Arts and Culture

Poet Louis Jenkins found beauty in the Midwestern mundane

Poet Louis Jenkins at his desk in Bloomington in November 2019.
Poet Louis Jenkins died Saturday at age 77.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

For almost half a century, poet Louis Jenkins wrote about the world from Duluth. His wryly humorous observations of human foibles drew fans from all over. After struggling recently with health problems, Jenkins died Saturday at age 77.

Jenkins never took himself too seriously. Not long before he went into hospice care, we talked about his latest book, "Where Your House is Now." It's filled with useful information and wisdom, and includes a piece on what he admitted was the very remote possibility that he might be a cult figure. In the poem "Cult Following" he imagines a band of his fanatical followers, meeting deep in the woods, under a full moon.

He read aloud: "They build a big bonfire, have a few drinks, read a poem or two of mine aloud. Maybe they sing a song, and end by throwing copies of my books into the fire."

MPR News - Louis Jenkins reads his poem "Cult Following"
by Louis Jenkins

Born in Oklahoma, Jenkins moved to Minnesota in 1971 and became a regular on the poetry circuit. He seemed to know everyone: He often appeared at readings with Robert Bly and Freya Manfred.

"There is a concentration of poets here that I don't think exists anywhere else," he said. "Not even New York."

While long associated with Duluth, Jenkins and his wife Anne heard the siren call of grandchildren and moved recently to the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington.

As planes flew low overhead, squadrons of woodpeckers and other birds feasted at his window feeders. He said he still wrote every day, or at least tried to work on whichever knot of ideas he was untwisting. He talked about becoming a prose poet:

"I had some ideas, experiences, whatever, that I thought, 'How will I write these down?' And I thought, ‘What's the sense of the line break?’ I couldn't really tell."

So Jenkins' poems read like tiny short stories. All but one of the pieces in the new collection are less than a page long. Some are based on his own experiences. Others, like "My Ancestral Home," developed from things friends had said.

MPR News - Louis Jenkins reads his poem "My Ancestral Home"
by Louis Jenkins

That poem tells of an American going to Sweden to trace his roots. He finds himself eating strawberries and cream in the summer sun at a family gathering outside a picturesque old farmhouse:

"I felt a wonderful kinship. It seemed to me that I had known these people all my life. They even looked like family back in the States. But as it turned out, we had come to the wrong farm. Lars-Olaf said 'I think I know your people. They live about three miles from here. If you like I can give them a call. I said no, that wasn't necessary. This was close enough."

There is a lot in "Where Your House is Now" about growing older. But rather than dwell on his own aging, Jenkins preferred, as he often did, to quote someone else. This time it was John Updike.

"They asked him if he wrote better now that he was older, you know, more experienced," Jenkins said. "He says, 'No, when you get old you get stupid.’ And that's kind of my motto, ‘I'm getting stupid.’”

There was a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle in his voice as he said it. His poems glow with wit and intelligence.

Jenkins’ fans included stage and screen actor Mark Rylance. Twice at the Tony awards, Rylance recited a Jenkins poem in lieu of an acceptance speech.

Rylance also created an entire play, "Nice Fish," from Jenkins' poems. Just before the play's premiere at the Guthrie Theater back in May 2013, Rylance said he believed audiences would enjoy Jenkins' talent for finding beauty in the mundane.

Jim Lichtscheidl, Mark Rylance in 'Nice Fish'
Mark Rylance (Ron) and Jim Lichtscheidl (Erik) in the Guthrie Theater's production of "Nice Fish," by Rylance and Louis Jenkins.
Photo by Richard Termine.

"That a lot of things in the people around them and the nature around them, which they took for granted, they'll see are actually very amusing or very beautiful," he said.

Rylance produced "Nice Fish" a number of times and Jenkins even appeared in one run. But he said he found acting hard. He liked writing, to be working on something new, to share with a few people.

"One wants some attention for one's writing,” he said. "And, eh, on the other hand, you kind of like to be left alone."

MPR News - Louis Jenkins reads his poem "Learning Curve"
by Louis Jenkins
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