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A Short Short Life of Long Evenings
Stubble fields and a fallen fence row
and a man down drunk in the ditch line
winding its way toward the river that wound north, northeast,
then north again. I found him there that night when I was six
and sent to bring him back.
Just kick him, they said,
and he'll come back to life. But I couldn't.
Instead, I threw rocks. Who are you, I whispered, then pelted him again.
Don't you love what's brief and bound for the trash heap,
old Galaxy 500s with the gas pedal stuck,
the windows left down
so the rainwater pools in the floorboards and sours?
Or the spider dipped down on its luminous silk
to die in a closed-up book,
as each of us will, finito and gone and put along the shelf.
Life's been hard and a hand-me-down thing at best
and one more bark-peeled, whittled-down stob staked
to make a bean row.
And a down-in-the-back pain in the neck to boot for good measure.
But back to the ditch line, back to the arc of a night long gone,
an old man wheezing
and stumbling to feet on a dead-end road-
Who are you, I say, and why have you risen after all these years?
I'd hoped for an evening
of listening toward stars in the heavens,
that old game that never quite ends, but I see that stripped-clean look on his face,
notched up a bit and downright ornery and ready to raise hell,
stunned at what the night has thrown him,
hard as a rock in the gut.
From a Day of Falling Snow
From a day of falling snow, we find the sky again.
The trees have never been more still, their branches
to every trembling inch of bearing white.
I think it takes forever for the soul to find its edge.
Housebound, we might as well be nonexistent.
Into each other's faces we peer, new strangers.
Redbird leaves its perch
and stalls midair, returns,
as though it, too, had some remembering.
Days like this have the feel of memorial.
Someone squandered a fortune, and now the roads
are all but impassable, the woodsline turned inward.
Even the young
are grieving their headlong, dwindling days.
A whole lot seems unnecessary given an hour alone.
Imagine no one ever saying an excess word.
For every falling flake,
another tomorrow has arrived.
For every thousand poems or so, only one more added breath.
-from Notes for a Praise Book
BIO: Jeff Hardin was born in Savannah, TN, (Hardin county), an eighth generation descendant of the county's founder. He is a graduate of Austin Peay State University (B.S. in English) and the University of Alabama (M.F.A. in Poetry). He is the author of two chapbooks, Deep in the Shallows (GreenTower Press, 2002) and The Slow Hill Out (Pudding House, 2003) as well as two collections of poetry: Fall Sanctuary, recipient of the Nicholas Roerich Prize from Story Line Press, and Notes for a Praise Book, recently selected by Toi Derricotte and published by Jacar Press. Nearly 500 of his poems have appeared in such journals as The Southern Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, The New Republic, The Hudson Review, The Gettysburg Review, Southwest Review, Poetry Northwest, Hotel Amerika, Meridian, Tar River Poetry, The Florida Review, Southern Poetry Review, Poem, Zone 3, and many others. His poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. He is professor of English at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, TN.
An Interview with Jeff Hardin by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Talk to us about the dropped lines in "A Short Short Life of Long Evenings" and in your work in general. I'm a big fan of them visually, but I'm not always sure what they do for a poem, how they operate. I typically treat a dropped line like half a line break; there's a very brief pause as they eye drops down to read, but it's not quite as extensive as the pause that occurs when the eye stops at the end of a standard line break.
Jeff Hardin: A lot has been written about lines-theories of the line, the role or function of lines. The Michigan Quarterly Review (in the early 90s) and Center (a few years ago) both devoted issues to the line. Each poem, for me, has a different attention to lines, as if thinking could be driven and developed by the length or sound of a line. A metrical line is not the same as a line that attempts to position thought into smaller moments and wrestlings of thought. Lines by E. A. Robinson and William Carlos Williams don't operate under the same assumptions, but I love them both. Lines by Philip Levine and Richard Wilbur aren't doing the same thing, but I need them both in my life.
