William Kloefkorn: The Genesis of a Poet

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Painting, courtesy of Carlos Frey

By Mary K. Stillwell

Nebraska State Poet since 1982, Bill Kloefkorn was a big man with a warm welcome, a resonant baritone and an easy laugh. He died Thursday, May 19, 2011, in Lincoln, Neb., at the age of 78 and will be mourned and missed by family, friends, students and neighbors who looked forward to his next visit, plus thousands of readers and listeners who looked forward to each new book and to the Friday morning NET “Poetry of the Plains” broadcast. Fortunately, he left behind a treasure trove of writings, including 31 collections of poems, four volumes of memoirs and numerous works of fiction.

Kloefkorn moved to Lincoln with his wife Eloise during the summer of 1962 to teach English at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Although he didn’t consider his move to the city permanent, Lincoln became his home for nearly 60 years. In addition to his college teaching duties, Kloefkorn, who described himself as an “energetic evangelist of poetry,” was instrumental in bringing the Poets in the Schools Program to the state, encouraging elementary and high school students to write about their own lives. After he retired from Wesleyan in 2002, Kloefkorn continued to serve as state poet, to write and publish, to mentor countless writers, helping them find their own voices and the right words, and to promote poetry across the state.

As the poet was fond of reminding listeners, he arrived in Lincoln the same year Bob Devaney came to town to coach football at the University of Nebraska. While Devaney had five years experience as a head football coach, Kloefkorn, though he had teaching experience, had yet to discover an interest in writing poetry.1 However, when he began doctoral work at the University of Nebraska, he studied prosody with Karl Shapiro, editor of the “Prairie Schooner.” “I was in awe of him,” he said. “What impressed me most was his enormous respect for words. He was a man with a great reputation, a Pulitzer Prize winner who was paying attention to language, validating my own attention to language.”2

American poetry was beginning to bloom, on the Plains and across the nation. The subjective mode that Shapiro himself had turned to was reflected in the work he selected for the “Schooners.” Not long after Kloefkorn’s study with Shapiro, Gary Gildner and Dave Etter came to Wesleyan to read their poetry. “Those poems were poems I would like to write,” Kloefkorn reflected. “Gildner was talking about things closer to me. …He was talking about things I was right in the middle of.”

From the start, Kloefkorn’s poetry reflected that love of language and has consistently drawn on places and people from his own life. Whether writing about a pumpkin patch near Roa, Neb., the arboretum on the Wesleyan campus or Hemlock Hollow in Ohio, Kloefkorn is attentive to physical landscape. Frequently, he returned in his work to Attica, Kan., where the poet, born in 1932, grew up. “Alvin Turner as Farmer,” his first collection, is loosely based on the life of his grandfather, a dirt farmer who cleared acres of rocky Kansas land to make a home. Those who wish to sample Kloefkorn’s poetry have only to pick up a copy of his new collection, “Swallowing the Soap: New and Selected Poems.”

Readers wishing to know more about Kloefkorn’s life have a four-volume treat in store. Each of the memoirs is centered on one of life’s essential elements—water, fire, earth and air: “This Death by Drowning,” “Restoring the Burnt Child: A Primer,” “At Home on This Moveable Earth,” and “Breathing in the Fullness of Time.” All four demonstrate Kloefkorn’s ability to evoke place and portray people, while providing insight into the makings of the writer. “Welcome to Carlos,” his 2000 collection of poems, offers insights into the origins of his love of language, his belief in the interconnectedness of all things, the importance of nature and his unceasing quest for a full and rich life. Here Kloefkorn shares what he calls his “epiphanel moments,” vivid experiences that leave, as he wrote in “Death by Drowning,” “an imprint on one or more of the senses so indelible that it significantly influences a large portion of what the individual thinks and does and writes for the rest of his lovely and tormented life.” These are the epiphanies “that will not go away.”

Not surprisingly, Attica is a palpable presence throughout “Welcome to Carlos.” The long whistle of Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe sounds in the background as the boy Kloefkorn once was visits Butch’s Pool Hall, the Rialto Theater, the school, numerous churches, the Rexall drugstore, the train depot, the Champlain station and the Tumbleweed Café. Much of the narrative’s significant action, however, takes place outside town limits, transportation frequently provided by Carlos’s pickup, known as the “Church of the International.”

Carlos is both a composite figure and, as the title suggests, a state of mind. Kloefkorn fashions the persona from a group of childhood friends, primarily Nick Mora, with attributes from the boys to whom “Welcome to Carlos” is dedicated. The relationship among these boys, as exemplified in the narrator’s relationship with the protagonist, was a determining force in the poet’s artistic development. All the boys were considered outsiders for one reason or another. Nick Mora, who was Mexican-American, was three or four years older than the other boys, who, Kloefkorn reflected, looked up to Nick, “a good storyteller” and “free spirit,” with a kind of “semi worship.” Good-humored and intelligent, Nick was, in young Kloefkorn’s eyes, “a kind of grass-roots philosopher.”

