THE FICTION POETS BATTLE: STEPHEN DOBYNS V. JIM HARRISON

jim harrison

Jim Harrison: You want a poem? I’ll give you a poem…You want a novel? I’ll give you that, too. And a movie script. You can have one of those. Now let’s go have some lunch.

Dobyns and Harrison are both known for their fiction, and each has had two films produced from their work; one of Harrison’s: “Legends of the Fall,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt.

Stephen Dobyns (7th seed in the South bracket) is a late 20th century prose poem master, using the form for limitless accessible expression (there is no end to the possibilities of accessible poetry).

Allegorical Matters

Let’s say you are a man (some of you are)
and susceptible to the charms of women
(some of you must be) and you are sitting
on a park bench. (It is a sunny afternoon
in early May and the peonies are in flower.)
A beautiful woman approaches. (Clearly,
we each have his or her own idea of beauty
but let’s say she is beautiful to all.) She smiles,
then removes her halter top, baring her breasts
which you find yourself comparing to ripe fruit.
(Let’s say y ou are an admirer of bare breasts.)
Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.
You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
you embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.
The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author’s sexual anxieties. The second says,
Such fantasies derive from the empowerment
of women and the author’s fear of emasculation.
The third says, The author is manipulating sexual
stereotypes to acheive imaginative dominance
over the reader—basically, he must be a bully.
The author sits in front of the trio of experts.
He leans forward with his elbows on his knees.
He scratches his neck and looks at the floor.
where a fat ant is dragging a crumb. He begins
to step on the ant but then he thinks: Better not.
The cool stares of the experts make him uneasy
and he would like to be elsewhere, perhaps home
with a book or taking a walk. My idea, he says
concerned the seductive qualities of my country,
how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies,
how it lets us imagine that we are lucky to be here,
how it creates the illusion of an eternal present.
But don’t we become blind to the world around us?
Isn’t what we see as progress just a delusion?
Isn’t our country death and what it touches death?
The trio of experts begin to clear their throats.
They recross their legs and their chairs creak.
The author feels the weight of their disapproval.
But never mind, he says, Perhaps I’m mistaken;
let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.

—Stephen Dobyns

Jim Harrison’s poem is taken from a series of prose poems published in APR called Letters to Yesenin. (Yesenin was a Russian poet who hung himself in prison.)  Harrison (10th seed in the South) is no stranger to the prose poem, either. He wrote these poem-letters in the early 70s while living on a farm (all the poets lived on farms in those days).  He was in his early 30s at the time, but he makes it sound like he’s an old man: a litany of ills verging on acute self-pity, resembling a Richard Hugo rant. (Has Harrison had a hard life? Yes.)  Anyway, the crumbling wreck of a soft/hard, self-pitying American man was all the rage in the 70s.

#9  (Letters to Yesenin)

What if I own more paper clips than I’ll ever use in this
lifetime. My other possessions are shabby: the house half
painted, the car without a muffler, one dog with bad eyes
and the other dog a horny moron. Even the baby has a rash on
her neck but then we don’t own humans. My good books were
stolen at parties years ago and two of the barn windows are
broken and the furnace is unreliable and field mice daily
feed on the wiring. But the new foal appears healthy though
unmanageable, crawling under the fence and chased by my wife
who is stricken by the flu, not to speak of my own body which
has long suffered the ravages of drink and various nervous
disorders which made me laugh and weep and carress my shotguns.
But paperclips. Rich in paperclips to sort my writings which
fill so many cartons under my bed. When I attach them I say
it’s your job afterall to keep this whole thing together. And
I used them once with a rubberband to fire holes into the
face of the president hanging on the office wall. We have freedom.
You couldn’t do that to Breznev much less Stalin on whose
grave Mandelstam sits proudly in the form of the ultimate
crow, a peerless crow, a crow without comparison on earth.
But the paperclips are a small comfort like meeting someone
fatter than myself and we both wordlessly recognize the fact
or meeting someone my age who is more of a drunk, more savaged
and hag ridden until they are no longer human and seeing
them on the street I wonder how their heads which are only
wounds balance at the top of their bodies. A manuscript of
a novel sits in front of me held together with twenty clips.
It is the paper equivalent of a duck and a company far away
has bought the perhaps beautiful duck and my time is free again.

–Jim Harrison

MARLA MUSE: The Harrison poem sounds a bit rambling, though of course it’s charming. The Dobyns poem has more art. I rather like the Dobyns; it’s very clever.

And Dobyns proves his worth on the court, Marla.  Dobyns wins 66-54.

