Poet sheds light on nature, winter, darkness

St. Olaf’s environmental studies program is renowned for its interdisciplinary approach, and on Thursday, Nov. 6., the Department of Environmental Studies hosted an event to highlight its dedication to the humanities. Students, faculty and fans from the community gathered in RML 525 to sip hot apple cider, eat cookies and listen to Tom Hennen share a combination of some of his oldest and most recent poetry.

Over the past several years, Hennen has earned a respected place for himself in the cannon of Minnesota poets. In 1972, Hennen began The Minnesota Writer’s Publishing House out of his garage. In 1974 he published his first book, The Heron With No Business Sense, and he has been writing and publishing ever since.

Rebecca Judge, Chair of the St. Olaf Department of Environmental Studies and Associate Professor of Economics, introduced Hennen, explaining that he worked nine months out of the year on environmental conservation. He used the other three months in snowy Minnesota to focus on his writing.

“Tom is the only poet I have met who can tell you the nine species of trees that can survive negative-40-degree weather, and tell you the mechanisms that keep the trees going during the cold,” Judge said.

Embodying the ideal of “Minnesota nice,” Hennen smiled at the audience and adjusted his glasses. The full house applauded his credentials as he prepared to read a few selections from his 2013 anthology of poetry, Darkness Sticks to Everything.

“I’ll just read, and if anyone wants to interrupt me, or ask a question or whatever you feel like doing, go ahead,” Hennen said.

It only took a few poems for the audience to grasp Hennen’s deep appreciation and awe for the outdoors. Though his works of prose-poetry were often relatively short, Hennen depicted the vastness of nature through his subtle word play and sensory imagery. Often, the beginning of the poem explored a seemingly obvious aspect of nature and ended with an idea of such profound significance that it seemed to echo through the space of the room long after the poem had concluded.

“Winter Twilight” was no exception to this pattern. The poem began by explaining that winter is a time of cold, darkness and dead grass, but ended with the lines “And the last of sunlight is being hunted down / By something frozen.” Hennen immediately looked up at the audience with an amused grin.

“It’s more cheerful than it sounds,” Hennen said.

At this time, a student raised her hand and asked Hennen if he thought there could ever be a time when the darkness didn’t stick. He took a moment to explain the overarching themes of darkness and cold in his work. Hennen acknowledged that people often ask him why his poetry is so dark.

“There is a bit of darkness sticking to everything in the world – that isn’t a bad thing. It is used as a negative image a lot, but darkness can be a comfort to a point,” Hennen said. “When we sleep we close our eyes, and that is dark.”

Symbols of cold, wind and rain saturate Hennen’s poetry. When asked about why he focuses so much on the more dreary elements of the outdoors, he explained that they are a present part of nature.

“I try to be realistic, and I still want to have some hope, but I want to point out the stuff that is tough too,” said Hennen. “I feel good about my poems. In the course of life it does get to be winter; things get cold and freeze up, but that is how it is.”

Hennen pushed the limits of his audience’s attention as he shared his works for over an hour. After he finished reading his final poem, the audience enthusiastically applauded the poet and lined up to have him sign their newly-purchased copies of Darkness Sticks to Everything. The audience left with a greater appreciation for space, darkness, nature and the increasingly present reality of Minnesota winter.