Louis Jenkins, a longtime Duluth poet who drew inspiration from the northern landscape, died Saturday, the morning of the winter solstice.

Called “one of the masters” of the prose-poem form by renowned poet Robert Bly, Jenkins was 77.

“Many people are devastated today,” longtime friend and poet Connie Wanek said. Jenkins had been ill for about 18 months, but he had been traveling the state doing readings as recently as mid-November. “We thought we had another year or so,” Wanek said. “We weren’t quite ready.”

Jenkins was born in Enid, Okla., and lived in Duluth for nearly 50 years, taking inspiration from the cold, the snow, the starry night skies and the big lake for poems such as “Violence on Television” and “Black Bears.”

“He always started with ordinary things and musings, and then he would be just like Houdini, like magic, opening a box that had been chained shut,” said Joyce Sutphen, the state’s poet laureate. “He made it look effortless.”

Jenkins collaborated with Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance to turn several of his poems into a play about two ice fishermen on a Minnesota lake. “Nice Fish” premiered at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater in 2013, then was reworked for productions in Boston and New York before a successful run in London’s West End in late 2016.

Rylance first spoke of his admiration for Jenkins at the 2008 Tony Awards, when he recited Jenkins’ poem “The Back Country” as his acceptance speech. In 2011, when he won a Tony for “Jerusalem,” Rylance again said no words of his own, but recited Jenkins’ “Walking Through a Wall.”

Jenkins frequently appeared at readings with fellow poets such as Bly, Wanek, Sutphen and Freya Manfred. He appeared on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and was frequently featured on “The Writer’s Almanac.”

“Louis was a true original who invented himself in isolation,” Keillor said on Sunday. His work had “an irreducible elegance. He captured northern comic stoicism better than anybody.”

Jenkins, who more than once noted that poetry didn’t pay a living wage, also worked as a librarian, truck driver and commercial fisherman — crafts that colored and informed his work. He published 14 books, including this year’s “Where Your House Is Now” (Nodin Press), and his work appeared in many anthologies, including the Keillor-compiled “Good Poems.”

Over time, his work evolved from traditional line poetry to prose poetry, which appears on the page as paragraphs. “I think the way the prose poem was able to get to readers was by not making it look like such a hard thing,” Wanek said. “Like: ‘I can read this, it’s just a paragraph.’ And then he would take you someplace really wild.”

While Jenkins’ poems were often funny, he was deeply serious about the craft. “There was no one who took it more to heart that poetry had to be The Thing in his life,” Wanek said. “No one was a better model for that kind of dedication to the art.”

In early November, he finished his last book, “The Mad Moonlight.” A painting by his wife, Ann, a visual artist, graces the cover. The book includes poems that date back to his early years in Duluth when he and Wanek’s husband, Phil Dentinger, published “funny little books” from their tiny Knife River Press, Ann Jenkins said.

Jenkins and Ann met in Colorado, where they both worked at the public library. “He was writing poems in the break room,” she said. “I thought that was pretty interesting.”

They moved to her hometown of Duluth in 1970 where Jenkins, Dentinger and others started the Spirit Lake Poetry series, bringing serious poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Louis Simpson to frigid Duluth. (Ginsberg stayed in the Jenkins house.)

Jenkins met Bly after sending him a poem; Bly eventually published several of Jenkins’ books, including his first, “The Well-Digger’s Wife,” in 1973.

“Artistically, Louis Jenkins is one of the most subtle poets of his generation,” Bly once said.

Jenkins’ poems appeared in a number of literary magazines and anthologies, including “The Best American Poetry” and “Great American Prose Poems.” He received the 1995 Minnesota Book Award for the collection “Nice Fish,” published by Holy Cow! Press of Duluth.

Jenkins died at home in Bloomington, where he and Ann had moved in 2017 to be near their son, Lars, and his family. In November, Jenkins read at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis, and in October, he joined Sutphen and Wanek for an evening of poetry before an audience of about 300 people at a Duluth church.

“He was in good spirits,” said Bob Dobrow of Zenith Bookstore, which hosted the latter reading. “The thing I love about his work is that it’ll start off humorous or sarcastic, but then you scrape it off and there’s such humanity and compassion.”

Ann Jenkins said the family will hold a celebration of Jenkins’ life and work in Minneapolis in March, with perhaps another gathering in Duluth later in the spring.

“One of my favorites of his poems is the one about him wanting to become a cloud,” said Norton Stillman of Nodin Press. “I think whenever I see a beautiful cloud this summer, I’m going to think there’s Louis, saying hello.”

 

laurie.hertzel@startribune.com 612-673-7302 pamela.miller@startribune.com 612-673-4290