Jeff Hardin, born in Savannah, TN, in 1968, is Assistant Professor of English at
Columbia State Community College in Columbia, TN. He earned a B.S. in English from Austin
Peay State University (1990) and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of
Alabama (1993), where he twice won the Academy of American Poets Award (1992 and 1993). In
addition, he has been a Summer Fellow at the Stadler Semester for Younger Poets at
Bucknell University, as well as a faculty member with the Young Fugitives Writers
Workshop, sponsored by the Tennessee Humanities Council. His poems have been nominated
five times for a Pushcart Prize, and two of his manuscripts, A Song for This Town
and A Large Land Where No One Dies, have placed in first book competitions. Having
published his first poems in 1987 at the age of 18, he has, over the last decade,
contributed to such journals as Ascent, Amaranth, Appalachian Journal, Birmingham
Poetry Review, Blueline, Crab Orchard Review, The Distillery, The Florida Review, The G.W.
Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Plainsong, Pleiades, Poem, Poet
& Critic, Poet Lore, Puerto del Sol, Quarterly West, Whirligig, Zone 3 and many
others. Also, his work has appeared in Homeworks: An Anthology of Tennessee Writers
(University of Tennessee Press). In 1991, he was lucky to marry Starla and has been
wandering around in a continual and enviable state of astonishment and glee ever since.
They are blessed with a daughter, Storie. So superb is life.
It seems to me that if poems should do anything, they should confirm our intimacy. They should at least point us in that direction. Language aspires beyond its present condition, one devoid of meaning and engagement, and we call this aspiration poetry. We read poems, and now and then one voice and its company of words reaches the dead place in us, and a seed drops down, and maybe years pass, and beauty finds roots in us.
* * *
A short couplet summarizes my position on what I think of as the role of poetry for me:
I must be on guard my ordered speech not turn to babble,
for inasmuch I set again Cain upon Abel.
My feeling is that language has a great power to create forms of death: emotional, spiritual, and literal. Poetry is my attempt to "measure" my language, both in aesthetic sound and in potential effect on those I encounter. When I use words, I don't want to be unchanged by the words. Good poets seem to think of a word as being like bread, and they break it open and give the ample half to the person who needs it most. So many poets have done this for me. I tremble when I read the Bible and discover that I will be held accountable for every word I say. Poetry, at least to me, provides an attempt toward erasing ego and embracing humility. I don't read or write poems to be inspired or entertained but to be convicted toward a more perfect relationship with myself, my community and, ultimately, my God.
* * *
I grew up in a family of non-readers. Spotlighting deer was a frequent family outing. Among the adults I knew, much alcohol was consumed. For a time, I was a ward of the state. My family, along with several others, camped for weeks at a stretch at Horse creek. We slept in a silver school bus with "The Silver Bullet" painted along the side. When nature called, we found a tree or jumped in the creek. Target practice equaled entertainment. We stayed up all night barbequing hogs, the words of Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition" and "Country Boy Can Survive" blaring from my dad's wide-open truck doors. I once shot twenty-six birds off a power line before daybreak. We revered Grizzly Adams, not because of his gentle demeanor, but because he could survive in the woods. This was apparently important to us. This was the measure of being a man.
Against this backdrop, I wish I could convey the gratitude I feel for having found poetry. As corny as it sounds, it has altered my existence. Steve Miller, a professor at the University of Alabama, once told me that I had fallen up through the cracks. If I fell up for any reason, that reason was poetry. I no longer know which world is the most foreignthe one I grew up in or the one I currently live in. I was seventeen before I met a grown man who said he wrote poetry. That a poet and college professor was born from the likes of me and mine is, to some, a genuine conundrum. All I know is that I have always loved words, probably because I have always wished to be naive enough to believe in words, even when the life-evidence says not to trust them.
Rhyme, meter, narrative, lyric, formalism, free versethese modes are discussed, it seems, often to prove one strategy more valid than another. Meanwhile, people on that creek bank care not one whit. Since I come from that place and that kind, I'd rather be grateful for what poetry affords: an opportunity to sense and explore the magnitude of language, to lay claim to value and meaning and beauty in my life. I don't take such inclination or ability for granted, because I lived more than half my life without it. People refer to the "poetry wars" or to "poebiz" or to "the different camps" of writers and all the jockeying for position and status, but I'm happy to have been spared long enough to have read an issue of Hayden's Ferry Review or The Formalist or Poetry or Zone 3 or Poem.
I am even more awed by the countless numbers of individual poems that compose my inner life and nurture my understanding and affection for being alive. For instance, I can't imagine living without Richard Jackson's line, "There's a little stain of blood on the floor of heaven" or Albert Goldbarth's "Think of needing to know." Who would I be without Stephen Dunn reminding me to find out who I am before I die, without Philip Levine's M. Degas drawing that chalk line on the board, without William Stafford's quiet truths, without Pablo Neruda admitting he has a yellow heart?
When Merwin revises Baudelaire, addressing his own reader, he begins,
Hypocrite reader my
variant my almost
family we are so
few now it seems as though
we knew each other as
the words between us keep
assuming that we do
Perhaps I am first a hypocrite, then a reader, and maybe my encounter with poems (good news!) has set me on the path toward intimacy. I read and write poems in order to become a variant and then eventually "almost family" with anyone willing to take me in. And I have been taken in by most of the giants of the word: Paul, David, Solomon (i.e. the Bible, i.e. God), Tu Fu, Keats, Shakespeare, Shelley, Frost, Rilke, Emerson, Stevens, Thoreau, Transtromer, Dickinson, et al. I have dined with them all, lived beneath their roofs, conversed at great length, been irrevocably changed. They have taught me that words do, in fact, assume that we know each otherwords are on our side. Is it true so few of us wish the most for the language (even as the language wishes the most for us)? No wonder Neruda has a yellow heart: he has all these answers he never offers to all these questions that are never asked. But he is poised to do so, and so am I. I know that Ivan Lalic says that I should count the words I trust and keep the last one for myself, but the poems I love seem to risk vulnerabilitythey seem to admit that "almost family" sounds like something for which to be utterly grateful.
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