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Ted Kooser's poetry of the people

The U.S. poet laureate and winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry is a Unitarian Universalist.
By Dan Cryer
Winter 2005 11.1.05

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Ted Kooser at home

Ted Kooser at home. (Photograph courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Publications and Photography) (University of Nebraska–Lincoln Publications and Photography))

Walk into any bar or coffee shop in Nebraska during the fall, and the talk is all Cornhuskers, all the time. In a state that has no big-league sports team, the University of Nebraska football team amounts to a kind of public religion. The 78,000-seat Memorial Stadium--in effect, the state’s third largest city after Omaha and Lincoln--becomes its storied shrine. Five times since 1970 the mighty Nebraskans have pounded their five-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust way to the national collegiate championship.

Now the state has a new champion to cheer: a skinny, bespectacled 66-year-old who stands, at most, five feet seven inches and would never frighten anyone on a football field. On the same September Saturday when I experienced firsthand the frenzy of Memorial Stadium--hapless Wake Forest was crushed, 31 to 3--I also sat down with Ted Kooser, a Unitarian Universalist who is the U.S. poet laureate and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

When we met that morning, Kooser told me he wouldn’t be going to the game. His perspective on the sport, he implied with a grin, is decidedly aesthetic. He remembers one time sitting in Memorial Stadium more fascinated by the play of afternoon sun on the red Cornhusker uniforms than by the plays themselves.

A retired insurance executive, Kooser lives on 62 acres in the country outside the hamlet of Garland in southeastern Nebraska. His renovated farmhouse is set in a part of the prairie the locals call the Bohemian Alps. In the late nineteenth century Czech and German farmers were drawn from Bohemia to the rich soil of these rolling hills. This fall, though, the harvest was disappointing. Rainfall was so sparse that the cornstalks withered.

As I entered Garland, my car was temporarily blocked by a couple of stray heifers in no hurry to get out of my way. After I finished the interview and parked by the side of the gravel road to take a few notes, a stranger in a pickup stopped to see if I needed any help. Garland is that sort of place, rural and friendly--like Ted Kooser.

But don’t mistake this country dweller for a country bumpkin. Which is what Deborah Solomon seemed to do, in a contentious interview in the New York Times Magazine shortly after Kooser was named in August 2004 the first U.S. poet laureate from the Great Plains. When Solomon pressed him on why he didn’t seem more familiar with European poets, Kooser shot back: “Think of all the European poetry I could have read if we hadn’t spent so much time on this interview.” Soon afterward Internet blogs lit up with cheers of “You go, Ted!”

Kooser has long championed a poetry of the people, written in clear, straightforward language. His book The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets exhorts: “Poetry’s purpose is to reach other people and to touch their hearts. If a poem doesn’t make sense to anybody but its author, nobody but its author will care a whit about it.”

A typical Kooser poem is a brief, metaphor-laden celebration of ordinary people and everyday moments, illuminated by deep humanity. Delights & Shadows, which won the Pulitzer, salutes people as varied as cancer patients, an elderly tattooed man at a yard sale, and a backpack-wearing student. Indeed, pantry shelves, if not the kitchen sink, can provide the inspirations for his poems: “Applesauce” is an ode to a dead relative, “Creamed Corn” a meditation on unintentional racism.

Poet Ronald Wallace, codirector of the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin, says of Kooser: “His is an accessible, affectionate voice, both regional in its plainspoken naturalness and universal in its themes and music. . . . [He is] a poet like James Wright or Robert Frost, of the pure clear word. . . . Pithy, precise, wry, wise, his work is firmly in an American tradition that embraces the flinty, the real, the democratic, the true.”

The Librarian of Congress chooses the poet laureate, in consultation with previous laureates and other prominent poets and critics. Other than a reading at the beginning of his term and a lecture at its end, the duties are open ended and defined by the laureates themselves. Kooser was chosen for the post for a one-year term, then, as is often the case, reappointed for another year.

