Nationality: American. Born: Cincinnati, Ohio, 4 February 1923. Education: Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ph.B. 1949, M.A. 1951; St. Louis University, Ph.D. 1967. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1942–46: Purple Heart. Family: Married Margaret Sower in 1956; one daughter and four sons (one deceased). Career: Producer-director, WCET Educational Television, Cincinnati, 1953–55; assistant instructor, Ohio State University, Columbus, 1956–57; instructor, Southern Illinois University, East St. Louis, 1957–61, St. Louis University High School, 1961–62, and Mark Twain Institute, Clayton, Missouri, summers 1962–64; assistant professor, Maryville College, St. Louis, 1962–66, and Washington University, St. Louis, 1963–66; associate professor, St. Louis University, 1966–72; consultant, Project Upward Bound, Washington, D.C., 1967–70; professor of literature, Sangamon State University, Springfield, Illinois, 1972–91. Awards: Rockefeller fellowship, 1967; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1980; Illinois Arts Council award, 1986; Mark Twain award for distinguished contributions to Midwestern literature, Michigan State University, 1986; Illinois Author of the Year award, Illinois Association of Teachers of English, 1986; fellow, Springfield Area Arts Council, 1994; Illinois Literary Heritage award, Center for the Book, 1995. D.H.L.: Maryville University, 1996. Address: 1008 West Adams, Auburn, Illinois 62615, U.S.A.
Poets at the Gate, with others. St. Louis, Arts Festival of Washington University, 1965.
Rivers into Islands. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1965.
Songs for Gail Guidry's Guitar. New York, New Rivers Press, 1969.
An Affair of Culture and Other Poems. La Crosse, Wisconsin, Northeast-Juniper, 1969.
After Gray Days and Other Poems. Prairie Village, Kansas, Crabgrass Press, 1970.
The Intricate Land. New York, New Rivers Press, 1970.
The Ten-Fifteen Community Poems. Poquoson, Virginia, Back Door Press, 1971.
Whetstone. Shawnee Mission, Kansas, Bk Mk Press, 1972.
Deep Winter Poems. Lincoln, Nebraska, Three Sheets, 1972.
Thinking of Offerings. Poems 1970–1973. La Crosse, Wisconsin, Juniper Press, 1975.
A Gathering of Voices. Ruffsdale, Pennsylvania, Rook Press, 1978.
Five Missouri Poets, with others, edited by Jim Barnes. Kirksville, Missouri, Chariton Review Press, 1979.
Poems for the Hours. Menomonie, Wisconsin, Uzzano, 1979.
A Box of Sandalwood: Love Poems. La Crosse, Wisconsin, Juniper Press, 1979.
Selected Poems. Kansas City, Missouri, University of Missouri, 1985.
Poems from the Sangamon. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1985.
Begging an Amnesty. Birmingham, Alabama, Druid Press, 1994.
The Chinkapin Oak: Poems 1993–1995. Springfield, Illinois, Rosehill Press, 1995.
Voyages to the Inland Sea: Essays and Poems, with Lisel Mueller and David Etter. La Crosse, Wisconsin Center for Contemporary Poetry, 1971.
Dogs and Cats and Things Like That: A Book of Poems for Children. New York, McGraw Hill, 1971.
Our Street Feels Good: A Book of Poems for Children. New York, McGraw Hill, 1972.
Regional Perspectives: An Examination of America's Literary Heritage, with others, edited by John Gordon Burke. Chicago, American Library Association, 1973.
Dim Tales. Urbana, Illinois, Stormline Press, 1989.
Editor, with Dan Jaffe, Frontier Literature: Images of the American West. New York, McGraw Hill, 1979.
Translator, with Robert Bly and James Wright, Twenty Poems of César Vallejo. Madison, Minnesota, Sixties Press, 1962.
Translator, with Robert Bly and James Wright, Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems. Boston, Beacon Press, 1971.
Translator, with Wang Shouyi, Song [T'ang] Dynasty Poems. Peoria, Illinois, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1985.*
Critical Studies: "Masks of Self-Deception" by Lloyd Goldman, and "The Reflective Art of John Knoepfle" by Raymond Benoit, both in Minnesota Review 8 (St. Paul), 1968; "The Poetry of John Knoepfle" by Norman D. Hinton, in Western Illinois Regional Studies (Macomb, Illinois), 8(2), fall 1985; "John Knoepfle's Historical Consciousness and the Renaming of America" by Theodore Haddin, in Chariton Review, 12(2), fall 1986.
John Knoepfle comments:
(1970) I consider myself a poet of the American Middle West but aware of the same cosmic problems that beset everyone anywhere.
Poems written since the publication of Rivers into Islands are less nostalgic. They show bias toward events—often surrealistic ones—that occur in such moments when public and private experience overlap. The poetry does not attempt to analyze the content of these two kinds of experience so much as it tries to reproduce the dynamics of their encounter. This has not been particularly intentional on my part; it is simply the way the poems have been moving, perhaps in an effort to get away from a propagandist/fatalist dilemma that seems at the moment largely irrelevant. The past in these poems and the midcontinent as place are there, then, not so much as subject matter outside of the poet as they are a part of a community of experience that I feel deeply involved in.
