When Bill Holm was coming of age in Minneota, his Icelandic uncles admonished him to quit reading and writing poems and prepare to take up the mantle of his father's farm. The real money, they told him, was in cattle and pigs.

If uncles Abo and Herman were alive today, he'd have the pleasure of telling them that he is the 2008 McKnight Distinguished Artist of the Year, an honor that carries a $50,000 stipend. "I could tell them, by God, the real money's in poetry after all," Holm said last week after getting the news. "You just have to wait a little longer for your ship to come in."

The award celebrates Minnesota artists who have left a deep imprint on the state's cultural scene. "I was absolutely speechless, as anyone would be," said Holm, who was in a meeting with his editor at Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis when representatives from the McKnight Foundation surprised him with a visit.

Holm, 64, who divides his time between his birthplace of Minneota and Iceland, the country of his forebears, is a longtime English professor at Southwest Minnesota State University and the author of several books of poems and essays.

His works include "The Dead Get By With Everything" (1990), "The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth" (1996), "Coming Home Crazy (2000), "Playing the Black Piano" (2004) and "The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland" (2007). His poems and essays ring with equal strains of humor, outrage and intelligence on topics from the silly to the sublime and the heartbreaking.

"My boxelder bugs have odd preferences," he writes in "Boxelder Bug Variations" (1985). "They love radio dials, phonograph speakers, amplifiers, pianos, and harpsichords. Some would argue that this is because of the warmth and vibrations, but I prefer to think it is because of their taste for Bach and Vivaldi."

His writing expresses grief over the loss of a friend from AIDS, determination to master an etude with his left hand, affection for his mother's many handmade ornaments, irritation with bureaucrats and Muzak in waiting rooms, and outrage over war.

"He is an American original in the tradition of Walt Whitman, whom he adores," said Emilie Buchwald, his longtime publisher at Milkweed, a McKnight judge and a fellow distinguished artist. "He is not just cross or cranky; he is stirred to the bottom of his soul by what he feels is evil." Just as Whitman did, "he celebrates our potential to wake up, to not be torpid."

For more about the judging and selection process, go to http://www.mcknight.org/ .

Sarah T. Williams is the Star Tribune books editor.