Nationality: American. Born: Thomas Shanks McKeown, Evanston, Illinois, 29 September 1937. Education: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1957–62, A.B. 1961, A.M. 1962; Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, summer 1961. Career: Instructor, Alpena College, Michigan, 1962–64, and Wisconsin State University, Oshkosh, 1964–68; poet-in-residence, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri, 1968–74, and University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, 1976–81; professor of English, Savannah College of Art and Design, 1982–83, and University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, 1983–87; poet-in-residence, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1989–94. Since 1994 involved with poetry tutorials correspondence schools. Awards: Hopwood award, University of Michigan, 1968; Wurlitzer Foundation grant, 1972, 1975; Yaddo grant, 1973, 1975; Wisconsin Arts Council fellowship, 1980. Address: 1220 North Gammon Road, Middleton, Wisconsin 53562–3806, U.S.A.
Alewife Summer. Albuquerque, New Mexico, Road Runner Press, 1967.
Last Thoughts. Madison, Wisconsin, Abraxas Press, 1969.
The Winds of the Calendar. Albuquerque, New Mexico, Road Runner Press, 1969.
Drunk All Afternoon. Madison, Wisconsin, Abraxas Press, 1969.
The Milk of the Wolf. Columbia, Missouri, Asari Press, 1970.
The Cloud Keeper. Dublin, Seafront Press, 1972.
The House of Water. Fredonia, New York, Basilisk Press, 1974.
The Luminous Revolver. Fremont, Michigan, Sumac Press, 1974.
Driving to New Mexico. Santa Fe, New Mexico, Sunstone Press, 1974.
Maya/Dreams. Stevens Point, University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.
Certain Minutes. Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Scopcraeft Press, 1978.
Invitation of the Mirrors. Oshkosh, Wisconsin Review Press, 1985.
Three Hundred Tigers. Bruce, Wisconsin, Zephyr, 1994.*
Critical Studies: "Contemporary Poetic Statements," in Road Apple Review (Oshkosh, Wisconsin), 1971; in December Magazine (Western Springs, Illinois), December 1971; in Back Door (Poquoson, Virginia), 1971; in New Voices in American Poetry: An Anthology edited by David Allan Evans, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Winthrop, 1973.
Tom McKeown comments:
Have several unfinished novels, but I have little interest in them now. Poetry is my full-time obsession.
I lean toward the surreal in poetry. Like experimentation rather than the tired, heavy academic stuff.
Write in free verse almost entirely. No major themes really other than the usual ones: love, death, separation, alienation, war, etc. I am mainly concerned with the dream and poetic possibilities that arise out of the dream. This is the area of the surreal where a non sequitur progression of images or image clusters are drawn from the unconscious mind. The surreal deals with the landscapes of dreams, and thus there are infinite possibilities for new and startling creations. Always there is a possibility for a satori, or sudden illumination. Have been influenced perhaps by Neruda, Breton, and Trakl.
Recently my poems have been reaching more toward the mystical and supernatural.* * *
Tom McKeown is a poet who is able to be both concrete and surreal in his poetry. He admits to the influence of various Spanish and Latin American poets. He shares with one of these writers, Neruda, a surrealism that keeps a strong grip on the landscape—in McKeown's case the Midwest—in which he lives. His work manages a particularly skillful synthesis of English nature poetry and Spanish and French surrealism.
In an essay he contributed to Their Place in the Heat, McKeown notes that he is attracted to both the nature/mythic/archetypal and the surreal approaches in his writing. For him the poet strives to be a shaman, or visionary, as in the poem "The Buffalo, Our Sacred Beast" from Drunk All Afternoon. Here he becomes a medicine man leading the buffalo back to trample on the civilization that has crushed them: "I carry a flag with a buffalo on it / and on my staff I spin a human skull." Another of his poems, "Aztec Dream," also evokes ancient rites, again involving human sacrifice.
Many of McKeown's poems are meditations, existing at a point where nature and the author intersect, and images can move swiftly from clearly observed scenes into dream states in which something transcending both the observer and the observed makes itself felt. In longer collections such as Certain Minutes this meditative quality is especially strong. Throughout these poems there is a feeling for stillness, for capturing isolated scenes and moments, coexisting with considerable movement. Sudden leaps of imagery take place within poems as scenes taken in by the outer eye yield to those caught by the inner eye. But the leaping takes place between poems as well, with locales switching abruptly from McKeown's familiar American heartland to exotic places such as New Mexico or semitropical coastlines. The collection concludes with the most exotic locale of all in "Lost in Yucatan," in which the author takes the plunge into the totally fantastic:
There is a face, a woman's face, coming up
Out of a green pool in Yucatan, the one
That has always been speaking, speaking
Among lush fern. This blossoming, this woman,
Who may have been waiting a thousand years,
Reaches the surface, makes no sound, locks
Her deep emerald eyes into the sun and vanishes.
There arey no ripples where she parted the water.
McKeown is a compassionate writer, and his poetry does not lack for feeling. Some poems in Certain Minutes, such as "The Last Drunken Friday in Missouri" and "Driving after Midnight," deal with losses only obliquely suggested, but a sense of mourning lost connections or relationships informs the poems. At other times the loss may be more explicitly spelled out, as in "The Lady on Black Oak Road," about a woman's suicide. (Even the collection's dedication to three friends underscores this theme.) An elegiac note touches his earlier work too. One short collection, Last Thoughts, contains four elegies, including the powerful "Body En Route":
A twenty year old boy
is en route home. Killed
in Viet Nam...
Nothing stirs in the gray houses.
Silence from his metal box.
The park is without voices.
The wind blows a terrible darkness.
Other poets dart through Certain Minutes like tropical birds flashing by, barely glimpsed. In "The Lady on Black Oak Road" a woman sitting in her car in her garage, waiting for carbon monoxide to do its work, sees "Sylvia," apparently Sylvia Plath, sitting by her side. In a less specific way the poems also pay tribute to poets such as Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. The ending of "Advice from the Glacier" suggests Stevens's "The Snowman" in its attempt to blend with what is utterly alien, reaching for a "mind of winter":
Inside my body,
a great peak of granite and snow
If you will learn
my clear eye
will let you
Other poems and imagery suggest Crane, as in the beginning of "Beyond This Place, This Hour": "The white bridges by the sea / are filled with sun / Laughing gulls curve." Mostly, though, these poems find one voice, that of McKeown, speaking with quiet intensity in poems such as "Meditation on Evening." Here a leaf suggests one life among many and one hour among a multitude.
Focusing on this one point of life, we can gain a mystical affinity with all of existence:
The light of evening floods the plain.
Shadows of leaves shudder: the shadow
of one leaf moves through many leaves.
Green transparencies overlap...