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2021 marks 100 years since John Neihardt became Nebraska's first poet laureate

2021 marks 100 years since John Neihardt became Nebraska's first poet laureate

Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, read an original work at President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

After Biden was sworn in as the nation’s 46th president, Gorman read “The Hill We Climb,” building on a tradition of poets -- including Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco -- who have read for incoming Democratic presidents. Gorman is the youngest of these inaugural poets to offer her verse.

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John G. Neihardt didn’t like being called Nebraska’s Homer.

But it was his epic stories of the settling of the American West that resulted in him becoming Nebraska’s first poet laureate, and the first one in the country chosen by legislative action.

Marianne Reynolds

Marianne Reynolds

Marianne Reynolds, executive director of the poet’s state historic site in Bancroft, Nebraska, said she is swept back to those days every time she enters the center, just as she thought of the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” by Homer during a trip to Greece.

“When I was in Greece, there was nothing like stepping off the airplane into a place where an epic thing happened,” she said. “With Neihardt, and I’m not exaggerating, I can step out of my car into the American epic. We have that because of Neihardt.”

To mark the 100-year anniversary of Neihardt being named poet laureate after the writing of “A Cycle of the West,” the center has several programs planned, starting with an April 24 conference about the poet with author Carson Vaughan as the keynote speaker.

A hike to Black Elk Peak is set for May 30. That’s where Nicholas Black Elk shared his vision with Neihardt, which was the basis of the book “Black Elk Speaks.”

On June 18, a celebration of the public declaration of Neihardt as poet laureate is scheduled. By legislative proclamation, Aug. 1 is designated as Neihardt Day, and several activities are planned at the center.

Reynolds said Neihardt was one of the few people who paid attention to the cost of westward expansion in the U.S.

“He wrote about the Indian wars and the death of Crazy Horse,” she said. “He had this uncanny ability to talk about the settling of the West that is really distinctive.”

John G. Neihardt

John G. Neihardt

Neihardt worked for a short time at the Omaha Daily News — a precursor to the Omaha World-Herald — until being fired in 1902.

“He was just so interested in the story. He would be digging into the story and talking to people, and all the other reporters were out there getting the scoop,” Reynolds said.

He was also an eloquent speaker, and Reynolds said there are still visitors to Bancroft who recall seeing him in person.

He was beloved and respected not just in Nebraska but across the world. More than 1 million copies of “Black Elk Speaks” have been printed in multiple languages.

Reynolds said his writing is stunning.

“Besides being a really good storyteller,” she said, “he was a brilliant writer.”


Photos: National landmarks of Nebraska

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Marjie is a writer for The World-Herald’s special sections and specialty publications, including Inspired Living Omaha, Wedding Essentials and Momaha Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @mduceyOWH. Phone: 402-444-1034.

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