William Kloefkorn’s “Folk” Poetry: Writing a Great Plains Idiom
By Daniel Clausen
Starting around 1800 a new trend began to sweep the world of English language poetry: everyday language. Up to then, much poetry had been written in a highly formal and artificial style. Poetry often sounded “poetic;” it didn’t sound much at all like the way most people talked. It followed very strict formal rules of rhyme and rhythm. But starting with the English poet William Wordsworth and his friends and contemporaries, the rules of poetry started to loosen up. These poets, known as Romantics, wanted to bring poetry closer to everyday life and ordinary people. For at least the next hundred years, this style of poetry dominated. America’s best known 19th century poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, though very different in other ways, both use very simple, everyday language to build their poems. They were very democratic, and in that way, very Romantic.
In the early 20th century, however, the trends in the world of poetry shifted again. Modernism introduced a new option. Now there was not only aristocratic and formal poetry and democratic “plain” poetry, but also something more abstract: experimental poetry. Though some poets still relied on simple and concrete language (William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and the other “Imagists”) others began to use words in ways that were so new they didn’t seem to make sense. These high modernists like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and others, founded an experimental style of poetry that is often quite difficult to understand, and even when it uses simple words, seems to separate them from their everyday use, so that it becomes tricky to say what the poem “means” (if it means anything at all).
William Kloefkorn is a part of this split tradition in poetry. In his lifetime, the world of poetry was shaped by the legacy of the Imagists and the more experimental poets, and underneath it all were the Romantics and the even earlier more formal poets. But reading Kloefkorn, it’s not immediately clear where he might fit in this general development of poetry. The diction of his poems is often very simple, and he doesn’t resist syntax or grammar like some of his contemporaries. If we wrote out a Kloefkorn poem without line breaks, it would seem like a normal prose sentence. So you could say that he follows the democratic tradition more than the experimental one. But the danger of using everyday words, as any aspiring poet must learn, is that poems themselves will be too everyday—full of clichés and the same tired old thoughts. Good poetry, even in the more democratic tradition, takes everyday words and puts them together in new ways; ways that might highlight old truths but “makes them new,” (the stated goal of the modernists, according to Pound). This is how poetry can help us see and attend to the world more carefully. How did Kloefkorn manage this balancing act?
His late poem “At the Pantry” provides a good example to use in answering that question. In it, he takes an everyday scene, and mostly everyday words, and does something unusual:
Because I am sitting
in the midst of wordsong and baconsmell
how can my cup not runneth over?
To keep it brimful the woman
whose face is mostly widesmile
tips a vessel, its contents hot and black
The poem describes an commonplace scene: a waitress fills a man’s cup of coffee in a diner. And even the words themselves are pretty common, but for a few things: most prominently, the coinage of new words by stitching two old ones together. Instead of “the smell of bacon” Kloefkorn gives us “baconsmell.” Instead of full to the brim we get “brimful” and so on. This technique is both democratic and experimental. The reader immediately understands the meaning of these new words, but also senses the newness of them. “Baconsmell” makes us stop and consider the familiar smell again, and “wordsong” casts in new light the background murmur of overheard conversation at a small town diner. The inclusion of the biblical phrase “cup…runneth over” further heightens the sense that what is being witnessed—though thoroughly everyday—is also a shot through with the sacred; with enduring meaning that reaches back to form the continuous world that existed long before we arrived.
This use of simple diction in surprising ways is one of the most powerful tools for a poet who tries to get us to see the world around us more clearly, and to understand our own place in that world. Kloefkorn here is likely borrowing this word combining technique from a poet he admired: Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins lived and wrote in the late nineteenth century, and was a poet of surprising vivacity. He was Welsh, and a Jesuit priest, attuned both to language and to divinity in the everyday world. A “proto-modernist” Hopkins poems are full of what he called “sprung rhythm” and are so rich with enjoyable sounds that it is sometimes difficult to know what they mean. He also characteristically created new words out of old ones just as Kloefkorn does here.
One result of this sort of word creation is what critic Scott Knickerbocker calls “sensual poeisis.” Sensual poeisis is the idea that a poem can give you a feeling through the actual sounds and rhythms of a poem that you hear when you read it aloud (or by the “inner ear” if you’re reading silently). Because language is something that we hear, we don’t necessarily have to find a “meaning” to a poem. We can simply listen to it; even without necessarily understanding the poem, we experience it with our senses as sound. This is common to much of Kloefkorn’s poetry: listen to the line “whose face is mostly widesmile.” The rhythm and sound of the line carries its own bright feeling. “Everflowing” as sound pours smoothly into our ears.
In addition to these methods borrowed from a poet he admired, there are other features that keep Kloefkorn’s poetry tied not to an abstract “localness,” but to the plains particularly. Of course, these features can’t come from British poets; they come from the way Nebraska people have talked. David Pichaske identifies several of these features. One of the most important is improvisation based on proverbs to make them funnier, earthier, a little more telling: “The well worn phrase—usually working class, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes rhyming or alliterative, often profane, occasionally Biblical, always recognizably midwestern—is an important component of Kloefkorn’s recognizably Great Plains voice” (Pichaske 11). Ted Kooser, in an email, also points to Kloefkorn’s “fecundity,” the human and joy in the darker sides of our bodily nature.
The voices in Kloefkorn’s poetry, though, should always be viewed the same good humor that gave rise to them. Of course, the voices are fairly limited, demographically. They focus on the experiences Kloefkorn himself had lived through or had inherited through family history. Though he includes and presents the voices of women, a Mexican American friend, and others, these voices are necessarily the construction of one white man. But Kloefkorn wasn’t attempting to exhaustively write the voices of the plains, he was only trying to write those that he knew and imagined. And imagination always requires goodwill, even (especially) when we contemplate the darker drives that hide beyond our conscious knowledge. The folk nature of Kloefkorn’s poetry shouldn’t be read as exclusive, but particular. The democratic style represents times, places, and experiences with honesty. We can’t ask much more.
All of this adds up to a body of work that, especially when listening to Kloefkorn read his own poetry, certainly reaches the level of “wordsong.” And residents of the plains can be proud to have a poet who could sing them some of their own words so well.
Kloefkorn, William. Swallowing the Soap: New and Selected Poems. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2010.
Pichaske, David R. “William Kloefkorn: Looking Back over the Shoulder of Memory,” Western American Literature. 38.1 (2003).
Knickerbocker, Scott. Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2012.