Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Nearly all the poetry written in the Great Plains during the last 150 years can be placed in two general categories. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, poetry written in the literary forms of, for example, Keats or Byron was considered respectable, while poetry whose form and rhetoric were an extension of its subject matter was only beginning to seek legitimacy. Imitative poems occasionally made use of the locale or the culture in which the poet lived and wrote, such as the epic and iambic heroic pioneer and Native American poems of John G. Neihardt, but, generally, the main aspiration of the imitative poet was to create what was considered to be respectable "classical" literature, as if to establish the fact that civilization was indeed possible far from the traditional seats of refinement. The worldwide emergence of literary realism established the legitimacy of poems whose forms were "organic"–poems whose free forms seemed a natural extension of content. In the early twentieth century the balance began to tip toward a poem that disdained classical influences while attempting to respond to the life and culture of the poet's immediate locality. Today, poets writing work of this latter kind far outnumber those writing in classical forms, though Plains poetry of all forms does have at least one distinguishing tradition, that of reporting news from the frontier.

Much of Plains literature written during the period of settlement–stories, poems, essays, and newspaper columns–described the joys and sorrows of life on the edge of American or Canadian civilization. Authors customarily addressed their work to a remote, comfortably situated audience, an audience ignorant of what a sod house in Nebraska or a homestead shack in Saskatchewan might offer. It made perfect sense for writers to make such reports because, after all, they had no other audience. Most of the readers in both countries were still "back east." Those frontier writers' principal tools were scenic description and action-filled anecdote, and the emotional stance was one of hard-bitten acceptance of circumstances.

The tradition of reporting from the frontier continues today. During the past 150 years, easterners have come to expect Plains writers to continue writing steady-eyed reports from the "edge of civilization," even though the frontier has long since passed on west and sunk out of sight in the Pacific. For example, Thomas McGrath's epic poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend, one of the twentieth century's genuine masterpieces, is in part a report from the frontier of North Dakota.

The contemporary poetry most readily identified as Great Plains writing still follows these general parameters: it is descriptive, anecdotal, noncelebratory, and generally accepting of circumstances. It continues to be the expectation of eastern readers that poets "out there" will continue to provide reports on living conditions in rural America. Sometimes, in an attempt to sell itself to the established eastern literary community, which still maintains authority in matters literary, Plains poetry has suffered by trying to be too entertaining, too clever, too anecdotal, and obsequious toward an eastern audience. A poet who lives in Kansas and who writes in the manner of, say, the New York school–in which setting and environment are suppressed in favor of a more cerebral, talky, unanchored or nonlocal poetry–may find it difficult to find acceptance either in the East or in Kansas.

Probably the most important, most highly acclaimed Plains poet was the late William Stafford (1914-93), who spent his boyhood in Kansas and who continued to write tellingly and movingly about life on the Plains even after he moved to Oregon. Stafford's most notable poems adhere to the traits mentioned above: they are descriptive and anecdotal, and though loss and misery may be described, Stafford never pities himself or the people whose lives he portrays. Generous with his praise for the Kansas landscape and its people, he is never inappropriately boosterish. The people in his poems, such as a small-town spinster schoolmistress dying of cancer in old age, are ennobled by Stafford's dispassionate account of their uncomplaining struggles. Much of Stafford's best work fits into the category of reports from the frontier.

There are hundreds if not thousands of poets living on the Plains in the twenty-first century, many having considerable talent and national recognition. Some of these authors, like the Cherokee writer Diane Glancy, are talented poets and fiction writers as well. Linda Hasselstrom, a ranch woman from South Dakota, is an accomplished poet, diarist, and essayist.

Poetry on the Canadian Prairies is perhaps even more ubiquitous than on the U.S. side. Canada Council and provincial writers guilds not only provide subsidies for publication but also support reading tours by poets and other writers and poet-in-residence grants for libraries in major cities and many small towns. Louis Riel, Canada's most celebrated western rebel, was also an accomplished poet, and his heirs are legion. Just a few are Di Brandt and Bonnie Burnard, Louise Halfe and Beth Cuthand, Dennis Cooley and Anne Szumigalski, Fred Wah and Robert Kroetsch.

Like all authors, Plains poets are at their best when they focus their talents on trying to write well rather than trying to write what is expected of them. Paying too much attention to the expectation and entertainment of outside readers and publishers can lead to the weaknesses of glibness and redundancy. But, on the other hand, bowing to their own traditions, Plains poets continue to have an irrepressible urge to tell the people what life is really like out in this land of wide horizons.

Ted Kooser Garland, Nebraska

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