I keep going back to a question I read more than 20 years ago by Octavio Paz: "What is saying?" My answer has always been, "Saying is the shape of saying, the pace of saying, the sound and emphasis of each moment of saying." Yes, there is a visual aspect to the lines in "A Short, Short Evening..." A poem has an X axis and Y axis, if I can go back to my love of math. We go down the page while at the same time going across the page, and surely there must be a tension between these two directions, even in our thoughts. Dropped lines, perhaps, can be a way to acknowledge that tension or to go in both directions simultaneously.
Also, I think of dropped lines as a way to capture the pace of thinking, the syntactical parceling out of phrases, to hear their resonances and implications. A dropped line can be a way to focus or to emphasize words, phrases, sounds, images, hesitations, etc. Other times, a dropped line can be a way to re-see, to deepen, to interrogate, or to qualify, what came before. I sometimes sense a torque happening within the thought or music of a thought, and a dropped line becomes a way to tense an already tense thought. If, in the process of writing, my thought ends halfway through a line, and if I then think of that visual space as needing to be filled, in order to create symmetry or balance; sometimes the dropped line creates a way for new words to appear, hopefully reaching that ever elusive insight or summing-up, that ground stepped onto and trusted to exist suddenly holding me up.
AMK: You utilize some wonderfully long lines in this poem and, again, in much of your verse. I like the long line for two primary reasons: 1) it allows for a long, almost lazy narrative movement and 2) it can be more acrobatic with music simply because there's more horizontal space for alliteration, assonance, and so on and so forth. What calls you to the long line?
JH: First of all, I write many different kinds of poems, only some of which appear in long lines. The length of a line is as much a part of the premise of a poem as is the poem's initial statement. When I write in long lines, though, I will admit to feeling as if I am thinking differently-a claim I can in no way prove, of course. Long lines, I believe, allow for an interplay between moving outward in thought and moving inward in thought. Thought can be both expansive and introspective. I feel like I can hear language more musically. Take the first two or three lines of "A Short, Short Life..." The first half line uses two compounds (stubble fields/fallen fence row) as well as repetition of dactyls (stubble/fallen) and alliteration of f sounds. There is a music established, but this music sounds narrative to my ear, like the beginning of something idyllic. Then the dropped line moves out of the first line's word "fallen" into a person who has also fallen, who is "down drunk in the ditch line." The man is down-as is the line-and the alliteration moves to a deeper register of d sounds, mirroring the man's placement. Maybe my whole life can be summed up right there in that moment: the pull of the natural world, the outward gaze toward the landscape and its promise of revelation, and then the reality of a man "down drunk," the tension that pulls me back from "listening toward stars in the heavens" to the more immediate reality of "that stripped-clean look on his face."
AMK: "A Short Short Life of Long Evenings" recounts a childhood event but from the point-of-view of an adult. This is rather apparent in the middle stanzas and in that opening line to the penultimate stanza: "But back to the ditch line, back to the arc of a night long gone,..." How did you manage to write a poem so successfully that recalls childhood but isn't in that child's voice?
JH: When I wrote this poem, in 2005, I was in my late 30s, more than 30 years removed from the memory I recount of being sent to wake a drunk man in a ditch. Hopefully, if the poem is successful, the poem is about the exploration of the memory but also of larger concerns. Parts of this poem keep stepping forward each time I read it, and I suppose if I were writing the poem eight years later (now), then I might delve deeper into what's hinted at in lines such as "Life's been hard and a hand-me-down thing at best." What's this business about dying "in a closed-up book," and what's the implication for the man in the ditch, for the child, for the speaker of the poem? How is memory a book we are creating, both as participants and as observers, and what does it mean that we, too, are "bound for the trash heap" like those Galaxy 500s? Who names a car Galaxy 500 in the first place? Why are "the gas pedals stuck"? Did Galaxy 500 make me think of "listening toward stars in the heavens"? In that world I grew up in, full of drunkenness, abandonment, and multiple homes/families, was I ever much of a child anyway? Something "never quite ends" in my thinking-that's true-and it has to do with this tension between child and adult realities, between human and divine concerns, and between "what's brief" and what's eternal. Though poems seek a balance, a resolution, an answer; they never actually get very far, I suppose. They just provide a moment or two of prayerful consideration and then a letting go. So be it.