Advertisements

6 Comments

  1. Poem support said,

    March 30, 2011 at 9:11 am

    Allegorical Matters

    Let’s say you are a man (some of you are)
    and susceptible to the charms of women
    (some of you must be) and you are sitting
    on a park bench. (It is a sunny afternoon
    in early May and the peonies are in flower.)
    A beautiful woman approaches. (Clearly,
    we each have his or her own idea of beauty
    but let’s say she is beautiful to all.) She smiles,
    then removes her halter top, baring her breasts
    which you find yourself comparing to ripe fruit.
    (Let’s say you are an admirer of bare breasts.)
    Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
    and forehead, moving them across your face.
    You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
    you embrace her but then you learn the horror
    because while her front is is young and vital,
    her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
    in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
    we pause and invite in a trio of experts.
    The first says, This is clearly a projection
    of the author’s sexual anxieties. The second says,
    Such fantasies derive from the empowerment
    of women and the author’s fear of emasculation.
    The third says, The author is manipulating sexual
    stereotypes to achieve imaginative dominance
    over the reader—basically, he must be a bully.
    The author sits in front of the trio of experts.
    He leans forward with his elbows on his knees.
    He scratches his neck and looks at the floor
    where a fat ant is dragging a crumb. He begins
    to step on the ant but then he thinks: Better not.
    The cool stares of the experts make him uneasy
    and he would like to be elsewhere, perhaps home
    with a book or taking a walk. My idea, he says,
    concerned the seductive qualities of my country,
    how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies,
    how it lets us imagine we are lucky to be here,
    how it creates the illusion of an eternal present.
    But don’t we become blind to the world around us?
    Isn’t what we see as progress just a delusion?
    Isn’t our country death and what it touches death?
    The trio of experts begin to clear their throats.
    They recross their legs and their chairs creak.
    The author feels the weight of their disapproval.
    But never mind, he says, Perhaps I’m mistaken;
    let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
    He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
    He considers the difficulties of communication
    and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
    he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
    Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.

    Stephen Dobyns

  2. Poem support said,

    March 30, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    From “Letters to Yesenin”

    9

    What if I own more paper clips than I’ll ever use in this
    lifetime. My other possessions are shabby: the house half
    painted, the car without a muffler, one dog with bad eyes
    and the other dog a horny moron. Even the baby has a rash on
    her neck but then we don’t own humans. My good books were
    stolen at parties long ago and two of the barn windows are
    broken and the furnace is unreliable and field mice daily
    feed on the wiring. But the new foal appears healthy though
    unmanageable, crawling under the fence and chased by my wife
    who is stricken by the flu, not to speak of my own body which
    has long suffered the ravages of drink and various nervous
    disorders which make me laugh and weep and caress my shotguns.
    But paperclips. Rich in paperclips to sort my writings which
    fill so many cartons under my bed. When I attach them I say
    it’s your job afterall to keep this whole thing together. And
    I used them once with a rubberband to fire holes into the
    face of the president hanging on the office wall. We have freedom.
    You couldn’t do that to Brezhnev much less Stalin on whose
    grave Mandelstam sits proudly in the form of the ultimate
    crow, a peerless crow, a crow without comparison on earth.
    But the paperclips are a small comfort like meeting someone
    fatter than myself and we both wordlessly recognize the fact
    or meeting someone my age who is more of a drunk, more savaged
    and hag ridden until they are no longer human and seeing
    them on the street I wonder how their heads which are only
    wounds balance at the top of their bodies. A manuscript of
    a novel sits in front of me held together with twenty clips.
    It is the paper equivalent of a duck and a company far away
    has bought this perhaps beautiful duck and my time is free again.

    Jim Harrison

  3. Poem support said,

    March 30, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    From “Letters to Yesenin”

    3

    I wanted to feel exalted so I picked up
    Doctor Zhivago again. But the newspaper was there
    with the horrors of the Olympics, those dead and
    perpetually martyred sons of David. I want to present
    all Israelis with .357 Magnums so that they are
    never to be martyred again. I wanted to be exalted
    so I picked up Doctor Zhivago again but the TV was on
    with a movie about the sufferings of convicts in
    the early history of Australia. But then the movie
    was over and the level of the bourbon bottle was dropping
    and I still wanted to be exalted lying there with
    the book on my chest. I recalled Moscow but I could
    not place dear Yuri, only you Yesenin, seeing the Kremlin
    glitter and ripple like Asia. And when drunk you appeared
    as some Bakst stage drawing, a slain Tartar. But that is
    all ballet. And what a dance you had kicking your legs from
    the rope—we all change our minds Berryman said in Minnesota
    halfway down to the river. Villon said of the rope that my neck
    will feel the weight of my ass. But I wanted to feel exalted
    again and read the poems at the end of Doctor Zhivago and
    just barely made it. Suicide. Beauty takes my courage
    away this cold autumn evening. My year old daughter’s red
    robe hangs from the doorknob shouting stop.

    Jim Harrison

  4. April 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    THE GREAT EMANCIPATION

    I have a blog in wordpress.com
    I put my prose-poems therein
    thinking that these will not be a paper white oomph!

    There are waterfalls, sound coming out close to ears.
    Sanctum and tandem move like stellar of good objects
    that can turn black cloud to touch the earth.

    This first thinking runs through changes
    whether hard drive of server can survive
    if mankind is eloped and all hard-drive-disks
    dip into suspension in an undefined cluster of quakes
    either created or naturally constituted to bring uxorious
    to the sun that bursts into a black hole and supernovas,
    like another one rooted far beyond this universe
    not linked with God’s blessings, as imagined.
    Salt and flower completely evaporate to nothingness.

    Then there is nothing to dissolve —
    Then there is nothing to mitigate–
    Then there is nothing to cultivate–
    Then there is nothing to exchange–

    Then
    at random, the earth moves in its random way,
    at movement, the earth moves in its movement sway,
    at freedom the earth moves in its freedom cut away.

    And there remains only one episode:
    trajectory and velocity turn to be two sides of emancipation.

    -Asim Kumar Paul
    01.04.2011

    http://asimkrpaul.wordpress.com

  5. April 1, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Please read and comment on Revision: at my blog posted on 27.02.2011

    at http://asimkrpaul.wordpress.com

    -Asim Kumar Paul
    01.04.2011


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: