Writers and Wide Open Spaces

Posted by on Jun 27, 2012 | 6 comments

This is a photo of a stream in a natural area not far from our cottage. The stream goes on among the untrodden ways  year after year, sparkling and blushing, mostly unseen. Secret, exciting.

Jerry Dennis, who’s written about Michigan in language that makes your mouth water and your eyes cry—he and I were driving up to Petoskey last week to be on a panel of Michigan writers at the International Hemingway Society Conference to talk about the influence of northern Michigan on writers. As we drove, we were talking about how important open space is to our work.

I suppose I haven’t fully earned my official badge as a “Michigan Writer.” I grew up in Arkansas and then lived almost 30 years on the East Coast. When I was in Arkansas, it felt as if there was so-o-o-o much space to write in. I was young. I might conquer the world. Same here in Michigan at the other end of my life.

Not so much in Delaware. I had an idea that Reunion would be poems from each of my three places, equally. But I couldn’t make it happen. It was mostly Michigan. This is silly, but in my mind the East Coast is full up already. Its history is full up and its present is a traffic jam of good work. It can and does go on without me. It has in the past made me feel a little frantic and competitive. God, I can never write like [fill in the blank]. I will never win the [fill in the blank] prize.

That is really silly. Think of the Renaissance, all those poets and painters and playwrights and sculptors rubbing shoulders, making each other better from the proximity, the competition.

But this discussion got Jerry and me  talking about Detroit and how the utter devastation of the city has opened up space for new things to happen. “All things fall and are built again, / And those that build them again are gay.” Once again, it’s possible there to play in the sandbox, the mind’s sandbox.

Not that there aren’t wonderful poets in Michigan. Of course there are. But the ratio of trees and water to cities and poets up here where I live now is over-toppling enough to make it seem as if what I write is an expression of something that would not be said, if I, personally, didn’t say it.  I feel it tugging on me, a great need to find what’s here that’s inarticulate, that can’t speak for itself, and say what paltry thing can be said about it. To sit on the edge of the cliff of words and dangle my feet into the abyss.

It isn’t emotional space. You can find—or make—that in the city. You can find it in a crowded party, if you want. I’m talking about actual, physical space. It is the sense that I could walk miles in any direction and not encounter anyone reciting poetry, or anyone wanting to edit my life or my poem. No adults allowed near the sandbox. Or the riverbed. Leave me to pick up stones, to make my own beaver dam for no reason except to hear the water louder.

My good friend Anne-Marie Oomen and I decided over lunch yesterday, with a glass of chardonnay and a nod to Gregory Orr, that the issue is tenderness in the writing, tenderness toward the world. It’s what seems to happen when we confront the woods, or the road, or the big water, or a snowstorm: we’re in the middle of what hasn’t yet been labled, or graded, or analyzed:  we are, ourselves, a raw surface, utterly exposed to what comes and what will come, unbidden. We are the outsider, the traveler, in a vastness. Our eyes are wide open, intense and hopeful. And tender. We don’t know the answers. We may never know.


  1. my camera often points at wide open spaces as well

  2. Yes, yes, yes. My poetry never really opened up until I got to Alaska where there is physical and psychic space to spare. Your last paragraph really strikes the truth in the matter. Yes!

  3. I agree your last paragraph comes closest, BUt no space in Delaware?
    We have the ocean, no wave is ever the same. We have the dune, no grain of sand ever sits still. And we share the wind and the storm.
    I’m originally from Indiana and how I miss the big midwestern thunderstorm, nothing is so alive, so electric, so awesome – except
    nature in every part of the world. Which reminds me of your little stream in Michigan, if we could just hear it, touch it, love it, join it, get away from self – man’s damnation.

    I think the Adam and Eve story isn’t about knowledge as damnation, knowledge is wonder, but the awareness of self is omnipresent, obliterating, insidious, addictive – true damnation


    • Oh Gary, I love the ocean and the beaches, and there are wonderful green spaces in Delaware. I’m afraid that sounded negative. The thing is, you are always close to a heap of civilization, which can crowd in on your mind. I do love so much about Delaware. What I love about these woods here is that you can get where there’s literally nothing for miles and miles. Except of course survivalists (!).

    • Gary,

      I’m startled to realize how jarring I find your response to Fleda’s blog. It helps to read again what you’ve written, to take note of your comments about the Indiana summer thunderstorms … which I find the more poignant, since I got back just a week ago from a short time in western Minnesota, where I was raised. it was a driving trip (again), so I really have been with the shifting landscape of the eastern half of the North American continent. I believe in the Indiana Thunderstorms!

      I was intrigued at your comment about Delaware, with her beaches and ocean views: but I am sorry to say, I have never sensed that. The great story teller of my grandparents’ generation ago, a century ago was Ole Rolvaag, with _Giants in the Earth_: and it’s no secret that his hero, Per Hansa, was not alone as one who left the seascapes of coastal Norway for the Prairie-scapes of Dakota Territory, and found his soul at rest there, even with winter storms that were no less malevolent in the North American interior than they had been on the North Sea.

      And right now I’m listening to the “Sea Symphony” by Ralph Vaughn Williams,” which I’ve long found refreshing when I play it against sultry Delaware July evenings. But maybe that’s the thing: maybe I’ve never been able to see beyond the commercialism of ocean-shore Delaware to the raw createdness, the majesty and power, of the ocean. I never see beyond Highway 1 and the Rusty Scupper … That’s me, that’s not Delaware. I suppose.

      Nor is it, getting back to Fleda’s blog, the woods of Michigan, either.

      But I remember reading, years ago, in a book by James Hillman, “The psyche seeks it’s own landscape”. And I noted in the margin of the book, “And the prairie is mine.” There is probably nowhere on earth that I feel more at home than on a vista that allows me to look out and see wide open pastures, with cattle grazing among the clumps of sage … One sees this in the eastern plains of Colorado, and the western counties of Nebraska; and my recollection of them must be, admittedly, mostly an expression of the nostalgia of a relic cattleman who has to see all landscapes going the way of Hud and his contemporaries in Larry McMurtry’s _Horseman Pass By_.

      Nonetheless: Fleda, thanks for the provocations of landscape that come to us out of your essay in praise of of the Michigan woods.


      • Allen, I read your lovely comment out loud to Jerry in the car as we were on our way back from Michigan. The psyche is indeed its own landscape. And I suspect the landscape is the shaper of our psyches, also.

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