Some Preliminary Notes on Nebraska, Poetry, and Nebraska Poetry
By Stephen Behrendt, George Holmes Distinguished Professor of English; University of Nebraska
Poetry gives voice to the soul of the time and place from which it originates, to the spirit of the land and the peoples that occupy that space, to the continually evolving culture of that region which reflects its long past even as it shapes its bright future. The vigorous poetry of Nebraska participates fully and actively in this rich and diverse continuity of community and of culture, as this evolving website demonstrates and documents.
Lying just north of the geographical center of the United States, Nebraska is a land mass of some 76,872 square miles through which and over which indigenous peoples passed for many centuries, upon which European explorers and settlers passed more recently, and to which citizens and future citizens relocated more recently still. To its earliest populations in the eons after the area emerged from the great inland sea of the Cretaceous Age, its broad expanses offered shelter and sustenance, while its later residents found there not just sustenance but also opportunities for community and cultural roots. At every moment of this geographical and cultural evolution, the relationship of humans to the natural environment lay at the center of the experience of those peoples who inhabited the spaces of what would come to be called “Nebraska,” after the Otoe word for “flat water,” as the Southern Sioux nations regarded the Platte River that flows roughly southeastward across the land.
Territorial exploration had already by the early eighteenth century generated competing claims among Spanish and French colonialist traders, whose interaction with the region’s indigenous nations and peoples was characterized as much by cultural parochialism as by commercial opportunism. Nor did this situation change dramatically when British colonial interests in the region supplanted French in the wake of the Seven Years War. The immigrant-rooted American enterprise that followed the brief British period of influence produced in the nineteenth century the westward expansion heralded by excursions most famously represented by that of Lewis and Clark. Stymied by the vast expanses of prairie grasses they encountered, early nineteenth-century explorers and cartographers paradoxically declared the region that had one been a rich seabed to be, now, a “great American desert” unfit for human habitation.
Or so wrote those Easterners, Europeans, and other transients or immigrants who failed to observe that First Nations peoples like the Pawnee, Omaha, Otoe and Ponca not only lived on this broad expanse, but indeed also lived in it, in earthen lodges that long predated the sod houses that early immigrants would erect from the only naturally occurring construction materials the plains supplied.
Settlement and Development
The vast prairieland nevertheless soon “opened” (as post-European immigrants styled it), however, and the region witnessed by mid-century the settlement and development for which the growth of the great railroad empires provided powerful expansionist impetus while the national government furnished abundant free land. As with all cultural incursions, of course, the reconfiguration of the Nebraska region (which would not become a state until 1867) entailed the displacement of peoples and creatures alike – the physical and cultural displacement of native nations paralleled by that of indigenous creatures like the bison and the passenger pigeon. Exploration, immigration, settlement, enclosure, and population irreversibly altered the land and its culture as humans inevitably attempted to impose their individual and collective wills on the Nature of Nebraska, resulting sometimes in copious production (the extraordinary fields of grain) and sometimes in environmental cataclysm (the Dust Bowl years, that dark underbelly of agricultural adventurism). John Deere’s famous “sodbuster” plow, first cast in 1837, is emblematic of the prairie settler-farmers’s fierce determination to cultivate a resilient but resistant landscape, even as modern irrigation apparatus illustrates more recent approaches to exploiting the Nebraska soil.
The Impact of Development
The pattern of predominantly east-west post-colonial human transit (which was in fact almost exclusively westward) overlaid an extant, ancient north-south axis that had been inscribed for countless centuries by the migratory patterns of native creatures like the bison, sandhill cranes and snow geese whose astonishing numbers were decimated by the human interventions that pushed such native creatures to the brink of extinction, over which precipice the last passenger pigeon plunged in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. These intersecting but often incompatible patterns of human and non-human residents, their motions and cultural practices, continue to characterize the lives and experiences of Nebraskans in the twenty-first century, and the cultural production of those Nebraskans consequently reflects the frequently competing impulses and objectives of the state’s increasingly diverse human and animal population and environment.
While contemporary Nebraska remains, for many non-Nebraskans, a place to be passed through or over, nearly two centuries of dedicated and often tenacious settlement have established the state also as a cultural nexus, a site of cultural production whose prolific variety constitutes both a cumulative repository of culture and a demonstrably fertile seedbed for new intellectual, cultural, scientific and artistic production.
Nebraska, Writers and Poetry
Writers have always been central to the artistic tradition inherent in the Nebraska experience, from the earliest myths and narratives of the native nations (typically transcribed by more modern amanuenses); through the letters, diaries, narratives and documentary records of explorers and early settlers; through the cultural artifacts of a twentieth-century post-immigrant resident – even a “native” – Nebraska community; and on to the now diversifying contemporary cultural community characterized by waves of new immigrations that is at once regional, continental and global in nature and whose influences and effects are visible throughout the state and its culture. Any cultural community that is evolving, as that of Nebraska is, inevitably produces a comparably evolving body of both literary and extra-literary artistic production. That richly resonant body of cultural production in Nebraska is necessarily in conversation with the entire human community but also with the land (and the landscape), with the natural world as it exists today and as it existed in the past, and with the personal and communal histories of many generations of Nebraskans, “native” and otherwise.
The poetry of Nebraska constitutes one single component – one limb – of this collective body, but it is nevertheless representative of the entirety of that body in its complex organic diversity. Through this poetry passes an array of unique, distinctive, idiosyncratic voices and experiences among which particular themes, images, and concerns are nevertheless are to be heard over the length and breadth of this ever-expanding and metamorphosing literary body. Like what literary and cultural scholars often call “regional writing,” its substance and style have demonstrable affinities with the Nebraska region – and indeed with what might be called the “Nebraska experience.” But – also like “regional writing” – its import is universal, despite (or perhaps particularly because of) its ostensible localisms, its perceptible Nebraska flavor. One objective of this website is to help to identify and define characteristics especially particular to the poetry of Nebraska while considering how that distinctive inflection at the same time participates in the larger cultural voice to which all poetry aspires.