Ad Astra Poetry Project: Poet comments upon instinctive knowledge

Editor’s note: In her Ad Astra Poetry Project, Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low will highlight historic and contemporary poets who resided in Kansas for a substantial part of their lives. Eventually, she will collect the biweekly broadsides into a book, to be published by the Center for Kansas Studies at Washburn University, in cooperation with Thomas Fox Averill.

Jonathan Holden, first Kansas poet laureate, has lived in Manhattan since 1978. He is a distinguished professor at Kansas State University. I first met Holden when I taught at K-State briefly in the 1970s, and he was generous to many poets and students. He has influenced the direction of American poetry – through essays and example – by insisting that informal, domestic moments are high art.

Holden is passionate about poetry, both as critic and poem-maker. His brilliance manifests in his performances as well as his writings. He can quote entire poems by major American and British poets for hours. He masters fields of knowledge – mathematics, tennis, U.S. politics, Bach – and finds ways to use them in everyday situations.

This poem, about apparently ordinary sights, comments upon instinctive knowledge. It mimics the perfect balance that baseball players and sparrows both must practice in order to survive. The lines shift in rhythm, to imitate how birds totter and regain balance. Holden uses a passel of rich descriptive verbs, like “pirouette” and “stab,” to describe reflexive movements of the birds and players. These contrast to hesitations – reflection and philosophy – in the poem. Instinct keeps us alive, even when in the dark of night.

Night Game

These infielders are definite

as sparrows at work.

Split that seed with one peck

or starve.

There is no minor league

for birds. There is

exactly one way

to pirouette into a double play

perfectly. The birds

don’t dare reflect on what

they do, each hop, each stab and

scramble through the air into the

catch of the sycamore’s

top twigs

is a necessity,

absolute. To stay alive

out in the field, you must be

an authority on parabolas

and fear philosophy.

Education: Holden grew up in rural Morristown, N.J., described in his memoirs “Guns & Boyhood in America” and “Mama’s Boys.” His college degrees, all in English, are from Oberlin (BA, 1963), San Francisco State College (MA, 1970) and the University of Colorado (Ph.D., 1974).

Career: This poet has published 20 books of poetry, essays, memoirs and a novel. Knowing is his most current book of poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2000). He is poet-in-residence and University Distinguished Professor at Kansas State University. He has won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, University of Missouri Press, the Associated Writing Programs and others. Midwest Quarterly devoted the summer 2007 issue to him. His Web site is