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Wednesday, March 26, 2008 01:37 am

Knowing Knoepfle

Our beloved resident poet produces a graceful autobiography

I Look Around for My Life By John Knoepfle, Burning Daylight, 2008, 148 pages, $23
Untitled Document Our local- and national-award-winning poet John Knoepfle has written an autobiography. Not a complete one — he begins with his roots in Ireland and Switzerland, carries us through his early education, his service in World War II and further education, his meeting with our well-known and well-loved Peg (one of the women honored last year for changing Springfield), and his struggles with further education, teaching, and eking out a living in academia for his growing family. He casts ahead to Sangamon State University, ending his story just before his move to central Illinois in 1972. Knoepfle writes a clear, restrained prose. The book reads swiftly but pauses for bits of lovely detail. About a visit to Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound: “the two of us could stretch out with our heads propped on the flank of the good serpent, entertained by an excitement of indigo buntings and yellow warblers.” I’m reminded of his Poems from the Sangamon — a river flowing quickly in parts, eddied and blocked by debris and obstructions at times, breaking free, then forming pools that reflect beauty before moving on at a steady pace, ever widening, and ever reflecting what’s on shore, both small and large. Of particular interest (to follow this parallel) is John’s pursuit of the stories of rivermen on the Ohio and Mississippi, recording priceless oral history of a now-vanished group well before there was a name for this activity. Another notable part is the description of John’s time in the Navy and the vagaries of that institution, especially after John was wounded, when he was still held in the service but not serving. He managed to squeeze in a couple of degrees during that frustrating time in limbo.
An unusual feature is the inclusion of illustrative fragments of poetry. These both break up and pin down the prose in a compelling manner, providing some of the limpid pools, and through these we also follow John’s growth as a poet. There were setbacks — in a workshop with poet Robert Lowell, John mentioned he’d had a poem in The Yale Review, whereupon Lowell said, “Well, they don’t publish the best.” Devastated, John quit writing. Several years later, a poet of some stature looked up the poem and said he couldn’t understand why Lowell had trashed it — it was interesting, he said, with a lot of verbal excitement: “You don’t need a teacher, you need an editor!” Says John, “I owe a great deal to those words. With Logan’s encouragement I began writing again.”
Much in the book is understated. For instance, we’re aware of the author’s loneliness, the brightness Peg was bringing into his life, but the courtship is described sparingly, and he proposed to her in a long-distance phone call. An index would be filled with names of friends, which in the text are often in brief delineation. It sometimes seems too much, till you realize one doesn’t need to focus on the persons but the impulse. The names are a testament to friendships and faithfulness in relationships and to the meaning those friends have had for John, the effect on his life, and his desire to express gratitude. John’s father, who spoke German, once told his mother the boy was a smarta hund. John says, “I don’t know what the occasion was, but it was all the German I needed to know.” Through this graceful book we learn considerably more and come to realize that we’re fortunate indeed to have this smarta, articulate, and loving hund as our neighbor and resident poet. 

 Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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