Note: this piece originally began 5 years ago, and I reworked it over the last summer. Enjoy.
Poetry on the Northern Prairie
Bill Holm stood tall, probably six-foot-six. With a bulging stomach, white hair, and a white beard, he looked the part of Santa Claus. And his voice—deep and resonant to the point that any poem he read sounded great—made it impossible for me to fall asleep in his “Poetry” class. It was strictly a “literature” course, so there were daily readings from Donald Hall’s To Read a Poem (a textbook I still own), two exams, two explication papers, and two poem recitations given in front of the class.
All of this happened the fall of my junior year at Southwest Minnesota State University. On Monday and Wednesday afternoons from 3:30 to 4:45, I sat expectantly as Bill read aloud poems by poets I’d never heard of before: Wallace Stevens, Robert Bly, James Wright, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost (beyond “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken”), among many I could name.
I write these two statements unashamedly: he made poetry come alive; he made me into a poet.
* * *
The reading assignment for one class in early October had been Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” along with some other poems, none of which I remember. I followed the opening lines of the poem as Bill recited in his rich baritone, “Let us go, then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” He continued reading, but those opening lines knocked the wind out of me. Eliot’s simile seemed against the “rules” (due to my limited knowledge of and exposure to poetry). My awe left me only one thought: “Maybe I could try writing poetry again.”
At that point in time, I was searching. I was halfway through my program as a vocal music major with a recently added music education track. For the latter I possessed zero enthusiasm—the decision had been one encouraged by parents and my-then girlfriend.
Yet I had always enjoyed poetry—what little I’d read in my small high school English program. I had received A’s on my creative writing assignments in high school. And so during Bill’s class and after it was over, I scribbled lines, attempted to write poems, inspired as much by him and his readings as by the poems and poets themselves.
* * *
Four years later when I was enrolled in the MFA program at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Bill gave a reading at Zandbroz Variety in Fargo. I arrived early to the downtown storefront bookstore on a chilly mid-December night, hoping to talk to him. I was able to catch him before the reading, and I thanked him for his influence and his instruction. I told him about my pursuit of being a poet, a writer. Bill smiled and then laughed. “Well, now you’ve ruined your life,” he said.
After the reading he signed my copy of The Heart Can be Filled Anywhere, still my favorite book of his. In blue ink he wrote, “May this make you a little homesick for the southwest.” That was the last time I saw him.
* * *
Bill collapsed at the airport in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on February 24, 2009, and died the next day from complications due to pneumonia. He was 65. As a man who owned no computer or TV, he left behind a house full of books and music, including a dozen of his own, half of which I’ve read. More significant to me is my personal connection with him, and the way both he and the content of the class altered my career trajectory.
I wouldn’t have dropped the music education track that semester and added a second major: Literature/Creative Writing. I wouldn’t have completed an MFA. And I wouldn’t have gone on for a PhD with a specialization in Creative Writing if it hadn’t been for Bill’s instruction, his encouragement, and his own books that I read with great joy.
* * *
In the bottom drawer of my office’s filing cabinet, in the very back slot, is a blue hanging folder labelled “Pre-Workshop Poetry,” the phrase referring to poems I wrote before I took any undergraduate creative writing classes. In there are poems I drafted that fall. Here are a few lines from one of the attempts: “The sun has just gone down / and the western sky is orangish-red. / To the east it is already getting dark.”
Strangely, 16 years later, I can look in that small stack of poems I wrote while I was absorbing the work of so many great poets, and I see the motifs and subjects that many of my published poems contain: travel, the landscape, the rural areas, evening.
Bill taught me not to be ashamed of where I came from. He taught me that there was poetry in the prairies of Southwestern Minnesota. He taught me to love the region and the people themselves. And now, I can confidently draft, revise, and publish poems set and inspired by this region, offering no apologies, and desiring to give none.
I am, at heart, a prairie poet.