John Knoepfle: “Poems do have a way of creeping around”
John Knoepfle, the celebrated Midwestern poet and author of more than a dozen books, is unusual in that he’s been the beneficiary of at least two notable features in FOCUS/Midwest. In “What is poetry?” (1973) Knoepfle discussed his work with St. Louis author Harry Cargas; “Midwestern master” (1980) marked Knoepfle’s quarter-century as a poet by examining his major works, Rivers into Islands and The Intricate Land.
Knoepfle, professor emeritus of literature at the University of Illinois at Springfield, remains an active and important voice. His latest collection, Walking in Snow, was released in 2008 by Indian Paintbrush Poets. His autobiography, I Look Around for My Life, also was released in 2008 by Burning Daylight.
Here’s an except from the 1973 interview:
“Harry Cargas: What has it meant to you personally to be a poet?
“John Knoepfle: Well, in terms of a kind of social satisfaction, poems do have a way of creeping around, and every once in a while you hear about some person one of your poems got to. I have a theory about art, that it’s always giving what it doesn’t need to. It’s the one thing you do that when it’s done is totally shared. So it makes me feel good if I hear from somebody, say, in Cedar Rapids who tells me he was in a bar there and suddenly heard a girl quote the last five lines from ‘Heman Avenue Holiday,’ or to know that someone else took the trouble to paint that poem on the kitchen wall, or to get a letter from a student in India telling me that he came across a work of mine that meant something special to him. I have to say I like that.
“Then, too, I feel pretty good about many of the earlier poems that were firmly set in place, something I wanted to do early in the game. I don’t think anyone wrote seriously about, say, East St. Louis before I did those poems in the ’50s, at least it hadn’t occurred to the kids I taught there to find their subject matter in and around themselves, and since then, some sharp writers have come from that area. I can’t claim myself as father to that, of course, but I have some kinship there and it has been acknowledged.
“As for a personal response or satisfaction, things get complicated. It is very hard to keep a steady view of your own work. One minute you feel pretty good about this poem you wrote and the next you want to toss it out the window. I find, too, as I get older that the old arrogance is gone. After all, the world is not waiting spellbound for my latest effort. I find it a little harder to send poems out, a little harder to judge when this or that poem is shaped as well as I can get it. But I do like to write the poems. I like to see them begin to fill out and attached themselves to larger, nuclear units, and I like to try to change them and rework them, get out the bad rhetoric that is often in them — they do get heavily reworked, so much so that I think that often a reader reads right through them without seeing them.”
— “What is poetry? Harry Cargas interviews John Knoepfle,” FOCUS/Midwest , November 1973