Beyond Confessional: Jonathan Holden…Honest Poetry, Honest Discovery was originally presented by Greg at the March, 2006 Cultural
Studies Conference, Kansas State University.
The essay was published in The Midwest Quarterly, Summer, 2007 V. 48, No. 4
(L- R Photo, c. 2005)
Ted Kooser, US Poet Laureate
Jonathan Holden, 1st Kansas Poet Laureate
Greg German, Essay Author
No matter how young or old we might be, it strikes us occasionally that we have run out of time to learn new things or
make new friends. We assume that time and lack of opportunity is against us and our lists are now concluded. But this is not true.
One of my favorite bits of wisdom of which I like to remind myself, and occasionally share with others, is: “You haven’t met your next
best friend, yet.” And this is true, one looks up and there he or she is, materializing from some wilderness, born of odd circumstances and unexpected events — an honest discovery.
It can happen like this…
Once upon a time, a somewhat older returning student to Kansas State University, walked into a classroom in Eisenhower Hall, found a chair
along the back wall and sat down. Other students filtered in and likewise waited for the professor. This was Intro to Creative Writing class, a split course consisting of half semesters of fiction and poetry. Poetry writing was first and, having
absolutely no interest in poetry, the older guy was anxious to get it over with that the manlier task of fiction writing could be pursued. He was impatient to learn the finer points of writing the next best paperback novel, not some rhyming gibberish that
was no fun to read.
Finally, with scurrying, tight steps a thin man, presumably the professor, dressed in brown slacks, plaid shirt and tweed sport jacket
hastily entered the scuffed, dingy-white classroom. Focused on the ancient pine-brown-colored desk opposite his students, he went directly there, placed a stack of papers on it and proceeded to sit. Skillfully, he backed his rear-end up onto the
furniture’s age-worn top and crossed his legs Indian style. The students immediately found this curious. A beard filled out his narrow face; hair disheveled, his glasses were cranked on to his nose at some odd, unnatural angle.
“Hello,” he said in a curt, punctuated voice. “I’m Professor Jonathan Holden and this is 463, Intro to Creative Writing, Poetry.”
Not wasting time, he droned quietly into a description of the class, followed by a lecture of writing and literary gist. This captured all
our attentions, maybe not so much because of the content, but because Professor Holden, balanced near the edge of the desk, eyes closed, had begun to rhythmically rock, back and forth while addressing us.
Being a guy from deep rural Kansas, my hands scarred from wrench slips, my mind partially filled with chores, hogs and tractors, I leaned
my head against the wall and feigned normalcy and impartiality. My first impression of Jonathan, a quarter century ago, was somewhat perplexing. And, when was he going to fall off that desk? I distinctly recall wondering what the hell I was getting into.
And, reminding myself that I had to do this poetry stuff so as to move on to more rewarding tasks. I never missed class.
Ours was an unforeseeable relationship, a young, displaced farmer and blooming scholar of poetry, over time, sharing knowledge uncommon to
the other on a path to common ground—strangers… a professor and a student, becoming friends, becoming peers. Over the years we have offered one another new opportunities; we have drunk together, laughed together and surprised one another; we have
experienced mutual friends; we have shared in each other’s losses and exuberances; we have hacked into and praised each others work; we have always been honest.
So, many could be wondering how this story applies to an exposé titled, Beyond Confessional: Jonathan Holden…Honest Poetry, Honest
Discovery. To a point, this collection of words, initially drafted through a labor of misdirection and error, finally buoyed itself with the obvious. The misdirection was my following a suggestion that this content reflect how Jonathan and his poetry
imitated Lowell’s, Sexton’s, Plath’s, Bishop’s, Berryman’s and others—those poets labeled “confessional,” and if not confessional, then perhaps “para-confessional.” —para meaning not exactly like but, in some ways, parallel to or similar.
Garnering that there must be some inclination among the better versed assessors of poetry than myself, that Jonathan’s work could be
compared to this cluster of poets, I worked the angle. I researched the research. I reread the poetry. I reevaluated my personal judgments. I made exceptions for and bent both Webster’s and the literary community’s definitions and use of the words
confess, confession and confessional and how they were applied in labeling poets of this directed style.
