Tuesday, October 30, 2007



Jonathan Holden, first Kansas poet laureate, has lived in Manhattan, Kansas, since 1978. He is distinguished professor at Kansas State University. I first met Holden when I taught at K-State briefly in the 1970s, and he was generous to many poets and students. He has influenced the direction of American poetry—through essays and example—by insisting that informal, domestic moments are high art.

Holden is passionate about poetry, both as critic and poem-maker. His brilliance manifests in his performances as well as writings. He can quote entire poems by major American and British poets for hours. He masters fields of knowledge—mathematics, tennis, U.S. politics, Bach—and finds ways to use them in everyday situations.

This poem, about apparently ordinary sights, comments upon instinctive knowledge. It mimics the perfect balance that baseball players and sparrows both must practice in order to survive. The lines shift in rhythm, to imitate birds totter and regain balance. Holden uses a passel of rich descriptive verbs, like “pirouette” and “stab,” to describe reflexive movements of the birds and players. These contrast to hesitations—reflection and philosophy—in the poem. Instinct keeps us alive, even when in the dark of night.


These infielders are definite

as sparrows at work.

Split that seed with one peck

or starve.

There is no minor league

for birds. There is

exactly one way

to pirouette into a double play

perfectly. The birds

don’t dare reflect on what

they do, each hop, each stab and

scramble through the air into the

catch of the sycamore’s

top twigs

is a necessity,

absolute. To stay alive

out in the field, you must be

an authority on parabolas

and fear philosophy.

Education: Holden grew up in rural Morristown, New Jersey, described in his memoirs Guns & Boyhood in America and Mama’s Boys. His college degrees, all in English, are from Oberlin (BA 1963), San Francisco State College (MA 1970), and University of Colorado (PhD1974).

Career: This poet has published twenty books of poetry, essays, memoirs, and a novel. Knowing is his most current book of poetry (University of Arkansas Press 2000). He is poet-in-residence and University Distinguished Professor at Kansas State University. He has won awards from the National Arts Endowment, University of Missouri Press, the Associated Writing Programs, and others. Midwest Quarterly devoted the summer 2007 issue to him. His website is www.jonathanholden.com .

© 2007
Denise Low, AAPP6. © 1997 “Night Game,” Jonathan Holden, from Ur-Math, State St. Press © 2005 photo by Greg German. A downloadable version is available for non-commercial use from www.kansaspoets.com

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


JO McDOUGALL (1935 - )

Jo McDougall was born and raised in Arkansas, where she received an MFA under the legendary teacher and editor Miller Williams. She was director of the creative writing program at Pittsburg State University 1987-1998, and currently she resides in Leawood, Kansas.

McDougall brings a Southern sensibility to her writings about the great open Kansas landscape—her work is more narrative, perhaps, and her humor is direct. But the influence of the grasslands is strong in her spare language, use of sharp visual images, and themes of endurance. She is a committed realist. Some of her poems, for me, recall Grant Wood’s paintings like “American Gothic,” but with humor.

Time creates a vivid dimension within McDougall’s Midwestern settings, through the agent of memory. McDougall writes: “Memory is the poet’s calico landscape of the imagination, recalled from the advantage of maturity.” In her poetics, memory appears as flashbacks, obsessive replays, time travel, sustained observations, and reflections. Ironically, McDougall’s survivors’ humor and honest insights construct a natural theology.

In “Blessing,” McDougall creates a story with selected details. The Kansas setting is alluded to with the presence of wind, storm, and sun. The small town intimacy with neighbors is suggested by the narrator’s nosiness. How long was the narrator watching in order to see all these details, including hidden panties? The last line opens the scene to larger questions.


My neighbor hangs out the morning wash

and a storm dances up.

She strips the line,

the children’s pajamas with the purple ducks,

her husband’s shorts,

the panties she had hidden under a sheet.

When the sun comes out

she comes back

with the panties and the sheets, the shorts and the pajamas.

This is my ritual, not hers.

May her husband never stop drinking and buy her a dryer.

Education: McDougall graduated from DeWitt High School. She received an A.A. from Stephens College, BA from University of Arkansas (1957) and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville (1985).

Career: This poet worked has published five books of poetry from BookMark Press-University of Missouri-Kansas City; University of Arkansas Press; and most recently Autumn House Press. Her work has been adapted for film (Emerson County Shaping Dream), theater, music, and artist’s book. Inquiries about the film or books can be directed to mailto:jomcdougall@sbcglobal.net?.

© 2007
Denise Low, AAPP5. © Jo MacDougall, “Blessing,” from Towns Facing Railroads rpt. with permission of U. of Arkansas Press

© Denise Low, photo
A downloadable version is available for non-commercial use from www.kansaspoets.com