The first Kansas poems were written by those who used Kansas as a word to conjure freedom during the territorial struggles against slavery. Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) wrote “A Call to Kansas” (1855), which has the crowing refrain: “We’ll sing upon the Kansas Plains/ A song of liberty!” John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1855) wrote “The Song of the Kansas Emigrant,” which begins, “We cross the prairies as of old/ The Pilgrims crossed the sea,/ to make the West, as they the East,/ the homestead of the free.” Soon, indigenous poetry surfaced, like “Juanita: An Idyl of the Plains,” by Henry Brace Norton (1836-1885), of Arkansas City, who weaves Anglo, Hispanic and Native American threads in a tragic Western Romance.
Dr. Brewster Higley (1823-1911) was not a great poet, but in the tradition of amateur poems published in local newspapers, his “My Western Home” has the most illustrative history. Once set to music by musician Dan Kelly, the song was performed in Smith Center and then immediately went into the folk tradition, traveling mostly through cowboys up and down the Great Plains. They called it “Home on the Range,” and changed and added verses. When “Home” was named FDR’s favorite song, copyright issues sent lawyers sleuthing until they found the original on the front page of an 1873 issue of the Smith County Pioneer. “Home on the Range” became the Kansas State Song in 1947.
Thomas Brower Peacock (1852-1919) followed his “Rhyme of the Border War,” a Miltonic epic, with others about Kansas in Poems of the Plains and Songs of the Solitudes (1889).
Another poetic chronicler, Richard Realf (1834-1878), Poems by Richard Realf(1898), also began by writing about the territorial struggles in such poems as “The Defense of Lawrence.” The volume of his collected work was published 20 years after his suicide, and proves to be competent rhyming verse.
Another versifier was Fort Scott lawyer Eugene Fitch Ware (1841-1911), who wrote under the pen name Ironquill. His work was published and re-published as his body of poetry grew. Some of the Rhymes of Ironquill (1902) is full of Kansas subjects, mostly celebratory of the struggles and triumphs of pioneering.
Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) was born in Garnett, but moved very early to Illinois, where he found the inspiration for his best-known Spoon River Anthology.
Kansas poetry began to come into literary stature in the early part of the 20th Century, when poets like Willard Wattles (1880-1950) and Harry Kemp (1883-1960) began to see Kansas as a cultural center, a place that could express itself free of “Eastern” decadence and industrialization. Wattles produced Sunflowers in 1914 (see Further Reading).
Charles Leroy Edson (1881-1975) wrote biting poems in free verse in the 1920s, taking on the romantic vision of pioneering and criticizing Kansas icons like John Brown. His autobiography, The Great American Ass (1926) gives an excellent glimpse of Kansas at that time.
Helen Rhoda Hoopes (1878-1973), long time University of Kansas faculty member, edited Contemporary Kansas Poetry (1927), and published the work of many of the fine women poets writing at the time, including Nora B. Cunningham (1887-1975) and May Williams Ward (1882-1975), who together edited a literary magazine, The Harp. A collection of Cunningham’s poems, Decades (1978) was brought out after her death. Poet Bruce Cutler edited a collection by May Williams Ward, In That Day (1969).
The next generation of poets included many associated with academic institutions. At Kansas State University was W.R. Moses (1911-2001), who wrote powerful lyrical poetry full of very particular observation in Identities (1965) and Passage (1976). Dallas Wiebe (b. 1930), a Mennonite by background, published a novel with Paris Review Press, Skyblue the Badass (1969), and became editor of the Cincinnati Poetry Review. The Kansas Poems (1987) show his minimalist form and wry humor about the state. Another Mennonite, Elmer Suderman (b. c. 1930), wrote What Can We Do Here (1974), containing many poems about the settlement of the state by this religious group. Bruce Cutler (1930-1999) published extensively during and after his stint as director of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing at Wichita State University. Among his many books: A West Wind Rises(1962), Sun City (1964), and Sand Creek Massacre (1995). A West Wind Rises was written to honor and explore Kansas at its Centennial of statehood. The subject: In May of 1859, a band of Missourians rode into Kansas and perpetrated what became known as the Marais des Cygnes Massacre against eleven men they rounded up for being "Free‑staters." Bruce Cutler did comprehensive research to create this narrative poem with multiple voices and perspectives, giving Kansas yet another work exploring the “Bleeding Kansas” heritage.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was born in Topeka. Like Edgar Lee Masters, and others who moved young, namely Langston Hughes and Gordon Parks, Kansas lays small claim to being part of their careers.
William Stafford (1914-1993) is probably the best known and most highly revered of 20th Century Kansas poets. He is not only considered the most accomplished, having won the National Book Award for his second book, Traveling Through the Dark (1962), and the most prolific, with thousands of poems and dozens of books, but also the one poet who defined Kansas and Great Plains poetry for those coming after. Contemporary Kansas poet Amy Fleury (see below) describes his work: “The simple language of complicated life, the respect for the landscape of Kansas and the Great Plains and the welcoming inclusiveness in these poems are the region's quintessence.” Beyond style, Stafford’s work contains an incredible commitment to the region, as well as to certain life principles—peace (he was a conscientious objector during World War II), racial equality (“I walked with my cup toward the elevator man”), and modesty (“gray shirt for me”). He is the biggest landmark in the landscape of Kansas poetry.
