Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday Muse: North Dakota's Poet Laureate

Larry Woiwode is North Dakota's fourth Poet Laureate. He assumed the position in 1995. Preceding Woiwode were poets Lydia O. Jackson (1979 - 1984), Henry R. Martinson (1979 - 1981), and Corbin A. Waldron (1957 - 1978).

The nominee for state Poet Laureate requires a joint resolution of the state legislature and confirmation by the governor.

North Dakota's Associate Poet Laureate, named in 2004 by Woiwode, is Jamie Parsley.

* * * * *

Mentored by The New Yorker's legendary fiction editor William Maxwell, who urged him to write novels and short stories, Larry Woiwode began publishing poems in the 1960s and lent his poetic voice to prose, too, penning novels that earned him acclaim and a following and poems that brought attention to his lyricism and eloquence. His first poem — in The New Yorker — was printed beside that of another poet, the great Theodore Roethke.

Woiwode's name over the many years he has been a poet, novelist, short story writer, and memoirist has become synonymous with literary excellence. Among his books are Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album (available from resellers via Amazon), A Step from Death: A Memoir, What I Think I Did: A Season of Survival in Two Acts, The Aristocrat of the West: The Story of Harold Schafer (1912-2001) (Dakotas), and Born Brothers

Woiwode's only collection of poetry is Even Tide (Farrar Strauss, 1977), and it is no longer in print. His poetry also can be found in the anthology Poetry North: Five North Dakota Poets (North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1970) and various literary journals, such as those noted below.

I was able to find text for two of Woiwode's poems from Even Tide. (See my Resources below for sources of others requiring subscriptions to access.) I think each gives a sense of how beautifully Woiwode gives meaning to words that speak of the land and its pull, age, death, remembrance, something of the mystery of God working in, and through and, and all around us.

I stared the stars in the face for an answer
And the moon appeared — it was no apparition,
The gold round host
In a cold sky.
It spoke:

Dark is nearer my heart than light;
I arrived, as you, out of equal circumstance,
And you, as you, reveal myself at night.
You see death has taken my face
And ages before the rest but my eye
Looking down wondering why you tremble
When you contend only with her or a her and I
With the irresuscitability of myself,
Myself, myself, and this — ambiguous sky.

* * * * *

When I woke, the dam had burst,
Water was flooding the fields
Where grain rose in green spikes
And raying beards that swayed
Forward with the current's strength,
And I was pulled from the pit and wrote:
How long has it been since I've spoken?
I want to say that our hill is overlaid with snow,
That its trees are, that spring is close, and that
Love awoke in me and Love awoke. [page 63]

Woiwode's poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and periodicals, including The New Yorker (from 1965 on), EsquireHarper's, Partisan Review, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic.

A professor at Jamestown College, in Jamestown, North Dakota, where he teaches creative writing and is Writer-in-Residence, Woiwode also has taught at University of North Dakota-Grand Forks, State University of New York-Binghamton, and Wheaton College. He was Writer-in-Residence at University of Wisconsin-Madison as well. Woiwode has led workshops and seminars, participated in writers' conferences, and given readings all over the country and abroad.

A recipient of the Award of Merit Medal from the Academy of the Arts and Letters, Woiwode also has been awarded Guggenheim, McDowell, and Lannan Foundation (2002) fellowships, the Aga Kahn Prize, William Faulkner Foundation Award, John Dos Passos Prize, Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, and a Lannan Foundation Artist's Residency (2003), among others. He has been a finalist for both a National Book Award and a National Book Critics' Circle Award.

Born in 1941 in Carrington, North Dakota, Woiwode left the state in 1950 and returned in 1978. He lives there still, farming and ranching and writing.


Poetry quoted © Larry Woiwode

First editions of Even Tide can be purchased through Between the Covers Rare Books. Go here for a list of copies available, ranging from $30 to $125 (inscribed by the author). Other resellers can be found on this Amazon page.

What I Think I Did on GoogleBooks [He describes in the section "Jawbreaker Layers", how he came to put together Even Tide. That same section was published separately here.]