AMK: I love the repetition of words within lines in "Ellipses for the Rain on its Way," such as "North of here and east of here," "What's the gist of gist," and "And so it goes, so it goes." There's also a lot of repetition from line to line, even more alliteration in lines like "in a hush of hues hidden in a heap of sighs" and "So melancholy and mournful and misled the self" and quite a bit of full and slant rhyme in moments like "Feed and Seed" and in the final words of the opening lines: "below," "now," and "worry." When I first met you 15 years ago as a student at the Tennessee Young Writers' Workshop, you taught me music was everything in poetry. Why is that? Why do you feel a poem must be musical?
JH: Music is what brought me to poems. It is my first love. "Kubla Khan," "Fern Hill," and "anyone lived in a pretty how town," among others, were some of the first poems that made me want to be inside a poem. The sound of a poem in the ear and in the air is still magical to me. If the language is musical, it seems to imply that we can do something else with language besides sell something or divide people along party lines. Language might actually sing what we want to know but can't know, and maybe the sound can actually lead us along a little farther toward it. Language might let us eavesdrop on our own thoughts and hear something richer by and by. Hymns have been, and continue to be, a big part of my life. A person can actually sing and enjoy words, and words can be both private and shared, both individual and communal. Think about that. Right now, so many people work themselves up into a frenzy with words; they rant about "issues." As one of my unpublished sonnets says, "the soul belongs to hymns/inside the words, the perfect cadences/that sing us something other, something wise." Music, I believe, sings us toward something we can't really reach any other way, "something other, something wise." I can sometimes be brought to tears simply by singing the word "one" from U2's song of the same name. The word just fills and fills with the prayer of itself. I want to hear words hearing all the other words, all of them in one accord.
AMK: When do you know when a poem has enough music or too little?
JH: I try my best to listen clearly and intimately to what's emerging in the process of writing-how all the moments of a poem might comment on all the other moments-and to expect serendipity. Part of the music of a poem, other than alliteration, assonance, and the like, is the balance of the tension of all the words, the sense that what has been set in motion and explored actually achieves a resolution or, if you will, a harmony. A poem has enough music in it when I've read it aloud enough times to believe that I'm as close to wholeness of thought as I can reach.
AMK: This poem is rather metaphysical in the concepts it examines but is extremely physical in the way these musings occur to the speaker. Much of your poetry operates in this way: a speaker meditating on a subject or a sequence of occurrences/observations. So there's a sense of narrative but the lyric is what actually carries the day, the lyric carries the narrative. Is this a reasonable reading of your work? What is more essential to you: narrative or lyric?
JH: Do I have to choose between narrative and lyric? I write and publish many narrative poems and have come close to publication with a couple of narrative collections; but for whatever reason, this other kind of poem I sometimes write, this meditative, lyrical poem, has found its way into acceptance and, thus, into my two published books. In fact, some of my readers prefer my narrative poems and have bluntly told me so. If someone had published my narrative books, we'd be having a different conversation.
In my author's statement on the website Anti-, I offered the following: "I'm anti one voice, one style, one mode, one tone, one frame within which a poem can fit. I don't want to read (or write) two poems in a row that sound too similar. I want a new mind, am against the mind I already have." Poems are an opportunity to try on a new mind, a new pace of thinking, a new strategy toward comprehending the totality of existence. I just don't think a singular strategy of writing-sonnets, for instance, (though I have a collection!)-can adequately approach what we're up against. One day narrative, the next lyric, the next rhyme, the next a combination of all three and some other strategies too?