(1974) I am more and more concerned with the nature of a voice that is adequate, that can articulate the overlapping of public and private experience, some voice that is neither totally egocentric nor totally masked speech—how to capture such a voice.
(1995) In Begging an Amnesty there was an attempt to honor a generous luminosity in decent human beings by presenting them against the background of a depraved time. Not that I do not witness a grudging admiration for survivors, even those who gamble away their Social Security checks by the third of the month. At the same time, because I am positing myself against perfection, I have to acknowledge my own coming up short. But this is sociology and theology. To be able to express these ideas there has to be a resonance in the language. I always want to capture this, the lucky chance that may come if I can just keep writing doggedly despite a personal sense of failure.* * *
John Knoepfle was forty-three when Rivers into Islands was published. Its first poem, a farewell to "rebel rabble-rousing banjos," acknowledges the unusual age of this lyric poet's debut: "Welcome to the peaceful country, / delicate notes of bamboo flutes, / darkness of strummed guitars." A reverent man, longing for the deep truths of love and community and speaking quietly, even prayerfully, Knoepfle writes his disappointment—the failure of love, the loss of a heroic past, the inhumanity of contemporary America—without losing hope of consolation.
Even in a bleak hour "nothing is wasted / not even pain." In his meditations he seeks the source of affirmation ("it has to be any yes"), knowing that the effort secures his own well-being:
what does a man do
from the lines of his face
a broken board
a door covered with snow
When love fails, Knoepfle admits that he is "drained / like a shadow like / sunlight dancing on a / sacred river." But longing overcomes hostility ("I will build / a next in your ribs"), and his aggrieved memory provides solace: "there will be some yesterday / when we will be stunned with joy."
Knoepfle's nostalgia extends to his entire country, the American Midwest, with its legacy of common folk, hard work, and settlements recent enough to be the subject of the recollections of living relatives. A heroic mood characterizes poems about miners, settlers, and laborers in Rivers into Islands. Knoepfle longs for the "pile driving" locomotives of his boyhood, whose whistles seemed "home-hungry sighs" and "made my heart sad," but he can lash out at reminders of his grief, as in "Keelboatman's horn": "Why do you wake up the valley? / Put down your horn. We know / of others the rivers bruised."
Knoepfle turns indignant when he writes of the present "travail of the race." The middle portion of Rivers into Islands tells of wrecking balls disrupting lives, a refinery flame "flaring and contracting / among the millionaires," the hypocrisy of a desolated generation who "pretend that if someone came with bread / we would not destroy each other for the broken crumbs." Hostility disrupts "old recollections of providence" during the Thanksgiving dinner in "pilgrims day," from The Intricate Land. When a daughter opines that the man her mother has shouted away may be truth, the mother smooths her skirt and cries, "truth hell … / that was your father." The same bitter humor characterizes "labor day this hundred years" in the chinkapin oak, a poem that eloquently champions the cause of workers worldwide: "… I know what those / stalled bargaining sessions mean oh yes / so many open graves." In "beneath kennesaw mountain" an encounter with men "overworked on good wages / too much overtime and then / the job folding" becomes the impetus for a frightening portrayal of the frenzy of turn-of-the-millennium America. In the time of betrayal, injustice, self-interest, violence, and bigotry, even religion, Knoepfle rages in Thinking of Offerings, is compromised, the authority of "messengers of elohim" reduced to "what they were themselves / singing in the cavity / of his skull." Poems from the Sangamon, Knoepfle's most substantial book, still emphasizes the ominous—"some damn odin / eats us up don't you think"—but embeds human histories in a mythic perspective stretching from the Ice Age. He elegizes lost peoples and their ways and expresses wonder in poems like "owl in the capitol dome" and "man looking for his wife" (poems presumably descended from efforts in translating Vallejo and Neruda), and his characters tell quintessentially American tall tales in "lunch room, new berlin" and "bulldog crossing." Set in a "country of moraines," the Sangamon Valley of central Illinois, the collection—Koepfle's most comprehensive—gives us a world both living and senescent:
no gold now no winning
all that melted down
hidden under loess
america of ten thousand years
taking its own back
all gone golden and gold
The gnomic poems Knoepfle wrote in the late 1970s comprise a kind of phenomenology, identifying essential human qualities to be attentiveness, passion, and affirmation. A superior world surrounds us—a natural world, more integral, perhaps more moral, certainly enigmatic. Knoepfle may rage and grieve, but he is no nihilist. He portrays himself in "poet in a small place" as one who "farms" mystery from what he finds around him, "where death is a stone in a pond / and each house defines / the solitude of every window." But it is a mistake to reduce Knoepfle to a pastoral poet or a protester. He responds eagerly to the array of this world, bringing considerable knowledge of the past to bear. And the versatility of his spirit permits him, as he writes in the chinkapin oak, to be "prophet or outlaw with [his] words."
—Jay S. Paul