Apr/May 2005 Book Reviews

Where We Are Now: John Knoepfle's Prayer against famine and other Irish poems

Prayer against famine and other Irish poems
John Knoepfle
BkMk Press (2004) 96 pages
ISBN 1-886157-45-6

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The idea of poetry that begins, more or less, with Wordsworth, and passes through the late work of Neruda, touching on the work of a great many poets along the way, has become a staple of the trade. During the 90s, readers began to receive the first "mature works" from the poets who had perceived themselves as taking up the torch from Neruda: men and women then in their 70s and 80s who had long labored, exploring the possibilities in the craft with its "new" set of rules.

It is as much a Folkways movement as anything, also influenced by the depression-era images of WPA photographers, tape-recordings made by post-graduate students seeking oral histories in Appalachia, and a rebellion against the deracination inherent in modern technological society. The poet seeks to remain in touch with her or his humble past by being the humble past of some future that will read the poems like listening to so many scratchy recordings of Woody Guthrie songs.

This Folkways poetry is problematical in a number of ways. First of all, its demand for simple-folk speech makes it an excellent cover story for poor poetry. Moreover, even the sincere Folkways poet can end up writing poor poetry from out of a fundamental paradox of the genre. Rebel as he or she may, deracination is a central fact of our way of life. The differences between regions and ethnic groups in post-industrial countries are rapidly disappearing. Where they continue to exist, it is largely a matter of divergent economic conditions and poor education—or fad. The Folkways poet in a post-industrial society is in constant danger of being a pretender and a romantic.

These are a few of the hurdles John Knoepfle has faced in his career as a poet. He was a man of his time. In the 1950s, we learn from the BkMk Press author interview, he dutifully tape-recorded the spoken language of the rivermen of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers:

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.

Several of the misconceptions inherent in the Folkways tradition are gathered together here. 

Computer programmers also "have a host of precise terms for the work they [do]." No one, however, would expect a poet to tape-record them in order to develop a sense of place. The point of this exercise was to be in touch with the regional way of life that was romantically dying out and to equate it with the "real" character of the place. While this is not altogether a misconception, the idea that a few scattered hours, or even months, tape-recording the conversations of declining populations infuses one with their language and values—their qualities—is insupportable. It is a premise that has haunted American poetry for decades now.

In the volume Prayer against famine we find Knoepfle yet again seeking out his authentic "place" in the space-time continuum. In his search for a history that can root him in this place, he travels at least once to New York City and twice to Ireland. In the process, he fails to find a single living relative. In New York he discovers a few records.

At last he manages to track down some distant family members in, of all places, an Inupiac Indian reservation in northern Wisconsin. By the prevailing standards of the poetry world, this qualifies as an astonishing stroke of luck. Native Americans are as "authentic" as it gets, and surely, the poet was ecstatic. But, upon traveling to the reservation, the family refused to meet with him. Again, in the author interview, he reflects:

It's an accommodation with reality. I didn't find living relatives that I could speak to. And I didn't get to talk with my relatives at the Menominee Reservation because they are a reclusive family even on the Reservation and because there's no particular reason for them to trust an outsider claiming kinship. As I said in answer to the last question, I'm left with a whole universe of relatives, a lot of questions and no easy answers. But that makes me much richer than I was before I began the book.

Instead he and his party dance with a more accessible member of the tribe:

the man dancing on one foot told us he did not know where his songs came from only that his grandmother sang them

we understood how it was with him

They also check out the casino, the logging museum and the latest edition of The Shawano Leader. At the end of two days he, all too predictably, has begun to feel a profound connection:

...I should read my own tides
their restless shifting in the blood
and follow them here to this reserve
no one has ever been able to clearcut
this dark rectangle mapped from space

The Folkways poet's blood surges velleitiously. His forte is the vast "oceanic feeling" that Freud considered the core of all religions. He belongs everywhere. He has a "whole universe of relatives."

As strange as it may seem, the better volumes in the Folkways vein, such as John Knoepfle's Prayer against famine, succeed in spite of the paradoxes inherent in their perspective. Rather than being volumes about "place," however, they become volumes about the search for place. They succeed inasmuch as they come to some partial "accommodation with reality." The partial-ness of that accommodation is touchingly human. The struggle is even more so.

The contemporary mainstream poet's belief that the two-week package tour or weekend reservation can be a life-altering experience is delusional but it is undeniably real. Her or his need for such experiences at such a rate is symptomatic of the times. But symptomatic, also, is the ready cash to pay for the trip and for others to buy the books that are informed by the new perspective brought back from it. The ready cash implies a steady job with limited annual vacation time, or, in Knoepfle's case, a moderate retirement income in the wake of such a job.

We have so much and it seems to come to so little. But it defines a place, and it is the one we feel closest to with all its delusions. If a poet is lucky (or if he is unlucky), he finds it a place of spiritual famine and becomes a wanderer looking for better seed and soil. But it is no vacation occupation.

The sower in the field that John Knoepfle has tried to plant in order to achieve a sense of place comprises the place he occupies. He is a twentieth century bourgeois professor of creative writing, intent, as are all such professors, upon not writing "academic" poetry. His single notable divergence from the academic arises from the fact that he grew up as an Irish Catholic:

oh prophet rejected in nazareth
I am so long in your debt

The effects of it are all throughout Prayer against famine. The idea of poem-as-prayer rarely occurs to those with no meaningful connection to religion. The titles of so many of the poems make the point: "all hallows for samhain," "soupers salvation," "meditation on the book of kells," "lines after elisha," "novena." The college, the church: these are places he can not help but occupy, places he belongs.

But it is a contemporary American place, just as these poems are resoundingly American. The stern Irish priests and nuns—the stern internal Irish landscape—are all but gone. With them has gone all of the certainty, all the rock solid sense of identity. Its own people (himself included) are ambivalent about its history. It is a more accommodating church now—with cameo appearances by Basho and Osiris—and the cost is that he is less sure just who and where he is. That is how "place" works in America now.

Like all places, America needs considerable work. Like all places, it changes in disconcerting ways. In fact, it changes more quickly than any other place or time. Still, it does not change fast enough for John Knoepfle, who even in his eightieth year would be a Dubliner this week and an Inupiac Indian the next.

In the final analysis, it is a place that a professor-poet can make a living and raise a family. He can age gracefully, arrive at a bit of wisdom and a warm corner, imagining there how his

...one day old granddaughter
secure in her small providence
  charms her mother's nipple

or harmlessly dreaming of how rooted life might be if he were to escape to a reservation and play Indian. 


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