Skinner, Knute (Rumsey)

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SKINNER, Knute (Rumsey)

Nationality: American. Born: St. Louis, Missouri, 25 April 1929. Education: Culver-Stockton College, Canton, Missouri, 1947–49; University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, A.B. in speech and drama 1951; Middlebury College, Vermont, M.A. in English 1954; University of Iowa, Iowa City, Ph.D. in English 1958. Family: Married 1) Jeanne Pratt in 1953 (divorced 1954), one son; 2) Linda Kuhn in 1961 (divorced 1977), two sons; 3) Edna Faye Kiel in 1978. Career: English teacher, Boise High School, Idaho, 1951–54; instructor in English, University of Iowa, 1955–56, 1957–58, 1960–61; assistant professor of English, Oklahoma College for Women, Chickasha, 1961–62. Part-time lecturer, 1962–70, associate professor, 1971–73, professor of English, 1973–97, and since 1997 professor emeritus, Western Washington University, Bellingham. Poetry editor, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 1975–76; editor and publisher, Signpost Press, Bellingham, 1977–95; co-editor, 1977–86, and editor, 1993–95, Bellingham Review. Since 1996 associate editor, New Series: Departures.Awards: Huntington Hartford Foundation fellowship, 1961; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1975; Millay Colony for the Arts fellowship, 1976. Address: Killaspuglonane, Lahinch, County Clare, Ireland.



Stranger with a Watch. Francestown, New Hampshire, Golden Quill Press, 1965.

A Close Sky over Killaspuglonane. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1968; St. Louis, Burton Press, 1975.

In Dinosaur Country. Greeley, Colorado, Pierian Press, 1969.

The Sorcerers: A Laotian Tale. Bellingham, Washington, Goliards Press, 1972.

Hearing of the Hard Times. Stafford, Virginia, Northwoods Press, 1981.

The Flame Room. Tacoma, Washington, Folly Press, 1983.

Selected Poems. Leek, Staffordshire, Aquila, 1985.

Learning to Spell 'Zucchini.' Galway. Salmon. 1988.

The Bears and Other Poems. Galway, Salmon, 1991.

What Trudy Knows and Other Poems. Galway, Salmon, 1994.

The Cold Irish Earth: New and Selected Poems of Ireland, 1965–1995. Liscannor, County Clare, Salmon, 1996.

An Afternoon Quiet and Other Poems. Johnstown, Ohio, Pudding House, 1998.


Manuscript Collection: Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin; The Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Washington University, Bellingham.

Critical Studies: "From Ireland the American" by Gregory FitzGerald, in Ann Arbor Review (Michigan), summer 1968; by Thomas Churchill, in Concerning Poetry (Bellingham, Washington), fall 1968; "Killaspuglonane" by Harry Chambers, in Phoenix (Manchester), summer 1969; X.J. Kennedy in Concerning Poetry (Bellingham, Washington), fall 1969.

Knute Skinner comments:

I have attempted to embody (emphasis on "body") love and death. In other poems I have analyzed character. In a few I have attempted to enter nature and have gone so far as to find spirit in a cow. I am no longer as interested in the distant and abstract as I am in my immediate surroundings. Some of my poems are set in Killaspuglonane, my adopted townland, and Learning to Spell 'Zucchini' deals in part with friends and relatives. My influences are varied and usual. In two collections, The Bears and What Trudy Knows, the speakers are all fictional characters narrating brief episodes in tense dramatic situations. I began by writing rhymed stanzas and now write mostly free verse—though I still use rhyme, meter, syllabic or accentual, if the poem asks for it.

