Nowhere Man

How Bill Holm became the sage of the prairie

ON MARCH 8, a New Orleans–style funeral overwhelmed downtown Minneota, in the heart of Minnesota’s western prairie. Mourners marched four abreast down Fourth Street, from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church to the American Legion Hall, following boisterous music pumped out of a boom box. The group included a cohort of Midwestern literati: Garrison Keillor, Robert Bly, and Ted Kooser, the former poet laureate of the United States. ¶ The funeral was for Bill Holm, the homegrown writer and music lover who put Minneota on the literary map. Over 30 years of publication, Holm created a shelf full of essays, poems, countless articles, and speeches that were, at their best, proudly provincial, centered here, on the prairie. Keillor called Holm, a frequent guest on A Prairie Home Companion, “the Sage of Southwestern Minnesota, the Silver-Tongued Poet of the Potato Growers,” and “the Tallest Radical Humorist in the Midwest.” (Holm was 6’6’’).

From the prairie, Holm’s cantankerous voice boomed across the literary landscape. “I am…an evangelical literary fundamentalist,” he wrote in his 2000 book, Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary. “Stories are true. Poems are true…. Music is true. The impulses inside your own body and head are all true…. But every word spoken by a government, a church, an army, or anyone who has any interest in selling you anything or giving you orders or who promises to make you rich or eternal is a damned, vile, rank putrid lie. So there.”

On the prairie, the paradox of Holm had room to roam. He celebrated failure yet was himself a success. He excoriated the church, yet he was a proud member of St. Paul’s. During Sunday services, the minister recalls, Holm would sit in the narrow balcony and read the newspaper during the sermon, registering approval or disapproval with an arched eyebrow.

There was a time, however, when the prairie was the last place Holm wanted to be. A descendent of Icelandic immigrant farmers, Holm grew up in Minneota loving to read, sing, play the piano, and write poetry. He seemed to realize that this wasn’t a promising profile for survival in a small town. “What I wanted most to see in the world was the Minneota city limits receding, for the last time, in the rearview mirror of an automobile driving east,” he wrote in his first book of essays and poems, The Music of Failure.

After receiving an undergraduate degree from Gustavus Adolphus and a graduate degree from the University of Kansas, Holm became an English professor at Hampton University, then called Hampton Institute, a historically African American school on Virginia’s Atlantic coast. It was about as far east as you could get while remaining in North America. But in Virginia, Holm didn’t find the intellectual Valhalla he longed for, only a different kind of provincialism. To preserve his sanity, he would later say, he began to regale his colleagues with epic stories of the life he’d left behind, a life on the prairie: tales of wizardly eccentrics, of murderous blizzards, of grass, grass, and more grass.

His dreams in tatters, his first marriage a failure, Holm moved back to Minneota in 1975. He bought the family house for $5,000 and took teaching jobs to pay the bills. And then he began to write.

BEFORE HE HAD GONE EAST, Holm made pilgrimages to the writing studios of Frederick Manfred in Luverne and Robert Bly in Madison, authors who portrayed prairies not as wastelands but as sacred ground. Upon his return, Holm began to put down on paper his own ruminations about his geographical home, the “horizontal grandeur” of western Minnesota.

Other writers have had to put considerable distance between themselves and their subjects to gain perspective. Not Holm. Indeed, the more he looked inward, the more perspective he seemed to gain. In The Music of Failure, a book of essays published in 1985, he set out most of the themes that he would revisit throughout his career. Looking deep into the apparent failure he saw all around him, he discovered almost everything he truly treasured: a love of poems, learned from an unschooled Icelandic carpenter who could recite them by heart; a love of classical music, learned from an local spinster; a love of contentious debate, learned from his family’s unflinching kitchen-table confrontations; and an awareness of the incontrovertible fact of death, learned from the windswept prairie gravestones. Holm believed that you could find material, even beauty, just about anywhere, even in a common pest of the plains, a view that was epitomized in Boxelder Bug Variations: A Meditation on an Idea in Language and Music, a collection of essays, poems, and music that stemmed from an assignment Holm gave his creative-writing students at Southwest Minnesota State University, where he taught for 27 years.

Of course, where he happened to be looking made his perspective unique—in Minneota, he was nearly as far from the fashions and prosperity of America as possible. And in a culture that for much of Holm’s life celebrated the excess of success, Holm was in a position to redeem the stories of people and landscapes deemed failed and forgotten. “Bill was a natural celebrator of ordinary people and places, and always left a good feeling behind,” says Robert Johnson, a book artist and a friend of Holm. “You expect integrity from a poet, and Bill projected that in everything he wrote.”

Ironically, success began to stalk Holm in Minnesota. The well-regarded literary publisher, Milkweed Editions, in Minneapolis, became his publisher, which helped to spread his reputation from Minnesota to New York and beyond. He was tapped for speaking engagements by the U.S. Information Service, and sent around the world to spread his zeal for writing, books, and music. He taught for two years in China. Then in 1998, he retreated much farther even than Minneota, buying an ancient farmhouse in his ancestral homeland of Iceland. Each summer after that, Holm roosted and wrote essays and poems from afar, encompassing his distant vision of an unraveling world.

Looking out from The Windows of Brimnes, the title of his last book, Holm praised Iceland’s culture of poetry and grieved its pell-mell rush toward development. “Icelanders are … giving up their only real patrimony, the emptiness and wisdom of nature, for a mess of pottage,” he wrote. In October 2008, when Iceland’s government declared bankruptcy, its banks bloated with bad debt, Holm’s warnings about the unbridled pursuit of success seemed prophetic. But he took no pride in this moment or when America’s banks soon followed. He had been proved right, and it seemed to break his heart.

James Lenfestey is a Minneapolis writer.