Nebraska Poets

If you can awaken inside the familiar and discover it new you need never leave home.

Ted Kooser, “Local Wonders”

Twyla Hansen

Twyla Hansen

Twyla Hansen was raised in northeast Nebraska on land her grandparents farmed in the late 1800s as immigrants from Denmark. She received her BS in Horticulture from the University of Nebraska — Lincoln. She is a creative writing presenter through the Speakers Bureau of the Nebraska Humanities Council. Her writing has appeared in a wide variety of publications. Her previous poetry books are Sanctuary Near Salt Creek (Lone Willow Press, 2001), In Our Very Bones (1997, A Slow Tempo Press), and How to Live in the Heartland (1992, Flatwater Editions). Her latest book, Potato Soup (Backwaters Press, 2003), won the 2004 Nebraska Book Awards competition for poetry. She works and lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.


It was the summer our well
was going dry and my brothers
both had jobs in town.

One evening the older one drove home
the lumberyard’s ancient stationwagon,
proceeded to clean it up before supper.

Something about impressing his boss.
Only the younger one wasn’t impressed,
saying Chores come first get your ass
over here and help.

The older one kept washing and washing
with the end of the garden hose.
My younger brother whirled him
by his belt loops on to the gravel.

Their fists and punches hit like
they were playing it this time for real.
Mother came screaming out of the house,
flailing about somebody getting hurt,
helpless as a hanky in a downpour.

The cows stood heavy and bellowing from
the barnyard while my brothers clashed,
their bodies rolling over and over
in the knotweed, this time
dad not there to stop them.

We were losing the farm that summer,
my brothers suddenly grown, and
everything going down deeper
into the ditch, even
the last of the water.

—Twyla Hansen
from How To Live In the Heartland (Flatwater Editions, 1992)

Midwestern Autumn

An outwitted barn
                    toward the surrounding cornfield.

Insistent wind; all day the unnoticed ripening:
            sorghum to russet, soybeans to yellow,
                       sumac to crimson.

The sun coats us with Indian summer;
            leaves off the honeylocust
                        like warm snow.

We cruise this land of wide, flat rivers,
            shy maples beginning to turn, a grove
                        of upstart cottonwoods in roadside gumbo.

People who once laughed and sweated
            in these empty sheds, talked community and crop
                        in the shriveling towns—where are they?—

implements rusting next to barbed wire.
            This landscape inches toward horizontal oblivion,
                        harvest moon rising full before sunset,

light far in the distance for those remaining,
            land-beacon, out of the wetlands
                        cattails and reedgrass waving and waving.

—Twyla Hansen
from In Our Very Bones (A Slow Tempo Press, 1997)

Don Welch

Don Welch is a life-long Nebraskan whose poetry often reflects a deep sense of place in the landscape of the Great Plains. His published books of poetry include: A Brief History of Feathers, Handwork, Fire's Tongue in the Candle's End, The Plain Sense of Things. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies. His composition handbook, A Shape a Writer Can Contain, was published by the Nebraska Department of Education in 1979 and is still widely used in high school curricula throughout the state. Retired from a 38-year career in the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s English Department, he continues to pursue his life-long professional passions. He continues to present teachers’ workshops and serves on the Kearney Public Schools Board of Education.

Poet in Residence at a Country School

The school greets me like a series
of sentence fragments sent out to recess.
Before I hit the front door
I'm into a game of baseball soccer.
My first kick's a foul; my second sails
over the heads of the outfielders;
rounding third base, I suck in my stomach
and dodge the throw of a small blue-eyed boy.
I enter the ! school, sucking apples of wind.
In the fifth-grade section of the room
I stand in the center of an old rug and ask,
Where would you go where no one could find you,
a secret place where you'd be invisible
to everyone except yourselves;
what would you do there, what would you say?
I ask them to imagine they're there
and writing a poem. As I walk around the room,
I look at the wrists of the kids,
green and alive, careful with silence.
They're writing themselves into fallen elms,
corners of barns, washouts, and alkali flats.
I watch until a tiny boy approaches,
who says he can't think of a place,
who wonders today, at least,
if he just couldn't sit on my lap.
Tomorrow, he says, he'll write.

And so the two of us sit under a clock,
be! side a gaudy picture of a butterfly,
and a sweet poem by Christina Rossetti.
And in all that silence, neither of us
can imagine where he'd rather be.

Authors note: This was written during a residency in a rural school north of Seward, one which is now closed. One girl in the fourth grade of that school wrote me this:

I used to be invisible
and still am as you can see.
I wish I were you
and you were me.

Then she drew two big eyes next to her poem, with black pupils and long eyelashes. But no face. We couldn't get her to come to the center of the room, sit on the rug, and read what we'd written until I asked her if I could read her poem to the other four fourth and fifth graders. She said I could, and because the other students liked it so much, she came to the center the next day and sat down with us. She was now visible. And stayed that way for the rest of the week.
Good luck with your rural project. It's a wonderfully fertile world.
—Don Welch

William Kloefkorn

William Kloefkown

William Kloefkorn was named Nebraska Poet Laureate in 1982 and held that distinction for more than a decade. He has written 12 books of poetry, including Alvin Turner As Farmer, Platte Valley Homestead and Drinking the Tin Cup Dry, two collections of short stories, two memoirs ( This Death by Drowning and Restoring the Burnt Child) and a collection of children's Christmas stories. He initiated the Nebraska “poets in the schools” program, and has read his work and conducted workshops in elementary, junior high, and high schools in Nebraska and across the country. William Kloefkorn lives and writes in Lincoln , where he is emeritus professor of English at Nebraska Wesleyan.

