Prairie Wolves In Print

Reviewed by Eric Wendt ('99)

Swallowing the Soap, written by William Kloefkorn (former NWU Professor), edited by Ted Genoways ('94)Swallowing the Soap: New and Selected Poems
By William Kloefkorn
edited by Ted Genoways ('94)
439 pages | University of Nebraska Press, 2010 | $27

An alumni magazine is expected to strike certain notes when discussing a retired professor who’s ascended the ladder—past merely appreciated, past respected, past even revered—to that uppermost rung of “beloved professor.” The writer is to wax reverentially about the beloved’s impact in his students’ lives and his ongoing commitment to the institution and its alumni.

There’s nothing wrong with this. But I won’t do that with Bill Kloefkorn—the professor emeritus of English who is at least as beloved as any other living professor this university has.

That’s not because Kloefkorn hasn’t earned the authority. (He more than has.) I won’t do it because his belovedness—if you’ll allow me to invent a needed word—isn’t what makes Swallowing the Soap essential. In fact, I worry his endeared status—and the nostalgic mist that it brings to alumni’s eyes—will fog our view of his work.

If we love this book merely because we love the man, we give neither their due: a clearheaded reading.

A clearheaded reading reveals Swallowing the Soap as nothing less than the most important publication of Kloefkorn’s poetry to date. It begins with 46 taut new poems, followed by selections from 30—yes, 30—of his previous books. The fact that those books are scattered among several tiny publishers and are often out of print makes this mother lode retrospective all the more valuable in capturing the arc of Kloefkorn’s career, not as a teacher, but as an artist.

His students want badly for those two Kloefkorns, professor and poet, to be the same man. We want time with his poetry to serve as proxy for time in his classroom, in his office, in his warm and ursine company.

If we love this book merely because we love the man, we give neither their due: a clearheaded reading.

And the two largely are the same. He never wrote from one philosophy and taught writing from another. But in searching for the familiar teacher in a poem we’re only now just meeting, we risk seeing only the shapes there that spoon with our preconceptions. If we allow ourselves to do that with Swallowing the Soap, we deserve the poetic equivalent of an old school correction that his title conjures—a bar of soap in the mouth or maybe the strop. A lonely walk with father back behind the woodshed.

Kloefkorn the poet has tools available to him that he never wielded as professor—tools like a controlled fury and a gorgeous sense of the visceral. Look at the size of his fists in a poem like “Memory”. He can knock us down at will, even through lines sketching his complicated decision not to swing those big fists of his. He tells of a boyhood fight he lost as quickly as he could. “I lost the fight / because I didn’t want to know / the pain I had seen in so many comic books / and on screen.” Nor did he want to hurt “the little / menace” who beat him. “I’m not sure / I could have seen him in such a bloody state / without breaking down, which is / maybe why I folded after all, or maybe not”. Kloefkorn is precise, even in describing indecision.

His new poems are by a man older than our teacher was—by a man who’s been sicker than our teacher had been. There’s a sharper focus on frailty, on mortality. But his irreverence in these new poems remains familiarly young and vigorous.

William Kloefkorn“[T]o hell with that ode / to death,” he writes in “Tea,” “to hell with dying, to hell with / Walt Whitman and his foolish expansiveness, / to hell with all things not blooming”. To hell, I’ll add, with any notion that Kloefkorn, in his own winter, has himself ever stopped blooming.

Just as it helps to set aside what we know of Professor Kloefkorn to better see this book’s poetry, we must do the same with its shrewd and accomplished editor. Anyone who has followed Ted Genoways’ (’94) brilliant career and its recent turn knows what poor journalism’s taste for hollow and humiliating “teachable moments” can do to a person’s reputation. Let his work on this book and at the Virginia Quarterly Review speak for itself.

And let Swallowing the Soap do the same.

These poems, ultimately, do more than speak for themselves. They breathe, walk, punch, swell and bloom for themselves. They are, as Kloefkorn writes, “full of blood and just waiting to bleed.”