I prefer to think of a poem as containing all manner of choices, some of them more foregrounded than others. In one poem, for instance, assonance might be more prominent, serving to drive the poem's development more so than story, rhyme, conceit, cataloguing, etc. I mean drive as in moving out ahead to help generate what comes next. A narrative poem relies obviously on structure, on time, on parceling out an event or events into a sequence that reveals action and resolves a central tension. To my mind, that's an entirely different template for a poem than, say, a poem that first describes a scene and then begins to see its metaphorical, philosophical, or theological implications and attempts to tease these out. The purpose of the poem seems different; the place the mind goes to is different; the experience of reading is different.
AMK: What's going on with the dropped line in the quatrains of "From a Day of Falling Snow." I like how this notion of dropping one line per quatrain creates a little form, but why use quatrains in the first place if you're going to break it up like this?
JH: I like the swerve a mind can make, the metaphorical leaps from one thing to the next. I don't want the next thought to be simply the next thought, so to speak, but to be the thought just after that, or the thought five years from now when the magnitude can be comprehended. The connection between these stanzas is minimal, or associative, rather than straightforward. After having written so many narrative poems in my career, I began to seek a new shape for a poem. In my first collection, Fall Sanctuary, there were a couple of poems ("Summons" and "Breathing Exercise") that were among these quatrain poems, with five stanzas per poem, which seemed like a useful arc. (For what it's worth, one stanza was inadvertently left out in "Breathing Exercise" when it appeared in the book). Instead of straightforward quatrains, I wanted to explore dropping a portion of one line per stanza as a way to emphasize syntax or phrasing. Sentence structure can be a way to push forward to a reader what the writer wishes to be thought of as central. Also, given that these poems hopefully exist in the ear, not only on the page, I began to drop lines as a way to hear better the significance of key words or phrases. In an ideal world, I like to think that the dropped lines from each stanza are carrying on a separate, or more intimate, conversation among themselves. Though "From a Day of Falling Snow" uses quatrains, twenty-six poems in Notes for a Praise Book rest in tercets, five stanzas per poem. Reading these poems aloud, I have found that the dropped line provides me with a place to dwell, to hear the implications not only of the line's words but also of the whole stanza's purpose. I hope the same happens for readers. I wish to slow the language down and to meditate upon it. As one poem in the book states, "I want to resurrect the word ‘abide'..." I'm asking how we can "abide" in words. How can we find our home in them, our source in them, our attentiveness to them? How can abiding in words allow us to hear more deeply our own existence, the inconceivable and miraculous fact of being here and thinking about who we are and why we are?
AMK: Going back to your penchant for philosophy, I can't help but notice that your musings often occur in nature. I'm wondering how this happens for you physically. What comes first: philosophical lines like "I think it takes forever for the soul to find its edge" or observational ones like "trees / stretched to every trembling inch"?
JH: In short, observation comes first. I may come across as a buffoon for saying this, but I sometimes think that if I just stare at something long enough, then something unforeseen will step forward, something inconceivable with my own small mind will be revealed to me-almost as if a shining could simply step out of the scene and audibly speak some truth. I know that sounds grandiose, but what else is the writing process if not a deep desire, on some level, to know what essentially is forever out of reach and unknowable? Or maybe the idea that it "takes forever for the soul to find its edge" is what naturally follows the observation that "[t]he trees have never been more still..." Out of that stillness, which seems endless, the endlessness of the soul emerges, the endlessness of thinking about the soul...
AMK: What is it about nature that intrigues you so?