Library of No Return

Lost in the stacks,
  disbelief having yielded to panic,
    panic to resignation, I inhale the mustiness
  of obediently upright spines.
    Though I'm a novice, call me greenhorn, I'm determined
  to stay here looking until
    Hell or its eartly equivalent freezes over. So this is what
  it means to be navigating
    a library of no return, to be forever adrift
  in the ebb and flow of ages,
    to choose each landing with large and equal drams
  of wonder and care.
    Who might have guessed the universe so ancient, so
  unaccountably vast!
    Before Hell freezes over I'll learn that in Dante's
  Inferno Hell freezes
    over, in the Greeks that once upon a time
  the earth's beleagured
    creatures, excepting two, were destroyed by water.
  Is there nothing new,
    after all, under the lights that make
  the night the sky?
    Lost in the stacks I find my way at last by way
  of words: No way that
    can be charted is
the way.

—William Kloefkorn

From Sunrise, Dayglow, Sunset, Moon, Talking River Publications,
Lewis & Clark College, Lewiston, Idaho, 2004

At Milking Time

The cats too congregate
At milking time,
Discovering their own
Firm ritual in mine. Together we make a church of it:
I and the cows and the cats,
And the flies that swarm like music
At the worshippers' backs.

With careful hands
I direct a stream of milk
Into the mouth of
One soft beggar.
In the midst of steaming dung
I am more than priest:
Confessor to cats,
I sit in total ignorance,
Intermediating only substance.
Alpha and Omega are
Somewhere in the pasture, perhaps-
Perhaps playing brackets with lives.

I couldn't care less.

I have my cats and my cows,
My horde of bandied flies.
Barnlife. Shinglesmell.
The thick slobbering of grain.
And the milk that squirts
From one mystery to
Another, and back
Some way,
Some time,

O brothers and sisters!
The meaning all is here-
Here in the barn and the milk.

—William Kloefkorn

From Alvin Turner as Farmer, Logan House,
Winside Nebraska, 2004

Ideas for Teachers to Encourage Student Writing

Emphasize a focus on the theme of rural place

Since the effectiveness or impact of any particular poem is so subjective, it is difficult to say exactly what makes good poetry. However, for the purposes of this project, student poets and their sponsoring teachers should keep in mind the fact that the project goal is to celebrate rural poetry, particularly poetry that reflects a sense of rural place. The ten chosen poets will be selected because of their poetic skill but also because their writing represents the experience of rural life in Nebraska . Inspired by the poetry of our National Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser, we invite student poets to become familiar with Kooser's work and to write their own “local wonders.”

Emphasize the literary aspects of poetry

In addition to the focus on rural places, many people admire certain literary qualities in poetry. Everyone has his or her preferences, and different kinds of poetry have different strengths and limitations. To help you imagine some of the things the judges might look for, consider these qualities:

  • Originality. Encourage students to think of new ways to say things, take a novel approach to a familiar topic, or challenge themselves to explore new styles.
  • Focus. Good poetry often begins with a specific image, memory, or thought and then explores it to arrive at some insight or question about life.
  • Organization. Encourage students to think about how their poems begin and end. How do the different parts of the poem relate to each other? Sometimes poems conclude with a twist, a deepening of meaning, or a suggestion for change
  • Word choice. Vivid verbs, precise nouns, and unique word combinations help paint pictures in a reader's mind. Imagery helps appeal to the senses.
  • Rhythm and rhyme. Poetry can use different types of interesting rhythms, such as smooth and metered, staccato, or conversational. Line breaks, indentions, and even the use of space can convey meaning. Traditional or nontraditional rhyme may add depth to a poem or limit it. Encourage students to consider how their poems sound when read aloud.
  • Voice. A poem may take on an emotional quality, such as one of longing, sadness, elation, anger, or amusement. It may also employ dialect or slang to evoke a mood or capture a scene. Some poems speak to a specific audience.
  • Conventions. Spelling, mechanics, usage, or grammar may be altered for stylistic reasons, or conventional rules may help to clarify meaning.

Resources for Students and Teachers


Poet Laureate Ted Kooser:

Ted Kooser's Poet Laureate project, American Life in Poetry:

Nebraska Literary Directory (State Dept of Ed):

“Fooling With Words With Bill Moyers: Lesson Plans For Teaching Poetry”:

Twyla Hansen links: v=glance&n=283155 - Potato Soup, including a book review by Jim Reese in the Lincoln Journal Star.

William Kloefkorn link:


A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver: no ISBN, the publisher is Harcourt, Inc.

Everyday Creative Writing: Panning for Gold in the Kitchen Sink by Michael C. Smith & Suzanne Greenberg: ISBN 0-8442-5900-4

Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford.
(NCTE) ISBN 0-8141-1848-8

Road Trip: Conversations With Writers by Shelly Clark and Marjorie Saiser ISBN 0-926187-0-8

Studying Poetry: Activities, Resources, and Texts by Brian Moon (NCTE Chalkface Series) ISBN 0-8141-4859-6

The Art of Reading Poetry by Harold Bloom; no ISBN, the publisher is Harper-Collins

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser: ISBN 978-0-8032-2769-8

Potato Soup by Twyla Hansen, The Backwaters Press with two selections including the title poem, "Potato Soup," first published in
Prairie Schooner