To Nick, Kloefkorn added the “questionable qualities” of the other boys. “There are so many ways in a little town to be alienated,” Kloefkorn noted. Carlos and his parents were Hispanic, for example, “then there are the haves and have nots. Almost everything was structured that way … the businesses … the churches… There was no theological difference between my little church, United Brethren, and the Methodist except financial.” During wartime, Kloefkorn’s own outsider status was heightened, he wrote in “This Death by Drowning”: “In my little town my grandmother’s voice was alone in its German accent.” Classmates whispered, “Anna Yock is in cahoots with the Gestapo. Willie’s grandma sends codes in letters to the Third Reich.” These differences were often painful, but they also provided the poet with an outsider’s eye with which to question the life around him.

One of the major ways that this questioning occurs and is conveyed is through Carlos’s sense of comedy and good humor, mainstays of Kloefkorn’s poetry and prose. The collection begins by introducing Carlos and the context in which the boys lived. “Don’t blame Carlos,” Kloefkorn writes, “for having been raised / south of the tracks.” Both parents are gainfully employed, hard workers; his father is promoted to welder during the course of the poems, but the “Nativism” that pushed the Osage tribe south in the 19th century kept Carlos and his family living south of the tracks in the 20th.

Kloefkorn’s word choice is both exact and evocative; the poet also takes full advantage of the rhythmic effect of the language. The train sounds its clickity-clack throughout the poems. The Great Plains and by extension the tracks crossing it are mythologized as Eden “before the fall.” Carlos insightfully and ironically points to collision of cultures and derailing of the train that caused Gypsy Rose whisky to tumble out, “blooming the weeds on the right of way” where the boys found them and helped themselves.

“Welcome to Carlos” evokes both the time period and tempo of life in Attica, population 700, often with references to music. When the boys run away from home, the narrator hums a chorus of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” while Carlos beats the rhythm, clicking “the heels of his cordovans” together. “I’m Looking over a Four Leaf Clover” and “The Flight of the Wild Goose” sound from the radio of the “Church of the International,” and Carlos dances to “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” Carlos also whistles, plays the banjo and drums; he is a “born percussionist,” who sustains a beat “with a length / of dried-out cottonwood,” then, “with a second limb” in his other hand, “doubles, triples the count, / accelerates the tempo // until the milkcows dripping cowsmilk / be-bob into their stanchions” and young poets are “released to claim the universe” through their art. Carlos is the consummate artist who “knew how to sing before the advent / of song.” A young poet couldn’t ask for a better teacher.

Kloefkorn’s humor takes many forms, acting as a lever to examine assumptions and test other ways of interpreting life and paving the way for a life of language: from childhood pranks and exaggerated claims to puns, songs and parodies, from paradox and witty juxtaposition to irony and double entendre. Some forms of comedy are broad, some subtle, some slapstick, others downright vaudevillian. All lead to lessons about poetry and about life. Often humor is directed at various religious institutions, self-proclaimed carriers of moral and social values, which bear close scrutiny in this collection, as they do in much of Kloefkorn’s other work. “Welcome to Carlos” gave him, Kloefkorn has said, “a chance to take some jabs at denominational Christianity, and I wouldn’t want to miss a chance to do that.” In “Trinities,” Carlos offers another “means to heaven,” self-reliance, and another sort of art.

But if religion is often up for question and amusement, nature is held sacred: the poem “Revival” concludes with the boys sitting around a fire at Simpson’s pond. “Not being saved,” Carlos concludes, “is the only salvation.” He breaks out his banjo as the boys listen to “the long, long dissonance / of a train” in the distance.

“The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishápúr,” quoted in an epigraph, bubbles to the surface of the collection from time to time, reminding the reader of the power of art, of living this life to its fullest and that the local contains the universal. Carlos and his young friend, drinking from the bottles of Gypsy Rose, are the modern-day Khayyáms of Attica, Kan.

The importance of language grows as though it too were a product of nature. “Welcome to Carlos” is written in a colloquial style and reports on the activities and antics of the two boys, and it is therefore easy to miss some of the very specific lessons about poetry: sound, meter, image, figure of speech and narrative. “Carlos, Whistling,” the subject a metaphor for poetry, includes a brief lesson on meter and the necessity of rendering truth in art. “Carlos, Drumming,” in addition to tempo, the poet learns form, plot and the process of imagination by which art is fashioned from life: metaphor, symbol and allusion are only some of the lessons of “On the Tracks.” Story, language and poetry are ways of touching; they are intimate communication.

“Welcome to Carlos” closes in a retrospective, reflective tone with “Pennies.” Kloefkorn pays homage to his friend who, because he “lived to whistle,” enabled the narrator to write, and taught him “the value of the word,” inspiring the narrator to “overthrow the tyranny of mute.” The collection is Kloefkorn’s version of John Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn”: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.” The Kansas boy, transformed by the epiphany that will not go away—the power of language—has emerged as William Kloefkorn, poet. As he reminded his readers, quoting William Faulkner, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” It is our good fortune that Bill Kloefkorn’s epiphanies remain, even as we continue to miss him.

Endnotes

1. Kloefkorn received his bachelor’s and master’s degree at Emporia State College (now Emporia State University), with a stint in the Marines in between. He taught at Wichita State from 1958–62.

2. Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from interviews with Kloefkorn on Feb. 13, 2002, and Feb. 3, 2006.

Painting, courtesy of Carlos Frey

 

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