by CHRIS ROGERS
From his humble roots as a farm boy outside of Spring Grove, Minn., Joseph Langland went on to some remarkable things: liberating skeletal survivors from Buchenwald concentration camp in Nazi Germany, vacationing with Dylan Thomas and family, and being left for dead by reindeer herders in the Norwegian tundra. He became a renowned poet and made famous friends, but the wrinkled valleys of the driftless region were always close to his heart. He is one of Southeast Minnesota's most famous writers — Northeast Iowa lays claim to him, too — and if he were still alive, he would be 99. This weekend Spring Grove is throwing a celebration of all things Joseph Langland, from picnics to cave hideouts.
Langland liked saying poetry out loud. "He didn't like the word 'recite,'" Bill Musser, a friend of Langland's, remembered. "He said 'recite' sounded too mechanical. You say a poem." Langland had a vast store of poems — his own and others — memorized, and he would speak them while on a hike or driving down the road and get lost in the poems. Musser said he was riding in a car with Langland once, while Langland spoke poetry and drove. He wound up getting so wrapped up in the poems that he slowed to a crawl in his old Volvo station wagon, and a line of cars was backed up behind him, Musser said. Conversely, another friend, Gerry Schwarz, remembered Langland speaking poems while he drove and looking down to find that he was going 100 miles per hour. "One can get carried away with poetry," Schwarz said.
Langland tackled all kinds of themes in his poetry. "Any Hot Springs" is a cutting critique of the rich and vain. Musser called "War" one of the seminal poems of World War II. In it, Langland recalls quietly mourning in a barracks in France when he learned that his brother was killed fighting at Luzon in the Philippines. "Buchenwald, Near Weimar" recounts Langland's experience of seeing mass graves and starved survivors at the Buchenwald concentration camp. "I could not touch them; I could / Not ask forgiveness, not even comfort them," he wrote. The tongue-in-cheek "Luncheon Date" consists of two columns of verses, one spoken by a man and one by a woman, that can be read vertically, as one monologue followed by another, or horizontally, as a conversation.
Langland got to know many of the 20th century's greatest poets, including many that he met while editing the collection, "Poet's Choice," which asked many of the English-speaking world's best poets to pick their own favorite poems. He earned Allen Ginsburg's gratitude for standing up to the publisher and defending Ginsburg's controversial poem "Howl," Musser said. Langland played baseball with Robert Frost, took family vacations with Dylan Thomas in Italy, and narrowly survived an outing with reindeer herders in the Norwegian Arctic, Musser recalled.
Despite all those wide-ranging experiences, the driftless region farms and valleys of his youth were a perpetual muse for Langland. He came back to the family farm where his brother still farms regularly throughout his life, going on walks to his old childhood haunts and visiting with neighbors. He wrote scores of poems about trout, chickens, cows, farmers and their tools, and the rocky hills of the driftless region. "There's a famous picture of Joe reading poetry and the cows were all standing around," said Gerry Schwarz, another friend of Langland. "I think that cows must have a special ear for poetry."
Langand's poem "Norwegian Rivers" became an anthem for the Norwegian-American community, but Jim Gray's favorite is Langland's ode to horses, "A Dream of Love." Gray is a veterinarian and he met Langland while caring for cattle on Langland's family farm. Gray raised horses at the time and Langland wanted to see them, so they went. Gray said he could identify so much with Langland's description of growing up riding horses and marveling at them.
Schwarz recalled many people reacting to Langland's poetry by saying, "'Joe, you wrote that one especially for me.' And Joseph laughed and said, 'Well, I wrote that poem long before I knew you' … But they were the sort of thing that you felt expressed your own ideas and feelings, and you felt like it must have been just for you."
"Joe Langland was first and foremost a lover of nature," Musser said. "In fact, he said that very explicitly to me once: 'Nature is my lover.'"
In his introduction to the book "Sacrifice Poems," Langland wrote about what seeing life and death on a farm taught him about the cyclical nature of the world. "Winter after tough winter [the natural world] would rise up again in the renewed birth of all things. That was the philosophy I unthinkingly took on as a child and youth, and still in its essence keep," he wrote.
Spring Grove's Giants of the Earth Heritage Center — a Norwegian-American heritage center — will host a celebration of Langland's life and writing this Sunday, May 22. The heritage center has collected exhibits of his manuscripts, early versions of his poetry, and photos from his life, and original films will feature footage of Langland and recordings of Langland reading his poetry. There will be an open mic for Langland fans to share their favorite poems, and a "Joe-style" picnic, featuring family recipes from the great picnic lover and poet and music by cellist Craig Hultgren. Musser will read an original poem written for the event, and Winona musician Dante DeGrazia will perform a Langland poem set to original music. There will be a newly dedicated interpretative hiking trail, the Joseph Langland Literary Trail, and the U.S. Postal Service will be present to postmark stamped envelopes with a special postmark especially designed for the event.
Gray and his wife were among many volunteers who helped organize the event. "We just felt that we needed to commemorate him in some way," Gray said. It would be sad for the next generation of Spring Grove youth to not know about the famous poet who came from the area, he explained. "All the school kids are going to come, and look at this and they'll get a feeling for Joe. Otherwise we feel we have treasure here that kinds of belongs to Spring Grove and we should remember it."
The event will start with a opening program at 2 p.m., exhibitions are open throughout the afternoon. The picnic will be at 5:15 p.m. followed by poetry readings. It will be held at the Giants of the Earth Heritage Center, 163 West Main Street, Spring Grove, Minn. The event is free and open to the public. Free-will donations will be accepted. More information is available online at josephlangland.wordpress.com.