Following Alvin Turner: William Kloefkorn’s Poetry and the Agrarian Tradition
By Daniel Clausen
To live on the Great Plains has always been hard work. The climate is not gentle, and hunting or growing food requires both knowledge and time. When the pioneer settlers came, their farms required the daily effort of maintaining small villages and homesteads far from any industry and commerce. Men, women, and children always had work close at hand. There was no running to the store when such a journey took the better part of the day’s sunlight, so people had to be handy at many trades and skills. Doing such work for a lifetime required willpower, purpose, and a sense of meaning—not everyone was able to make it. In fact, most homesteads failed. But for people of many backgrounds, there was a good life to be had working on the good land of the plains. A working life of this sort could hold dignity and value by profoundly connecting individuals to the community and the community to the land. And this made the work more than mere labor. Agrarian work on the plains was the expression of a narrative that stretched back to Thomas Jefferson and earlier: the tradition of independent family farms (American Georgics edited by Edwin C. Hagenstein et al. is an excellent collection of important texts in this tradition, from Jefferson up to Wendell Berry). Maintaining this narrative required seeing how work tied the workers to a good and enduring world. Traditional stories and family history often performed this important task, and still do today. Such a tradition still informs much of the culture of the plains, even though the realities of agriculture today move further and further from the ideals of the agrarian narrative. Still this agrarian narrative often serves to remind working rural people who they are and how to act.
William Kloefkorn’s poetry grows directly out of this Great Plains agrarianism. His poems shape experience into words that bite like a ploughshare into a field. Often they expose a violence that cuts through any pastoral peace, showing readers the hard, earthly facts of life’s endings and beginnings: “I don’t know, maybe I / Should never have started farming. / I just don’t care to see blood / On the lettuce,” his persona Alvin Turner says in a poem about killing a rabbit and the death of his infant daughter. By poetically presenting the earth that holds both the dust of lost ancestors and the promise future harvests, Kloefkorn’s poetry stands at the beginning and end of daily work. It reminds the reader why she works, urging her out of bed, and allows the meaning of work to appear during evening reflections.
These agrarian poems often wrestle with the contradiction of growth and inevitable loss. The farm is the focus of peace, family, and health, but each of these things requires and contains death, blood, and sex. The poems, like children who grow up around farm animals, have no illusions about the bodily side of life. Kloefkorn takes pleasure in exploding any stubbornly delicate sensibilities. Instead of abstracted politely poetic words like “love” or “desire”, his poems often offer a blunt masculine appreciation of breasts. Or we read that “stuck hogs bleed for breakfast.” Life in Kloefkorn’s poetry is built on such wildness, such common ferocity. The fact that society relies on us to hold this wildness in check does not dissolve it. Kloefkorn’s poems open a space for this wildness to appear. This space does not, like our common daily awareness, place the mind above the body or the polite over the rude. Instead the poems tug on urges and bring them gently into the open air.
One clear example of how this space is opened is in Alvin Turner as Farmer, Kloefkorn’s first book of poetry. The book is a series of lyrics in the voice of Kloefkorn’s slightly altered grandfather. Here the narrator, Alvin, recalls the moment in which he commits himself to a life of hard work on the farm:
I am ready to admit
That I failed at everything
Except perhaps at one quick span
Of crisis, when I said yes
To my dying father and
To his only piece of acreage
The poem begins in an admission of defeat, but then the speaker changes his mind. When we first read “failed at everything,” end-stopped by a line break, it seems a final judgment. Especially after the blame is so squarely placed on the self (“I” shows up twice in two lines). But then “except” swivels the poem back around, taking the rhythmic vowels of “everything” and reversing them with sharp consonants, and pulling the reader forward to the “one quick span / of crisis” and saying “yes” to the father and the father’s land. The question is unspoken, as is the implication of the work and responsibility that will flow from this affirmation. And so the shouldering of his dying father’s life becomes Alvin’s great success—a redemption from all the other failure.
But, the poem is retrospective. Alvin’s voice looks back at this moment, and remembers how “at thirty, I lay awake, alone, / dreaming growth.” Now the man is telling his own history, reminding himself of his even older father. “Gifts are not easy to accept” he tells us, “Not when they nudge you to / the sudden wall of your own stubbornness.” This moment of acceptance is a passage to adulthood, to responsibility toward the world and acceptance of its enduring reality. Two lifetimes of labor lie unspoken beneath these words. And yet the symbol, to Alvin, of this labor is not the “pondless pasture / or the unpainted house / or even the rock / but a single seed.” Kloefkorn points to the work . pondless pastures mean hauling water, unpainted houses need paint, and probably repairs. And “the rock,” which appears again and again in the Alvin Turner poems, is a symbol of the ever returning, always unexpected hardship that accompanies all human undertakings. But he also places faith in the seed: in the natural goodness of growth. The farmer’s work does not make the seed sprout. He or she is only a witness to this everyday miracle, and can only aid it and protect it. No human act makes a seed grow.
This balance between a humble acceptance of nature and determined effort to do good work forms the essence of agrarianism. Kloefkorn’s poems, especially those in the voice of Alvin Turner (and other farmers in other books), struggle with the difficulty of accepting this narrative. For Turner, it means giving up on other dreams, it means linking himself to one place and to the joy of love, but also to the inevitable grief of loss and the responsibility of belonging. It means accepting his place as a steward, as an adult who does not get to mold the world to his whim, but must learn to celebrate even the hardship and failure that define his life. For Kloefkorn, this is the essence of the farmer: not to “feed the world” with industrial intensity but to tend the world, and at be attentive; to practice the arts of husbandry, to devote oneself to care for a community, a place, and the continuity of past, present, and future. Another writer of this “new agrarianism,” Wendell Berry, calls this “what people are for.”
Berry, Wendell. What Are People For?: Essays. San Francisco: Counterpoint, 1990.
Hagenstein, Edwin C., Sara M. Gregg, and Brian Donahue. American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture, and the Land. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011.
Kloefkorn, William. Swallowing the Soap: New and Selected Poems. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2010.