April 16th, 2009
07:00 AM ET

The man who brought us... America

Editor's note: Katherine Lanpher is the author of the memoir “Leap Days.” She contributes to Time and More magazines, and is a substitute host on public radio’s The Takeaway

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Katherine Lanpher
Writer and Broadcaster

I wish now that I had thought to write about Bill Holm when he was still living and my friend, a big man with appetites to match – for poetry and books, for music, for food and drink and smoke and conversation. Like the great big tree of a man he was – six foot eight and then some – he had deep roots and arms that branched to reach the world; his home was tiny Minneota, Minnesota, pop. 1,400, but he had also lived in China and Iceland, residing part of the year in a small fishing village in the latter.

He was the author of more than a dozen books and I would start you out with my favorite, a collection of essays called “The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth,’’ which features an essay many of his fans can recite portions of from memory. In “The Music of Failure,’’ Bill writes about what it is like to live in one of the small, seemingly barren towns of the Upper Midwest.

New York is full of those of us who ran screaming from those towns and when he was young, Bill did the same. But he came back, in part, because this small town gave him a lense through which to see the larger world; he was “only’’ from Minneota the way Flannery O’Connor was only from her farm in Georgia. At the very least, Minneota held the secrets of his Icelandic immigrant ancestors, men and women who didn’t graduate high school but who introduced him to Bach and Schubert, Walt Whitman and 12th Century Chinese poets. “Nothing can be done about living here,’’ he wrote, “Nor should it be. The heart can be filled anywhere on earth.’’

Some 600 of us gathered at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Tuesday night to lift a glass of Icelandic vodka and toast Bill’s memory. Then the stories began. Jim Harrison recalled his annual meet-ups with Bill in Patagonia, Arizona, so the two men could edit each other’s work . Once, Bill burst into the smoking lounge of the local bar to read his latest poem out loud. For many of the cowboys and constructions workers there, it was their first poetry reading. They liked it. Harrison wrote his eulogy for Bill on Good Friday; in it, he imagines Bill’s resurrection.

Former U. S. poet laureate Ted Kooser praised Bill’s clear prose and telling poetry, and then added that “The Music of Failure’’ should be on the Welcome Wagon of every town in the Upper Midwest. Works about Bill were read as well, including Barton Sutter’s poem that describes him as “the polar bear of American literature,’’ an apt description for Bill’s shock of white hair and his long white beard.

Poets and writers who had been with Bill in the ‘70s recalled his poetry-to-the-people readings in which even people detasseling corn in the fields were served with the word. He brought music to everyone he could, playing a nursing home in the country as if it were a gig in Paris, once playing Bach so long his fingers left blood on the keys.

Robert Bly, the poet who led James Wright to the Minnesota highway that gave us the poem “The Blessing,’’ bookended the proceedings. He and Bill were fast friends, he said, “because we were both from little towns in Minnesota and we didn’t resent it.’’

That got a big laugh from the house on Tuesday night. And then Bly got a sigh when he performed a poem he had written for Bill, which included this line: “whenever he laid his hands on the earth, the well water was sweet for 100 miles.’’

At his bookstore in St. Paul, Garrison Keillor has placed a framed tribute to Bill next to the cash register so that you can’t miss it. Keillor calls him the sage of Minnesota, and wishes in print that he had been there to catch Bill when he collapsed and died in February, on his way home, in fact, to Minneota after his sojurn with Harrison.

I’d call him the sage of Minnesota, too, but it seems so reductive to call anyone a local hero or regional writer, especially when a writer roves the planet the way this one did. If you want to find out more, you can go to http://www.billholm.com, or you can listen to the show from the Fitzgerald; Minnesota Public Radio is going to broadcast it this weekend. Check it out at http://www.mpr.org.

At his funeral at the Icelandic Lutheran Church in Minneota, Bill was laid out in his coffin with Bach sheet music and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass’’ in his hands. He was a big believer in the dead living on in books, so I ask you to go and check out one of his. The heart, after all, can be filled anywhere on earth.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Katherine Lanpher • The Buzz
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Kit in DC

    This is so lovely – an essay worthy of its subject.

    April 16, 2009 at 8:13 pm |
  2. Annie Kate

    Such a wonderful tribute to an amazing man. His declaration that the heart can be filled from anyplace on earth helped me when I had to move from the city of my birth to a city and state that I was not sure I would even care for – to me his saying said that it wasn't the place that mattered so much as the people with you and what you made of where you were. The heart can be filled from anyplace on earth just like home is anyplace on earth where the people you love are with you. Thank you for your insight on this amazing writer. a

    April 16, 2009 at 5:16 pm |
  3. Michael Hartford

    A wonderful writer who loved small places and their people without condescension; we need more voices like his in these times when the small are so easily and thoughtlessly undone.

    April 16, 2009 at 4:29 pm |
  4. Bruce Noll

    Bill was a friend to many, including me. We had a special bond with the same year birth, growing up in Minnesota, and an infinite love and connection with Leaves of Grass. ( Bill once brought me to Iceland to perform Whitman's poems in my program PURE GRASS.) I will never again present Walt to an audience without a dear and tender thought for Bill.

    April 16, 2009 at 3:49 pm |
  5. earle,florida

    This triumphant character of prose; this revolutionary trojan-horse of modern day literacy gift to his contemporaries,never bounded by self criticism; this Prometheus of the past,present ,and future of humble enlightenment; locked in this time capsule called death; now with his lethargic imaginative soul ,searching the here-after ,half comotosed,less the daily baggage of life,should make him well housed-trained in the everlasting chores of afterlife; but with tomorrows' gone,to long for him to wait,he must suffice for yesterday; oh,yesterday you came so subtly with your cold hand,and warm heart's acceptance; may your sweet after-life dreamtime be forever abundant with Bach,and Whitman by your side. God Bless Bill Holm

    April 16, 2009 at 1:06 pm |
  6. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    My condolences on the lost of your friend, and even though the heart can be filled anywhere on earth-–I'm sure you will keep his memory in your heart.

    April 16, 2009 at 8:47 am |