Prairie Eyes: In Gratitude to Bill Holm

by Mark E. Swanson

Bill Holm passed away on February 25th. He was a poet, essayist, and musician, who filled a six foot, eight-inch Icelandic-American frame. His home, when he was not in Iceland, was Minneota, Minnesota, a small town in the southwest corner of the state. And he taught me how to love the plains.

I had been aware of him for some time, but never gave him much serious thought or reading until I heard him read at the 2006 South Dakota Festival of Books in Sioux Falls. We had lived in South Dakota for just over a year and I could not understand what beauty anyone could find here. There were no lakes, like notably in my native Minnesota, or Lake Michigan, left behind in Chicago in our move to South Dakota. Even worse there were few trees, little change in elevation, an incessant wind, and a hue, which seemed to inject a sample of brown into every landscape. We felt like we had settled in a rather lackluster place. And then I heard Bill Holm.

At a large performance amongst other poets, he charmed us all with his humor, authenticity, and homage to his own favorite poets. Impressed, the next morning I went to hear him read again, where he recounted a story found in his essay “Horizontal Grandeur:”

For years I carried on a not-so-jovial argument with several friends who are north-woods types. They carted me out into the forests of northern Wisconsin or Minnesota, expected me to exclaim enthusiastically on the splendid landscape. “Looks fine,” I’d say, “but there’s too damn many trees, and they’re all alike.” If they’d cut down twenty miles or so on either side of the road, the flowers could grow, you could see the sky, and find out what the real scenery is like.

I was shocked to hear anyone desecrate such a landscape, as I assumed such a setting draws unanimous appreciation. But, even more than his disinterest in the north-woods, I was enamored by his high appreciation for this place of the plains. He found in it beauty, but also a depth of meaning that formed him beyond what was visible at first glance. For in the same essay, he expounds on the idea of horizontal grandeur. He writes, “Prairies, like mountains, stagger the imagination most not in detail, but in size. As a mountain is high, a prairie is wide; horizontal grandeur, not vertical. People neglect prairies as scenery because they require time and patience to comprehend.” Such appreciation comes from the development of a prairie eye over a woods eye. The woods eye looks for “closeness, complexity, and darkness” whereas the prairie eye “looks for distance, clarity, and light.” He doesn’t exalt one over the other, but states he carries a prairie eye, which carries well in art, as he advises, “Trust a prairie eye to find beauty and understate it truthfully, no matter how violent the apparent exaggeration.”

His words pointed me in a direction to investigate other poets of the plains like Leo Dangel and Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the United States. In reading their words along with Holm’s, I noticed a change within myself. What once seemed barren and desolate was transformed into a subtle beauty. It became a place where we could watch storms roll in and plenty of sky to see all the stars. The brown hues with prairie flowers, vast fields of corn that moved and changed with the seasons, ranch lands so empty that their simple landscape brought serene solitude. I developed a prairie eye.

In October 2008, we moved, as I accepted a new call to a church in Yakima, Washington. Yakima stands as a place much different than what most imaginations conjure when they think of the state. There are no towering pine trees or rainy skies, but instead a high-desert climate, with scattered orchards and vineyards in the valleys. Without having read Bill Holm, I would likely have seen this place as a notch-down from the lush, mountain beauty of western Washington. But instead, I searched out its poets, to find those with an admiring eye to this place. And I’ve found some in a book known as Weathered Pages, which collected poems from a pole in the garden of Yakima’s Blue Begonia Press, in which people can publish their poems under the sky. Others have come through poetry readings, including one where the poet, LeAnne Ries writes of her return to Yakima from San Francisco in her poem “Pulled Back.”

I’ve seen redwoods and palm trees
but it was the barren, brown, empty hills
that cackled my name
like a relative a housedress,
calling me in for dinner,
impoverished, dry, old
but simple and good.

Bill Holm was a lion of man and will be missed by those who knew him well and those who only knew him through his words and readings. Minnesota and the Plains lost one of their literary giants. To me he was purveyor of place and a poet of locale, that cracked open perspectives and cultivated conversions towards beauty and appreciation that otherwise would be missed. Rest well Mr. Holm.

Mark E. Swanson is the pastor of Wiley Heights Covenant Church in Yakima, Washington.

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