The answer is no. In my opinion, Jonathan should never be labeled, nor can his poetry even be nearly compared to that of so
defined “confessional” poets’. I discussed the issue with him.
“No matter how hard I try,” I told him. “I cannot see you as a confessional poet. The closest I can come is by assessing that most poets,
through a type of confessionary means, give up previously unshared personal information, insight and experience through the medium of their written product. If that’s so, then we are all confessional poets to some degree.”
“However,” I pointed out. “Your poems are not necessarily negative in resource, content and tone compared to those poets labeled
confessional. Your poems are not filled with dismal demise. I cannot think of any that are.”
“That’s true,” he said. “Perhaps I am better defined as an autobiographical or imagist poet.”
“But most poets are autobiographical to some point in their delivery,” I replied. “Those terms are too general, and not specific enough to
define you and others such as Ted Kooser, William Kloefkorn and the like. There must be a word that more closely defines your work, its content and vision. What is it?”
What is Jonathan Holden’s Poetry?
Jonathan’s poetry is always intimate and personal. It is autobiographical from the perspectives of personal experience and observation,
learned knowledge and common sense. His work is accessible. Subject matter and intent of message are provided freely; strings are never attached; Jon’s poetry can NOT be labeled as confessional; it never solicits forgiveness or implies blame. The
language he chooses is never derogatory. He is a craftsman.
…I heft the framing
hammer back to stroke, I see my father
in the cellar, frowning as he fits
his saw blade to a line, eases it back
and forth to start the cut, his breath
hissing through his nose as it always does
when he’s intent. I hear my own breath
hissing through my nose. Something
silent in me starts chuckling in pure
gaiety because I’m frowning too, because
I know exactly what I look like.
From —Remembering My Father
Each of Jon’s poem’s titles, each line’s first and last word, and every word in-between intentionally labor.
He provides a voice that is trustworthy and strong, comfortable and matter-of-fact.
Tactful and considerate, he often approaches his audience as if
in conversation with good a friend, over a cup of coffee.
I like this low, comfortable kind
of conversation which the rain's
been having with itself all day
as it goes about its business,
deftly assembling its tiny parts,
confident, in no great hurry…
Jonathan provides images that are clear, crisp and clean, easily allowing his audience to share
his view of landscape and emotion with their own experiences, thus making
the poem more accessible and meaningful to each reader.
you’ll open every window wide.
The night’s incessant gossip
will crowd in through the screens—
locusts, cat fights, voices
of all your old relations staked out
as far as you can hear
in their predictable positions,
meaning that you’re back…
His poems encourage solution to conflict and the unexplained; they investigate and solve both personal
and universal occurrences. He does not manipulate facts. He discovers, collects and analyzes
the evidence of life minutia within environment, emotion and time.
Out past the motels where town ends
and all the weather starts and the windy
grasses rattle their dried bracelets
Greg swung his pickup off the dusty road
and we wobbled westward over ruts, looking
for some place safe to shoot.
What does being “American” feel like?
Steering the sights of his .357 magnum
from lucky rock to rock, I could feel
the solid handshake of its grip…
From —Some Basic Aesthetics
His examinations involve careful thought, keen understanding, and unobstructed
observation. He utilizes all the senses. Jonathan’s motives are pure.
His poetry seeks truth, insight and solution beyond the obvious.
Searching for a word or words, to accurately, yet simply, define Jonathan’s writing, I discovered many that nearly worked, including:
enlightened, insightful, translucent. cognizant, sentient, reflective, introspective, intrinsic, inherent, percipient, autopsic (related to autopsy), experiential, pragmatic and forensic. Forensic. Forensic poet. A forensic poet. I was getting close.
But finally, the word heuristic—its meanings appeared to encompass much of Jon’s writing philosophy from encouragement of investigation, discovery and solutions, involvement of trial and error, and self-education.
