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Illinois Poet's Forum - Past Forums

Another unique aspect of the Laureate's website is the opportunity for Illinois poets to offer brief commentary on the state of poetry and their roles as artists in the twenty-first century. These commentaries invoke both personal and artistic expressions of what it means to be a poet in our culture – the possibilities, challenges, obligations, and frustrations thereof. What you find here comes as various as the poets themselves – sometimes offering profound aesthetic reflections, other times tending to whimsy or even to practical advice to young writers.

John Knoepfle

About my work.


In 2004, Liz Smith interviewed me for BkMk Press. I think that interview is a good introduction to why I write the way I do. You can find the full interview at


One of the first obvious things that strikes someone looking at your poems is the absence of capitalization and punctuation. Can you explain why you use only the bare words?


I think your question answered itself when you used the term "bare words." When I first began writing in the early 1950s, a type of poem that I didn't find very interesting was crowding the literary journals. These poems were grammatically correct exercises in a kind of introspective and rather abstract rhetoric. I had evolved from that to a style that was risking more but seemed to me to cut to the quick of what I had to say. I don't remember consciously abandoning the rhetorical props. It was just a development of my own from a highly academic kind of poem to a poem that approached the speech patterns of people I was listening to, including myself.


In the late1960s and early 70s, poets were interested in the way poems sounded. They were trying in their poems to pick up and improvise on the sound patterns of ordinary speech. A way to catch that was to eliminate punctuation and capital letters -- both late additions to the art of writing -- and focus on the plain words and how you lay them out in a line and how that changes the rhythm and the emphasis of those words. I am comfortable with that as a way of writing and of reading my poems.


In the 1950s you tape recorded Ohio and Mississippi river men, and have said this project helped to form your writer’s voice. In what way did it do this?


I was speaking with many experienced individuals who brought whole vocabularies with a host of precise terms for the work they did on the river. I don't mean to say the men were uneducated. Some were highly educated and quite literate. But they were using a language that was shaped in the river valleys and on the boats from the 1800s on. It was not the language you'd find in, for instance, a Jane Austin novel or one by Dostoyevsky either. So I valued what they had to say. They gave me a place as a writer -- it happened to be my Midwest.


I have to add though that at about the same time, when I was teaching at Southern Illinois University in East St. Louis, many of my students wrote out of an oral tradition. To understand their papers, you read them outloud. I was ready to appreciate that because the river men had that same kind of skill with the spoken language.


I should add that I was also reading works by 16th century English preachers of the Tudor period. They came out of the Latin tradition and were eloquent Latinists who knew the flowers of rhetoric as handed down from the Greeks and Romans. But these men were writing before the grammarians structured the English language on a Latin base (so we can't put prepositions at the end of sentences because Latin does not have post-positions) and before the printers standardized the spelling to make it easier to set type. So I have inherited both traditions -- the sense of English as the language of daily life and the language of rhetoricians before it was reined in by the grammarians.


Your previous writing has been rooted in the Midwest. For Poems from the Sangamon you traveled along that river valley. Chinkapin Oak follows the course of a year in Springfield. Prayer Against Famine comes out of your trip to Ireland. Is the direct experience of a place and people an essential part of your desire to write?


I think that the direct experience of people and place is very important to me. I think at least for my part I try to write something that catches something special about where you are. So I was always fascinated by Cesar Vallejo's line "It is Sunday in the clear ears of my Peruvian burro." It is so simple, yet it catches so much. Or the Navajo song the women sang for the men when the nation was in captivity: "Everywhere I go, joy surrounds me." Or the wonderful lines from a medeival nun in Poland that we have through W.B. Yeats: "I am of Ireland the holy land of Ireland. Come dance with me for Saint Charity." I am not sure I have ever achieved these wonderful statements that sum up a people and a place, but I try.


It is true that most of my books come out of my knowledge and experience of the places I have lived in the Midwest. Living in the river town of Cincinnati and interviewing all those rivermen, teaching in East St. Louis, living and studying in St. Louis during the turmoil of the 1960s, and finally living in Auburn, a small town in the heart of Illinois corn and coal country, have all been immensely important to me as a poet.


When I haven't written about where I live, I've written about the wonder and discovery I've felt on journeys that I made. In the 1960's, I made trips all over the United States -- from Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota, to Savannah, Georgia -- as a consultant for Project Upward Bound. Begging an Amnesty was inspired by several visits to the western United States. Prayer Against Famine, of course, came from three journeys to Ireland and my personal search for relatives there. But that book also includes poems inspired by visits to Alaska, New York City and the Menominee Reservation in Minnesota. And that book, in kind with almost every book I've written, has references to countries all over the world. Place is important to me.


Your poems span boundaries of time and place, but speak of something more essential in people. What comparisons do you draw between Ireland and America, and between people of the past and present?


I'll start with your second question about the past and the present. After I taped the rivermen, I knew that I wanted to write about the past, but a very specific past. I used to say I wanted to write about the people whose history has been lost. If you look in that last volume of the local history book in your town library, you will usually find the stories of the first settlers (especially the ones who made good), the successful businessmen, the leaders of local denominations, important politicians -- generals. I wanted to write about the people whose stories are left out of that book. And I have done that, beginning with the rivermen but going on to tell many other stories about all kinds of people. What I didn't know is that in Prayer Against Famine, I would be writing about the lost history of my own family.


Regarding comparisons between the past and the present, between Ireland and America, what you find when you begin paying attention to lost histories is the link that you needed when you began the search in the first place. With the rivermen, I found a language and a sense that the inland rivers and the Midwest itself are worthy subjects for a poet. It has been the same with every story I've told in my poems. I always find some link with that lost past, some link that I needed, though I didn't necessarily know this before I began the poem. Often that discovery becomes the burden of the poem.


In terms of Ireland and America, what I was looking for when I began that book was my Irish family. What I found, in a mass grave in Skibbereen in County Cork, was the famine -- Angorta Mor, the Great Hunger. I began to understand that the events that sent some members of my family to the United States as immigrants and probably put others in that mass grave in Cork are pretty much the same things that we all worry about today: hunger, poverty, injustice, war, the silencing of peoples and their cultures. That was on my first trip to Ireland. And it was what made me include in the book poems about people in many other countries.


In 1998 I was in Derry and Belfast the week after the Good Friday Peace Accords. That was a stunning time. I realized that famine is spiritual as well as physical. And I saw many connections with life in Illinois -- including our simmering racial, class and religious tensions, the fear we have of each other. That was just one of the many connections I found between Ireland and America, connections I had not imagined when I began the book. But I still couldn't find my Irish family.


When I finally did locate the home of my Irish cousins, it was not in Ireland but on the Menominee Reservation in northern Wisconsin. So I'd returned full circle, to my own Midwest with no easy answers but a whole universe of relatives -- and questions.


My impulse with the book is that someone will find and read it and say, "Why that must be a cousin wrote this book."