When he learned of his initial appointment, Kooser confessed to the Lincoln Journal Star, “Never in my remotest imagination did [I believe] that something like this would happen to me.” He was so befuddled by the news that he knocked the side mirror off his pickup truck as he drove in to town to return overdue DVDs.

After laboring for years in relative obscurity--none of his books have been issued by Manhattan publishers, and most of his prizes have been regional--Kooser has kept his newfound success in perspective. Speaking at a writing conference at Sarah Lawrence College this summer, he spoke of himself with an unpretentious, self-deprecating humor. He recalled that the son of an acquaintance had once asked how Kooser could possibly be an important national figure since he “looks like a hobbit.”

The Rev. Charles Stephen, minister emeritus of the Unitarian Church of Lincoln, says of his longtime parishioner, “He’s the same fella that he’s always been, very quiet and not terribly demonstrative. Praise, he’s embarrassed by all that.”

Author Jim Harrison, who wrote Legends of the Fall, was introduced to Kooser about fifteen years ago while in Nebraska to research one of his novels. They became fast friends and have since collaborated on a collection of poems, Braided Creek.

“He’s a very Midwestern person, so we’re quite similar that way,” the Michigan-bred Harrison observes. “It would never have occurred to us ever to be late for work, that kind of thing. John Calvin was always under the floor, giving instructions.”

Kooser grew up in Ames, Iowa, where his father, Ted Sr., managed a small department store while his mother, Vera, tended to Ted and his sister, Judy. The senior Kooser was a marvelous storyteller. A neighbor once told the boy, “I would rather hear your father describe someone than see the person myself.” The household was stocked with Shakespeare, Balzac, children’s books, and the Appalachian novels of John Fox Jr., so it’s not surprising that Ted discovered the pleasures of the written word. Some of them, though, weren’t immediately apparent.

What initially drew him to writing poetry? “Girls!” he told his audience at Sarah Lawrence. “I was a very awkward teenager, thin, bepimpled. Somehow I got the idea I could be mysterious and different if I were a poet. And then I thought maybe I should actually write some poems.” Much later Kooser wooed the woman who became his second wife, Lincoln Journal Star editor Kathleen Rutledge, by depositing poems in her mailbox.

When Ted was in high school, friends mailed one of his poems, without telling him, to a teen magazine. A rollicking ballad about a hot-rod race was his first published work.

At Iowa State, Kooser’s limited aptitude for math and science forced him to drop out of the architecture program. So he retooled and prepared for teaching English. He found an able mentor in Professor Will Jumper, who encouraged his poetry writing. After graduation in 1962, Kooser taught high school in Iowa for a year before heading, permanently it turns out, to Nebraska.

Because high school kids were too rough--they “ran all over me,” Kooser confesses--he thought college teaching might suit him better. At the University of Nebraska in Lincoln he honed his skills under Karl Shapiro, a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet noted for his opposition to the high modernism of T. S. Eliot and the New Criticism then dominant in the academy. It was a poetic credo that Kooser would adopt as his own.

But the would-be poet spent so many hours hanging out with the established poet that he flunked most of his courses and lost the assistantship that was paying his tuition. He signed on as a management trainee with an insurance company, hoping to get back to the university eventually. He never did as a student. Over the years, though, he has often returned as a part-time professor.

To his surprise, Kooser found the business world tolerable. For one thing, the structure actually spurred on his writing. “Every morning I would get up at four thirty, maybe five, and write until seven,” he says. “Then I’d have to get my tie on and show up at the office. I worked eight hours a day, and then I was done. I wasn’t correcting papers at night.”

Kooser rose from underwriter at Bankers Life to vice presidencies in marketing and public relations at Lincoln Benefit Life. Illustrious predecessors T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens followed similar career paths. Also like them, Kooser always identified primarily as a poet. “While I was at work, I did everything that was required of me and kept getting promoted. But never did I aspire to be anything in the life insurance business.”

The poems, sweated out in the early morning hours, began turning up in small, out-of-the-way literary magazines in the sixties. His first collection, Official Entry Blank, appeared in 1969 from the University of Nebraska Press. Others followed, but the breakthrough book took a while. Sure Signs, published in 1980 in the prestigious Pitt Poetry Series, won awards and put him on the poetry map.