I called Jon and we discussed the potential label. He approved. Heuristic poet, it was then. I hung up the phone and lay down on
the couch, confident that I had the mainstay to form this essay…almost.
In a half-hazy state of dozing, it came to me—a fundamental of writing of which I insist of myself as well as my students—something
Jonathan had taught me: be honest to your experience. This was the simple, concrete conclusion of which I had been searching. Jonathan is an honest poet, who creates honest poems through honest discovery.
The honest poet rises beyond confessional. The poet being honest to his experience is the halo that illuminates a poem to a higher level
of success. It permits the poem to be shared for the true sake of sharing, for the sake of discovery, not only for the poet but also his audience. This is Jonathan Holden.
It is the Jonathan I first experienced rocking on a desk top, as he began to teach me the art and craft of poetry. Not only has honesty
prevailed in his poetry and personal life, it has impacted his teaching and students. I have firsthand experience of this quality, both personally and observed. Over time, having been in many of his classes, countless meetings and several beer-joint
discussions, my recollections are that he never took or offered a shortcut to any poem or anyone. Because of this, many of his students have become astute poets and teachers themselves. Tactfully, he modeled, molded, persuaded, steered and enlightened us
in the discovery of successful, honest poetry.
I distinctly recall the one moment that Jonathan afforded me twenty-five years ago, an occasion that made all the difference in my
writing. A few weeks into my first class with him we arranged one of those professor/student consultations that are expected. I had had some success on building the first poems that Professor Holden had assigned and, having become somewhat intrigued by
this poetry thing, was anxious to show off my latest effort. A cool, overcast afternoon, I vividly recall walking into his office on the second floor of Dension Hall. His gray desk was positioned next to the large window allowing a good look at the
adjoining building and some overhanging limbs still dripping with winter. I pulled up a chair and handed him a typed, eight-line poem of which I felt really good. I’d honed those words into working overtime; their sound created a perfect rhythm that
helped create a purposeful image, one that I could clearly grasp. Expectantly pleased, I waited.
“This is shit!” he said. Those were his exact words.
Somewhat taken aback I faked indifference. I sat there calmly. I suppressed a number of barbed responses often levied toward bi-polar farm
animals refusing to move through an open gate. “Oh,” I replied. “How’s that?”
While he patiently explained, I attempted to interject with a couple of “buts” and limp alternatives as to why the piece might be
succeeding…in my opinion. But, he was adamant. So, during that handful of minutes, concealed curses subsiding, I agreed to successfully complete the assignment to his approval. This was my turning point—my leading epiphany to learning the craft of
poetry, understanding, identifying and throwing away any writing, any lines, any words that could be deemed shit, even though I might really like them.
Most certainly, Jon does not ordinarily use such sharp, digestively abrupt language when healing a student’s prolapsed writing attempt.
However, I am a person that appreciates a well honed knife.
There is a line in Jon’s poem, An American Boyhood, a piece framing a few minutes of time during the poet’s youth, where he shares
One Sunday afternoon
I had an idea...
Occurring in the midst of a New Jersey neighborhood, alleys, old homes, dust trampled backyards and vacant lots, Jonathan’s youthful idea
revolved around electricity generated from a toy train transformer into a tin plate of saltwater. Next, his young fingers, as well as a friends’, soaked up an ever increasing buzz of current. The result of this idea was one of honest discovery, one that
a boy can truly appreciate. That, even against willpower, after a period of time and increasing current, one’s hand is forcibly
and painfully bucked away from the electricity’s conductor. The discovery of this fact is important for reasons a boy understands.
It is a vehicle—an adventure, a challenge, a test founded in boredom and excitement, curiosity and unknowns, an event that happens
in-between the quick strides of everyday life.
Fortunately for us, on that particular Sunday, Jonathan Holden chose not to rest. Or, on any other day for that matter, as it appears to
me that most of his days are filled with good ideas. How fortunate for all us, on any given day, one man’s experiences, observations and insights often grow into really, really good discoveries and honest poetry.