JH: I've written about my childhood before, but let me say again that I spent most of my childhood immersed in the natural world. My father was a towboat pilot on the Mississippi river, and when he was home, we often camped for weeks. We did this several times a year, no matter the season. In one part of my life, I lived in town, went to school, did normal things, and then every other month or so we went to the woods. We had friends who owned 2000 acres. I wandered the woods, floated the creek, sat near a campfire, listened to men swap stories, searched for arrowheads and fossils, and generally existed in the center of a lot of silence. In a sonnet I wrote many years ago, I talk about "a quiet from the core of time," about riding an inner tube downstream within that quiet. In the sestet, I state:
So when I speak, sometimes I speak from there,
that sense of drifting through surrounded on
all sides by wilderness and nothing said.
I suppose if one has ever entered into that kind of deep, abiding, eternal sense of time's passage, then it's hard not to want to be there all the time or to think of it as a context through which one moves. I look at the natural world all the time, but I've never really seen it in its fullness. The least thing is beyond me. If poems are my way of slowing down words to better hear them; and if words are generative, creating anew what I see; then I'm always trying to get to that holy place I believe is at the core of my existence. I first heard it as a child, and I've spent thirty years trying to grow up into it even more, trying to eavesdrop on the infinite. It really does take "forever for the soul to find its edge." Maybe that's a blessing and among the more beautiful aspects of being here.
AMK: What concerns you more, each line or how the lines look and operate together on the page?
JH: My closest friend, the poet Wil Mills, used to say that I was uppity about lines. His comment was playful, albeit perceptive. The integrity of the line, the conception of the line-these were matters he and I discussed and about which we did not entirely agree. Being a formal poet, Wil's conception of the line was metrical; he is the reason why I sometimes write in form, especially sonnets, and hear where the language goes in that shape, in that conception. To me, though, meter is only one kind of line-a fun, mysterious, incredibly rich way to write poems, but to me, settling into that approach is like settling into a single genre in music. I love it, I wish to participate in it, but I don't want to live there all the time. I need both Coldplay and Alison Krauss, both Patty Griffin and Third Day. There are too many other great "genres," if you will, too many other ways to conceive of the shape of thought, to choose only one, especially if each one can pitch the mind toward something the others can't quite do.
Much of my first introductions to poetry came through wildly varied poets such as William Carlos Williams, James Wright, William Kloefkorn, Linda Gregg, Dave Etter, Stephen Dunn, Michael Burkard, Mary Oliver, Albert Goldbarth, and Tomas Transtromer, to name only a few. Each of these poets provides a different way to think about how lines might look or function in a poem. Think about having been given Williams' "This Is Just To Say" or "So Much Depends," as many of us were in high school, and thinking that these were the only poems by Williams or the only way to write a poem. Then think of encountering his collection Desert Music or poems such as "To Asphodel, That Green Flower" or "The Pink Locust." The same person who wrote that wheelbarrow poem wrote these poems? The poems seem so far from one another in what they approach and think about. Both are needed.
I think in lines; I compose in lines. In my process of writing, the shape of a line determines thought-it generates the thought and the development of the thought. I love how a line can be a thought unto itself, lived with as if it were the only reality available, spoken to the self as if it held a central truth. I also love how a line can be both whole and partial, both a resting place and a starting point. How lines look on the page and work in relation to one another marries some need for the visual and the aural to reach a balance. Of course, because the lines are born out of syntax, and since what one encounters first creates a context through which one understands, or interprets, what comes next, then each line is essentially a metaphor, too-vehicle and tenor.
AMK: Ok, here's the scenario: deserted island, plenty of food, shelter, medicine, things to write with.... but not a single collection of poetry. What book would you most wish you had with you and why?
JH: The obvious answer is the Bible, isn't it, but since so much of it is also poetry, maybe I can't get away with that choice. A novel I adore is Jose Saramago's All the Names. His sentences offer philosophical meanderings that could provide weeks of wandering the edges of my deserted island. The story is simply beautiful, and Senhor Jose's search to find and know a single person is everyone's search. I like to think I would never tire of reading this novel. Of course, maybe I should just take along Proust. On a deserted island, having found time at last, I might finally follow through with reading all those pages, the search having both finally begun and come to an end.