In Memoriam: Ellen R. Kort

A Wisconsin literary hero, Ellen Kort, 79, died early on April 21 in her hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin; her long struggle finally subsided. I pray her final moments were as she predicted in the perfectly penned “If Death Were A Woman”:

I’d want her to come for me

smelling of cinnamon wearing

bright cotton purple maybe hot

pink a red bandana in her hair

She’d bring good coffee papaya juice

bouquet of sea grass saltine crackers

and a lottery ticket …

I am not alone in writing about Ellen as a friend. Her ubiquitous generosity included the ability to quickly and deeply connect to a place inside each of us that desperately needs unlocking and an invitation to soar over obstacles, dance and sing. She shared the splendor of poetry, encouraging artists to blossom and calling forth voices in people longing to be heard. Fabu, the Poet Laureate of Madison, wrote, “Gentleness floats in circles / around her spirit.”

As Wisconsin’s first Poet Laureate (2000-2004), Ellen received a car. She used it to travel throughout the state to give readings, teach and inspire thousands to embrace the power of poetry. She also helped launch the Fox Cities Book Festival. Her words now literally fill the air as part of the architecture in the Midwest Express Center in Milwaukee, the Botanical Gardens in Green Bay and the public library, police station, medical center and Fox River Mall in Appleton. Ellen in no small measure helped poetry achieve the vitality it enjoys today in the state.

When Ellen served as first judge for the Pulse’s Hal Prize literary contest, she responded to each of the top entries with generous lines of encouragement and praise for their work. Also, one of her poems that appeared in the second issue of the Pulse was “The Gardener.” In it, a woman in a hospital bed tries “to plant garden in the folds / of her blanket”:

She was tied to the garden

from spring to fall Those hands

harvest stained peeled

and sliced words into jars

I should have read all those

poems lined up on the shelves

Seasons of a woman sealed

and labeled We should have

Talked more of planting

And harvesting I touch her cheek

She makes rows in blankets

While Ellen’s long drive to share the love of literature has concluded, her words, like seeds, will continue to inspire so many in the pursuit of healing and wonder.

For a full obituary, visit