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Knute Skinner creates from remarkably disparate sources. His poems of love, death, and isolation in Stranger with a Watch are powerfully underscored by a wry and acid humor that etches at the surface of experience to reveal inner situations and private struggles. He writes elegies for the living as well as the dead, mourning the mourners. In his constant interplay of mind and senses and in his perception of physical decay and time he recalls Hardy, Housman, and Yeats. There is ironic laughter at twisted circumstance; there is understatement, wordplay, and a combination of metaphysical and sensual imagery; there is concern with madness, prophecy, and the stripping of poetic language to its bones and marrow. In form Skinner ranges widely and easily from lyric to epigram, from sonnet to ballad to free style, but his vision is peculiarly his own. By his criticism he reveals how things are and thereby implies how they ought to be—how love should not be a commodity, how men should not journey alone, how formality and self-consciousness should not divert people from genuine feeling. Through his poems the reader catches glimpses of lost connections—of time, places, and people that are not what they were—and a sense of love's fragility and ineffability.

In A Close Sky over Killaspuglonane Skinner allies himself with his Irish heritage, reflecting the land, the people, and the traditions of County Clare. Here he writes most strongly out of a sense of place. He can be chillingly honest, as in "The Cold Irish Earth," which causes him to "shudder," and though his "coat hangs drying now / by the kitchen range," he knows that, when "a cold rain falls," "down at Healy's Cross / the Killaspuglonane graveyard / is wet to the bone." In "The Cow" he comes upon "surely the whitest cow I shall ever see," a poem lifting the reader to such a level of wonder that, like the speaker, he can only hold his breath and read on about this cow that grows whiter in the sunlight "until she seems like a moon reflecting the sun, / a cow-shaped moon newly materialized / to dazzle upon the rise of a grassy hill." As the cow becomes transfigured into a "goddess," the speaker yearns to approach, to pay homage while he wonders,

Would I be touched to some extent by the sunlight,
and would my eyes be blinded with revelation?
Or would I find cowdung beneath my feet
and would she and I eat grass for the rest of our lives?

Out of this world's ingredients, then, Skinner can create a transcendent vision or a lyrical moment, whether it be a cow imbued with divine spirit or a longing to "dissolve this skin."

In "This Skin" the speaker, a child-man, asks a simple and haunting question, "Why can't I have the rain for a body?" "Imagine Grass," the concluding poem in A Close Sky over Killaspuglonane, is a work that astonishes with the scope of its vision as it orbits from this planet into the distant reaches of space and mind only to return with reverence to that miracle "… somewhere in the measured mass / of everything, imagine grass."

In Dinosaur Country displays an exuberant sense of life through humor that can be gentle, whimsical, or uproarious. Without flinching, Skinner reintroduces "gross" material into the life experience via poetry. His poems include "Blackheads," "Phlegm," and "Urine," and he presents "A Poem for the Class of 69" (in the concrete poetic style). His laughter is compelling and human, reminding the reader that nothing is ugly or alien unless he makes it so.

In Hearing of the Hard Times Skinner returns to Ireland, to inner and outer weather. He reminds us again that what is close by is just as deserving of attention—and maybe more so—than the world of political events. Thus, in "A Four Days' Rain" the speaker conversationally tells of "a sheep rotting on the hill where that mare / washes her hooves in the wet grass / … / It was there on polling day." The reader is invited to "Take my coat if you'd like to see for yourself," and the poem concludes with a masterful understatement, equating both worlds: "Sometime after they returned the party to power / the dogs buried one of its legs / in with the turnips."

Skinner unquestionably possesses a gift for stripping and compressing language, for capturing a situation—and the reader's attention—through quiet understatement, as in "Two Sentences" (from The Flame Room):

My father died with small
change in his pocket.
He was never president
of my mother's fan club.

At the same time he can achieve effortlessly the conversational quality of an Irish farmer while expressing gratitude for the seemingly ordinary life. In "Costly Thy Habit As Thy Purse Can Buy," after morning rising the "I" addresses the reader:

And you? Perhaps you'd as soon not ask
what will happen next,
for none of it sounds extraordinary, does it?
No, not at all—is that
what you're going to say?
Not extraordinary to have a cat and a dog
always there in the morning?
Nor to have children who may or may not rise early
and who vary their greetings?
Nor to drink orange juice sleepily in the kitchen?
Nor to open the curtains and be surprised at the weather,
whatever it is?

Ending this way, the poem invites the reader to respond and to recognize his own blessings. Skinner's poems must be counted among them.

—Carl Lindner