And the nominees are… 

Hunting for Montana’s first poet laureate at Harold’s

The goat’s head still hangs behind a plexiglass bubble on the wall of Harold’s Club in Milltown. In the 1960s, when Harold’s was still the Milltown Union Bar, and the late poet Richard Hugo—Montana’s unofficial poet laureate—was still a regular patron publishing poems to national acclaim, he titled a poem after the bar. It begins, “You could love here, not the lovely goat / in plexiglass nor the elk shot / in the middle of a joke, but honest drunks…”

Indeed. At Harold’s Club last week—eight days before the Montana Art Council’s May 13 deadline to submit nominations for the first official honorary state poet laureate position, created by the 2005 Legislature—patrons were honest, tipsy, welcoming and crass in a rhythm that was, if you loosened your definition along with your belt buckle, poetic. And with just three nominations in the hands of Montana Arts Council Executive Director Arni Fishbaugh at press time (Fishbaugh anticipates receiving 80 percent of nominations on the 12th and 13th), the Independent couldn’t think of a better place to go looking for candidates.

Among the requirements: He or she must be at least 21 years old; a resident of Montana for at least one year; available to travel and give presentations; not enrolled in an undergraduate program; and have at least one book of poetry published. Also, the poet may not be nominated posthumously.

Translation (minus the published part): A nominee must be a Montanan of drinking age who’s not in school, has time to roam, and is, well, alive.

“I’d never say no. I’m not going to say yes,” patron and Vietnam vet Tony Bella says when asked if Montana’s first poet laureate might be found at Harold’s. Then he rattles off a Robert Frost poem from memory, but says he prefers cowboy poetry. “The birds and the bees, the mountains and the trees,” he muses. Cowboy poetry is “more down to earth, [with] words that describe the real world, not the romantic,” he adds. “Romanticism gets a little flowery.”

One poetic moment he recalls from his 30-some years bartending goes like this: “Last call for alcohol,” he announced just before 2 a.m. at a bar in Gardena, Calif., several decades ago. Then he turned up the lights and a man who’d been sitting in a booth with a woman walked over and gave him a $5 tip. “She was ugly,” Bella recalls the man telling him, grateful for the excuse to leave.

At the end of the bar, retired Missoula sheriff’s deputy Garold Crouch (aka Grumpo) holds court with childhood buddy John Teague (aka Grumpy) and friend Ray McKinley—three of the four self-declared members of Harold’s “dead pecker row,” aka the bar’s Board of Directors. McKinley got married two years ago, and Teague gets married in Vegas shortly—but not before holding a Board of Director’s vote to okay the end of their respective bachelorhoods.

And don’t expect any love poems.

“At Harold’s, you never lose your girl, you just lose your turn,” Teague offers. Then he recites a line printed on one of Harold’s T-shirts: “We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you.”

Crouch chimes in with an adult-rated simile likening Olympia beer to lovemaking. He boasts of his signed copy of Graveyard Rules, a Missoula crime novel written by Gary Cook, who once worked for the Missoula Sheriff’s Department—but doesn’t seem to notice he’s sitting on the best rhyme of the night.

That’d be “Goose on the Loose,” Crouch’s own story of responding to a call about a runaway goose, back when he was on duty in the late 1980s. After capturing the nasty bird, Crouch and his partner thought to house it overnight in the Missoula County Courthouse office of their detective lieutenant Jerry Crego. They jimmied Crego’s office door, shoved the bird inside with some feed, and when Crego arrived in the morning, “he opens the door, and the goose took him right there,” Crouch says.

Talk about ambiguity.

At a crowded table next to Crouch, another patron focuses hard, then recites a poem about a man with a corkscrew-shaped body part who died engaging a woman with left-handed thread. But seriously: Montana cowboy poet Baxter Black, he says, would be his choice for poet laureate nominee.

Next to him, longtime local Linda Ritchey puts pen to paper in what becomes the most tangible entry of the evening:

“The six of us meet at the / Club / We substitute beers for / good grub / Four Bud Lights on the / left / Miller Lites to the right / No sense gettin’ uptight / We’ll be here the rest / of the night.”

And she’s just getting started: “Friday nights at / Harold’s are no bore / A man can certainly / round up a [insert thoughtful rhyme] / The place is alive / Young and old chuck and jive…” and the line that should finish the poem, Ritchey suggests, should be “something that pertains to how romance leaves the place at 2 a.m.”

Anyone with half a poetic ear or a half-dozen Olympias in him, though, would argue that Harold’s singular brand of romance never actually leaves the building. It’s written on the walls, stuck to the ceiling, planted on the stools.

“Hippopotamus—A giant River Pig,” reads a whiteboard, no explanation. It’s just five syllables shy of a haiku.

On the ceiling behind the bar, dollar bills are lodged in the wood willy-nilly, each with a quarter and a tack folded up inside. The bills spread from their creases like wings, defy gravity like astronauts, fund an annual Harold’s party like…

Okay, I’m not the nominee.

But lined up on those bar stools is a veritable petri dish of poetry. Listen to their voices, soak up their stories, get their poetic juices flowing, and they’ll all tell you the same thing:

“There once was a man from Nantucket…”

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