"Language of the Land: Voices from the North", Article by Woiwode Based on Lecture He Delivered at North Dakota Heritage Center, February 1994, and Published in North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains (Summer 1995)

"Nourishing the Spirit of Writing" in Dimensions, University of North Dakota's Quarterly Newspaper, Vol. 3, Issue 3, March 2005 [This is an excellent article, by a student in one of Woiwode's graduate-level creative-writing courses.]

Access to Woiwode's work "Summer Storms" (essay, August 1993),  "Ode to an Orange" (essay, January 1986) and "Quail", "How It Came",  and "Rib" (poems, August 1977) in Harper's requires a subscription.

Access to Woiwode's poem "A Deserted Barn" in The New Yorker, December 14, 1968, requires a subscription.

"Haymaker" by Floyd Skloot, in The New York Times, March 30, 2008

"Larry Woiwode's Life and Work in Words" by Mervyn Rothstein, in The New York Times, September 5, 1988

"Memoirist of a Companionable Prairie Home", Bill Kauffman's Review of A Step From Death, in The Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2008

"Larry Woiwode: Persistent Exuberance", Interview by John Salter in High Plains Reader, April 26, 2008 [This is an insightful interview. To one question about being the state Poet Laureate, Woiwode responds, "I feel I could be used more." To another, theology-related question, Woiwode says that "I've read a lot of theology. But I'm becoming less interested in theology and more interested in the way people are able to live out Christianity, . . . in the world now." He also makes a wonderful point that "stories include people, and theologies exclude people. . . ."]

"Whatever Happened to? Larry Woiwode", First Person Plural, The Writer's Center, December 5, 2008

Video of Woiwode for the Read North Dakota Project (Prairie Public Television, 2007)

North Dakota Quarterly (University of North Dakota Publication)

Woiwode edited, with James H. Trott, A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry in English from Caedmon to the Mid-Twentieth Century. It's available through

Pronunciation of Woiwode: "WHY-wood-ee"


Ami Mattison said...

Thank you for sharing this, Maureen. I'm going to be thinking of this line all day:

"the irresuscitability of myself,
Myself, myself, and this — ambiguous sky."

Just beautiful! And who knew "irresuscitability" was even a word?

M.L. Gallagher said...

"Dark is nearer my heart than light"

Oooohhhh. Gotta think on that one!

Thanks my friend -- word power for my day!


Kathleen Overby said...

This was fun! Loverby grew up in this neighborhood. Then together we moved back when the girls were small.

The rhythm of the land is powerful enough to birth such men with wisdom words to give.

His name is so familiar, I think we've eaten at the local cafe together......and I thought he was only a farmer.

n. davis rosback said...

wonderful. he made a life, to be able to live with one foot rooted, in his north dakota, on a farm.

you have introduced me to yet another very interesting person.
you do this so well.

Brian Western said...

Years ago I was trying to order "What I'm Going to Do, I Think" from a popular book retailer in town, when my phone call hit a cosmic loop--"The book is by Larry Woiwode...'What I'm Going to Do, I Think'..."
"I want to order a copy."
"What title?"
"What I'm going to Do, I Think..."
"Yes? What are you going to do?"
"That's the title..."

Mildred E. said...

Clicking on Henry Martinson yields only an error message. I have tried in vain to find any of Martinson's poems. Anyone have any ideas on how to locate them? One expects a link at sources like this, but no.

Maureen said...

Dear Mildred,

The links have been corrected (I substituted new ones) and are working. Originally I used references from the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress has no links for Martinson, nor does Read North Dakota.

The Henry R. Martinson Papers are in North Dakota State University Libraries. The General File there contains some of his poems, according to NDSU. Martinson was business manager for a poetry magazine (Prairie Wings) and was also Fargo's honorary PL.

Articles about him indicate just two poetry publications: "135 Stories in Verse" of 1970 (many of which he wrote in a Scandinavian brogue) and "Old Trails and New" f 1958 an 1973. These two are in the Special Collections at NSU. Both are available through resellers via Amazon.

I hope this information is helpful to you.

Martinson was honored for "contributions to the political and economic life" of N.D., according to the state resolution about him.

You might try which has a page dedicated to the state's PLs.