Kansas has a group of poets who took their places in the experimental, beat, surreal and imagistic schools. Among them are Michael McClure (b. 1932), who was born in Marysville, with his Dark Brown (1961) and Rare Angel (1974). Ronald Johnson (1935-1998), was born in Arkansas City, and was a prolific member of the Black Mountain School of poetry. See: A Line of Poetry, a Row of Trees (1964), Book of the Green Man (1967), Radi Os (1977), Ark (1996), and The Shrubberies (2001). James Tate (b. 1943) is from Kansas City and Pittsburg. He won the Yale Younger Poets prize for The Lost Pilot (1967), and has had a prolific career as a poet. Lawrence, Kansas, was so identified with the Beat poets, hosting readings by poets like Allen Ginsberg, who wrote “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” that William S. Burroughs (1914-1997), chose to reside there at the end of his life, finding a community of writers who nurtured him and his work.
Jonathan Holden (b. 1941), served as first Poet Laureate of Kansas, a newly funded position appointed by the Kansas Arts Commission, from 2005-2007. A longtime Professor of English teaching poetry writing at Kansas State University, Holden has won awards for all his poetry collections, from the AWP Award Series selection of Leverage in 1983 through the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry for The Sublime (1996). None of his seven books of poems is specifically about Kansas, but many individual poems treat Kansas as landscape and idea.
B.H. Fairchild (b.1942), originally from Liberal, attended the University of Kansas. His The Art of Lathe (1998) and Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (2003) combine strongly narrative with lyrical poetry that reveals the nature of Kansas people and their place.
Max Douglas (1949-1970) was a brilliant young poet at the University of Kansas who wrote in spare lines, stark and exacting, about compressed insights and concise moments. His Collected Poems (1978) was published after his death of an accidental heroin overdose.
The number of poets in the academy has increased a great deal with the teaching of creative writing, and with graduate programs dedicated to writing. Michael Paul Novak (1935-2006) taught at University of Saint Mary at Leavenworth. His first book, The Leavenworth Poems (1972), includes “English 101—The State Prison,” based on his experiences teaching in Lansing. His final book was A Story to Tell (1990). Novak was a lyric poet, a fine observer of life, with a darkly humorous intelligence. Stephen Meats (b. 1944) edits the Midwest Quarterly, a scholarly publication with summer creative issues. His own Looking for the Pale Eagle (1992) was published by Woodley Press. Steven Hind (b. 1943), a native of Madison, was long-time creative writing teacher at Hutchinson Community College. Nobody is better at capturing the Flint Hills. Influenced in his diction and demeanor by William Stafford, he has four collections of poetry: familiar ground (1980), That Trick of Silence (1990), In a Place With No Map(1997) and The Loose Change of Wonder (2006). Albert Goldbarth (b. 1948) teaches at Wichita State University. A National Book Award winner, Goldbarth is prolific, intellectual, thoughtful and accessible. He does not rely on Kansas as a subject. Elizabeth Dodd (b. 1962) of Kansas State University treats some Kansas subjects in her Archetypal Light (2001), and she has carved out a Creative Nonfiction niche with Prospect: Journeys and Landscapes (2003). Bill Sheldon(b. 1962) teaches composition and creative writing at Hutchinson Community College. His Retrieving Old Bones (2002) is a meditation on life and landscape in Central Kansas. Amy Fleury (b. 1970) was born in Nemaha County and teaches creative writing at Washburn University of Topeka. Her Beautiful Trouble (2004) won the Crab Orchard Award, and her poetry has been described as “ordinary words placed with perfect precision” in the service of a wonderful consciousness of the relationship between people and place.
Patricia Traxler (b. 1944) came to Salina from California and has been a vital part of the arts community there. Her poetry collections are The Glass Woman(1983) and Forbidden Words (1994). Her novel is Blood (2001).
A generation of young poets have come out of Topeka and gone on to distinguish themselves. Kevin Young (b. 1970) graduated from Topeka West High School. His Most Way Home (1995), To Repel Ghosts (2001), Jelly Roll: A Blues (2003), Black Maria (2005), and For the Confederate Dead (2007), evoke the tradition of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, but with a playful sense of language, and with ecphrastic insights that cross into and make comprehensible the multi-genre arts experience of music, film, television, visual art and popular culture. Ed Skoog (b. 1971), a graduate of Topeka High School and Kansas State University is well-known among young poets. He has a chapbook, Field Recordings (2003). A collection of his work will be published by Copper Canyon Press in 2009. Eric McHenry (b. 1972) has Topeka roots through several generations. His Potscrubber Lullabies (2006) tends toward formal lines and shapes, and is full of rich humor and gently nudging insights. McHenry also reviews contemporary poetry for the New York Times Book Review. Ben Lerner (b. 1979) is a Topeka native. His first book was The Lichtenberg Figures (2004), loosely structured sonnets, masterful lyrical poems. His Angle of Yaw (2006) was a finalist for the National Book Award, and critiques contemporary American culture by using its own images and obsessions. Cyrus Console (b. 1977), another graduate of Topeka High School, took a science B.S. at the University of Kansas and an M.F.A. at Bard College. His collection of prose poems, Brief Under Water(2008) is from Burning Deck Press, which also published Kansas poet and fiction writer Dallas Wiebe (see above).