Kooser soon earned an ardent champion in poet and critic Dana Gioia. Gioia’s influential essay “The Anonymity of the Regional Poet” claims that the Nebraskan has written “more perfect poems than any other poet of his generation. . . . His work strikes the difficult balance between profundity and accessibility. . . . He has achieved the most difficult kind of originality. He has transformed the common idiom into fresh and distinctive poetry.”

As a business executive who is now chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia--like Kooser--stood outside the academy. So he could appreciate why tenured critics might look down on poems written in a manner the average American can understand: “There are no problems to solve, no ambiguities to unravel, no dizzying bravado passages for the dexterous critic eager to earn an extra curtain call.”

Despite the recent accolades, critics still have their knives out. In Hudson Review last June, William Logan sneered at Delights & Shadows: “Ted Kooser is a prairie sentimentalist who writes poems in an American vernacular so corn-fed you could raise hogs on it.”

Brad Leithauser, reviewing another Kooser title, Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985, in the New York Times Book Review last August, offered more condescension than spite: “This is good, honest work. Of course, goodness and honesty will take a poet only so far.”

Kooser claims he doesn’t read reviews. “The criticism is too painful,” he says, “and the praise is often sort of silly. It’s much better to be oblivious.” When I read him the Logan sentence, he winced, paused a moment, then said, “That’s why I don’t read those things.”

I’m reminded of the Aaron Copland quotation at the bottom of a Kooser e-mail I received while we were setting up the interview: “The composer who is frightened of losing his artistic integrity by contact with a mass audience is no longer aware of the meaning of the word art.”

Kooser explains that he agrees with Gioia’s analysis of accessible poetry. Poetry critics, like art critics, have too much power for their own good. They have helped put elitist art in the ascendancy and thereby alienated the common reader. And the problem is self-compounding. Potential readers of poetry are scared away, and so the poetry world continues to get smaller, more incestuous, and further removed from any audience outside the inner circle.

The poet laureate nonetheless grants that difficult poetry can be excellent and deserves a place at the table, citing Emily Dickinson as an example. With the help of discerning academics, her work has not only survived but thrived. His objection is to needless obscurity and self-indulgent preening--qualities never found in Dickinson--that erect a barrier between the poem and its audience.

As poet laureate, Kooser defines himself as a roving ambassador for poetry. Traveling across the country, giving readings and speeches, he hopes to reach out to readers who thought poetry was beyond their grasp. He’s made a point of attending the conventions of the National Council of Teachers of English and the American Library Association. “If you’ve got the librarians and the English teachers interested in poetry,” he says, “you’ve got a good chance of making some changes.”

With funding from the Poetry Foundation to cover administrative costs, Kooser has initiated a weekly column called “American Life in Poetry,” distributed free to newspapers. It consists of a brief poem, usually by a little-known author whose work is clear and accessible, and an introduction by Kooser. More than 100 papers, mostly small weeklies, have signed on so far. (It can be found online at www.americanlifeinpoetry.org.) The project has been so well received that he plans to continue it even after his term as poet laureate is completed next summer.

There’s been little time for writing during this unexpected phase of his life, but he has managed to complete four or five poems worth keeping. “That’s not bad production for me,” he says. “Ordinarily, about a dozen poems is a good year.”

The simple, seamless surface of his poetry is the product of endless revision. “Nine out of ten days I write, and nothing good happens,” he says. “I fail, day after day.” What emerges from this process, as poet David Baker observes, is “poem after poem” that “bears the rightness of both familiarity and surprise.” The familiarity comes from the homely subject matter, the surprise from Kooser’s remarkable gift for figurative language.

“Christmas Eve,” for example, begins:

Now my father carries his old heart
In a basket of ribs
Like a child coming into the room
With an injured bird. . . .

And here is another, whose title is its opening line:

The blind always come as such a surprise,
Suddenly filling an elevator
With a great white porcupine of canes, . . .

