Tom Hennen: Celebrating a Great Neglected Poet


     Note:  The passage below is excerpted from my longer afterword to Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems by Tom Hennen, available in June, 2013 from Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.  As I say elsewhere in my afterword, "A Poet with No Business Sense," Hennen is a neglected master of the image and a hidden treasure of Midwestern poetry.  The publication of his long-out-of-print poems, accompanied by a generous selection of new work, is cause for poetry-lovers to celebrate.  To quote the conclusion of my extended appreciation: 
    "Hennen is one of those poets we return to when we long to relearn what attracted us to poetry in the first place.  Again and again, his poems pull us back from pretension to honesty, away from things, as Lawrence or Whitman might say, not of the soul.  Time after time, he calls us closer to earth, though not at the cost of clipping our wings.  He has written poetry for all the right reasons, and ranks with the true and truthful ones, whom we can trust implicitly, and who, to borrow his words a last time, 'will be talked about for years to come around a fireplace on sparkling cold nights when the winter is so long and the darkness so deep that the heart of the earth feels as if it might break.'" ("Autumn Mushrooms," in Darkness Sticks to Everything)
    All poems quoted below are included in Tom Hennen's Copper Canyon collection, a springtime gift to winter-weary readers.  Reprinted by permission of the author and Copper Canyon Press.

    Like the great Chinese poets Tu Fu and Han-shan, Tom Hennen is a poet of landscape.  In staying close to the earth, both in his life and work for the Department of Natural Resources, he brings to his poems a specificity of detail beyond the reach of less knowledgeable and attentive observers.  And like the Chinese poets, along with Bly and Wright, Hennen is not averse to an occasional title competing in length with the poem itself.  My favorite is "If You Bite a Wood Tick in Two with Your Teeth It Can Give You Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever."
    In his talent for the poetic image, Hennen recalls another Midwestern master of the image, Ted Kooser.  Anyone familiar with the Nebraska poet's work will recognize in Hennen a spiritual blood brother.  Both poets share an ability to move a brief poem directly to its central image with extreme economy of expression.  "Summer Night Air" is a perfect example:
   
     Night doesn't fall
     It rises
     Out of low spots
     Tree trunks
     And the back
     Of the old cow
     I'm bringing home to milk.1

Even more condensed is the aphoristic "Cold in the Trees":

    The hoot
    Of the owl
    Is large enough
    To carry off a whole sheep.

    Hennen knows how to freight even a four-line poem with appeals to multiple senses.  Though his visual strengths are ample, I am struck particularly by his use of the sense of smell to evoke complex and delicate emotions.  In "Smelling a Stone in the Middle of Winter," the stone "Smells like the inside of your dress / On a spring afternoon."   In "Finding Horse Skulls on a Day That Smelled Like Flowers," new grass makes "the scent of the earth visible."
    In Hennen we notice what the Jungians would call intuitive and sensate qualities co-existing at high levels.  Again, we can compare Hennen with Robert Bly, though Bly balances more to the intuitive side and Hennen more to the sensate.  Hennen came of age at a time when the so-called "deep image" waxed strong on the American literary scene, a movement well-fitted to Hennen's drift toward inwardness and introversion.  To the extent that his poems value and celebrate solitude, the earth, elemental presences, and the inner life, Hennen remains one of the purest inheritors of the deep image.
    Bly's influence on Hennen also extends to the many world poets he has translated and with whom Hennen is certainly familiar.  Coming to mind are the Scandinavian modernists, who also have adored the old poets of China and Japan, including Olav H. Hauge, Rolf Jacobsen, Tomas Tranströmer, and perhaps especially Harry Martinson, whose poems share with Hennen's a ground-level view of the northern earth in its seasonal moods and displays.
    Although Hennen writes accurately and vividly of all the seasons on the Minnesota-Dakota prairie, his heart belongs more to the transitional seasons than to summer or winter.  His is a landscape of long, oppressive winters in which dreams of thaw become intermingled with a yearning for personal regeneration.  Milder weather seems to suit Hennen's moderate temperament best.  Those who have lived in the far north know that the longing for springtime can itself be a torment during the extended darkness and cold of winter.  The piercing desire that permeates Hennen's poems is at its most elemental level a desire to distance oneself from death, as in these elegant, sensorily evocative lines in "Finding Horse Skulls on a Day That Smelled Like Flowers":

     Where the sun touched the shining bone
     It was warm
     As though the horses were only dreaming
     In the spring afternoon
     With night
     Still miles away.


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