring at the clock saying, "I must do this."

I can't tell the time on the tongue of the river

in the cool morning air, the smell of the ferment

of greenery, the dust off the canyon's rock walls,

the swallows swooping above the scent of raw water.

JEFFREY BROWN: After years of barely scraping by and refusing offers of academic positions, Harrison made his money and began living the high life in Hollywood, writing films like "Wolf" for Jack Nicholson, who became a friend.

JIM HARRISON: ... look at those juices.

JEFFREY BROWN: Harrison also became known for his legendary eating and drinking. Food, for Harrison, is more than just one of life's small pleasures. His motto is "eat or die." He wrote a food column for Esquire magazine for many years, and he and Linda, his wife of almost 50 years, still cook and feast together.

They shared with us what Harrison thought of as a modest meal of roasted wild pig, homegrown vegetables, and fine wine.

JIM HARRISON: And it's an especially flavorful pork. It's perfectly cooked, Clementine.

JEFFREY BROWN: Diagnosed with diabetes several years ago, Harrison has mellowed a bit, but with several books of poetry and novels in just the last few years, he's more prolific than ever.

Simmering down in life

JIM HARRISON: I've been inordinately productive in the last five or six years, and I think it was boiling down your life. Dogan (ph), an old 14th-century zen philosopher, talked about "cooking down your life." You cook down your life and then the sauce is just right, so you can let go.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is, in fact, much about loss and grief in Harrison's writing these days. His brother and a number of friends have died in recent years. And on our walk near Antelope Butte, he told me of a talk he'd had with one of them, a Native American, just before his death.

JIM HARRISON: And I was really falling apart, and he says, "Don't be upset. These things happen to people." Isn't that an incredible thing to say?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Of course, a lot of characters in your books...

JIM HARRISON: ... are like that, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... are like that, huh? "These things happen." They go through all kinds of tragedies.

JIM HARRISON: Well, that is that Native American stoicism. You know, they tend to see the whole arc.

Moving higher my thumping chest recites the names

of a dozen friends who have died in recent years,

names now incomprehensible as the mountains

across the river far behind me.

I'll always be walking up toward Antelope Butte.

Perhaps when we die our names are taken

from us by a divine magnet and are free

to flutter here and there within the bodies

of birds. I'll be a simple crow

who can reach the top of Antelope Butte.

JIM LEHRER: Jim Harrison reads more poems from his new book, "In Search of Small Gods," on our poetry page, which is at newshour.pbs.org.