“That’s just a natural thing for me,” Kooser says. “Lord knows where it comes from.” One source, he grants, might be Ted Kooser Sr., whose stories were enlivened by brightly lit word pictures. The poet recalls how his father once described an obese yet graceful woman as moving “like a piano on castors.” Kooser, like every writer an unabashed thief, later stole the phrase for a poem.

Another early influence was Walt Disney movies, in which trees and other inanimate objects come to life. In this way, something ordinary was transformed into something utterly mysterious. For a boy who loved to draw and paint, this was heady stuff. Kooser wryly observes: “We have these poets who say, ‘I read Purgatorio when I was seven.’ For me, it was the cartoons.”

Kooser’s own purgatory arrived in the summer of 1998 while he was lying on his back in a dentist’s office. A spot on his tongue worried the dentist enough to have him referred at once to an oncologist. A biopsy revealed squamous cell cancer in the mouth, and metastasis into the neck. Surgery and six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy followed.

Kooser’s postoperation letter to his buddy Jim Harrison laconically reported: “This morning the roof of my mouth fell off.”

The reality, Kooser now says, was a lot more grueling. “I was scared to death. I was completely involved in just surviving. I was on liquids for months. I had to figure out how to get enough calories to keep from losing weight.” And he was so depressed that, for the first time in his adult life, he stopped writing.

But by autumn his strength gradually returned. He began to take sustenance from two-mile walks in the country. Once his spirits revived, so did the urge to write. For years he and Harrison had exchanged brief messages via postcard. Now he took to sending his friend a brief haikulike poem every day. This was his discipline, a way of “establishing a little square of order in a disorderly world.” Some of these poems were collected in Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison.

Here is the entry dated November 29:

Breezy and warm.

A round hay bale,
brown and blind, all shoulders,
huddled, bound tightly
by sky blue nylon twine.
Just so I awoke this morning,
wrapped in fear

Oh, red plastic flag on a stick
stuck into loose gravel,
driven over, snapped off,
propped up again and again,
give me your courage.

This is not, in any conventional sense, “religious” poetry. It’s light-years distant from John Donne’s earnest belief, say, or even T. S. Eliot’s cerebral inquiries into the possibility of faith.

So what role has religion played in Kooser’s life? His parents were Methodists who attended church only once or twice a month. “The folks really tried to get my sister and me interested in summer Bible school and so on, but none of it really took. They were not great examples.”

As an adult, Kooser found himself drawn to Unitarianism by the intelligence and eloquence of Charles Stephen’s sermons. Since the early eighties he has been a member, if infrequent attendee, of the Lincoln church.

“I believe in some sort of universal design or order,” he says, “but I don’t think there’s a personality involved. It’s just that in some way everything is related.

“I’ll tell you what I like about church,” he continues. “It’s very reassuring to go sit with a group of people who for that hour are thinking about spiritual matters. There’s a wonderful community to that.”

Many of Kooser’s poems evoke the sort of awe and wonder that resonates easily with Unitarian Universalists, whether theist or humanist. The title of Delights & Shadows hints at humanity’s twin fate: the wondrous gift of life, followed by the inevitability of death. Winter Morning Walks is suffused with life’s precious brevity. The book’s opening poem conveys the feeling as well as any:

The quarry road tumbles before me
out of the early morning darkness,
lustrous with frost, an unrolled bolt
of softly glowing fabric, interwoven
with tiny glass beads on silver thread,
the cloth spilled out and then lovingly
smoothed by my father’s hand
as he stands behind the wooden counter
(dark as these fields) at Tilden’s Store
so many years ago. “Here,” he says smiling,
“you can make something special with this.”

Aren’t a lot of these poems what might be called devotional? Yes, Kooser says. “Writing every day is a kind of devotional activity. These Winter Morning Walks poems are very much like that. Once a day a little piece of a poem. Finding something in your world to celebrate.”

But how can you celebrate the world over and over without falling into sentimentality? “It is a fine line, but frankly, there’s nothing wrong with sentiment. Sentimentality is very much in the eye of the beholder. And unless you’re writing with sentiment, you’re not writing at all. Your writing is cold and remote. It’s better to walk that line.”

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