Poet and essayist Ted Kooser is known for his honest, accessible verse that celebrates the quotidian and captures a vanishing way of life. Brad Leithauser wrote in the New York Times Book Review that, “Whether or not he originally set out to…[Kooser’s] become, perforce, an elegist.” Populated by farmers, family ancestors, and heirlooms, Kooser’s poems reflect his abiding interest in the past, but escape nostalgia in part because of their clear-eyed appraisal of its hardships. While Kooser’s work often treats themes like love, family and the passage of time, Leithauser noted that “Kooser’s poetry is rare for its sense of being so firmly and enduringly rooted in one locale.” Though Kooser does not consider himself a regional poet, his work often takes place in a recognizably Mid-western setting; when Kooser was named US Poet Laureate in 2004, he was described by the librarian of Congress as “‘the first poet laureate chosen from the Great Plains.” However, David Mason in the Prairie Schooner saw Kooser’s work as more than merely regional, arguing that Kooser’s vision was actually universal: Kooser, Mason wrote, “has mostly made short poems about perception itself, the signs of human habitation, the uncertainty of human knowledge and accomplishment.”
In his book Can Poetry Matter, the critic Dana Gioia described Kooser as a “popular poet”—not one who sells millions of books, but “popular in that unlike most of his peers he writes naturally for a nonliterary public. His style is accomplished but extremely simple—his diction drawn from common speech, his syntax conversational. His subjects are chosen from the everyday world of the Great Plains, and his sensibility, though more subtle and articulate, is that of the average Midwesterner. Kooser never makes an allusion that an intelligent but unbookish reader will not immediately grasp. There is to my knowledge no poet of equal stature who writes so convincingly in a manner the average American can understand and appreciate.” Gioia argued that it is Kooser’s interest in providing “small but genuine insights into the world of everyday experience” that cut him off from the “specialized minority readership that now sustains poetry.”
Though Gioia noted that Kooser has “not received sustained attention from academic critics,” he is considered by some to be among the best poets of his generation. However, Kooser’s fame—including a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry—came late in his career. Kooser began writing in his late teens and took a position teaching high school after graduating from Iowa State University in 1962. He enrolled in the graduate writing program at the University of Nebraska but essentially flunked out a year later. Realizing that he had to make a living, Kooser took an entry-level job with an insurance company in Nebraska. He would remain in the industry until 1999, eventually becoming a vice-president of Lincoln Benefit Life Company. Throughout his insurance career, Kooser wrote poems, usually from about five-thirty to seven o’clock each morning before he went to the office. Kooser has wryly noted that, though both he and Wallace Stevens spent their working lives as insurance executives, Stevens had far more time to write on the job.
Kooser’s early work attends to the subjects that continue to shape his career: the trials and troubles of inhabitants of the Midwest, heirlooms and objects of the past, and observation of everyday life. Kooser’s first new and selected, Sure Signs (1980) was critically praised. The Black Warrior Book Review maintained it “could well become a classic precisely because so many of the poems are not only excellent but are readily possessible.” In Blizzard Voices (1986), Kooser records the devastation of the “Children’s Blizzard” of 1888, using documents written at the time as well as reminisces recorded later. The Omaha World-Herald called it a “reader’s theater…short but powerful.” The well-observed truths of Kooser’s next book, Weather Central (1994), led Booklist critic Ray Olson to note that “the scenes and actions in [Kooser’s] poetry (especially the way that, in several poems, light—the quintessential physical reality on the plains—is a virtually corporeal actor) will seem, to paraphrase Pope, things often seen but ne’er so well observed.” In the late 1990s, Kooser developed cancer and gave up both his insurance job and writing. When he began to write again, it was to paste daily poems on postcards he sent in correspondence with his friend and fellow writer Jim Harrison. The result was the collection of poems called Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison (2001). In poems both both playful and serious, Kooser avoids talking directly about his illness. Rather, he refers to disease and the possibility of dying in metaphors focusing on the countryside around his Nebraska home, where he took long walks for inspiration. Kooser’s gift for simile and metaphor is notable: “Kooser is one of the best makers of metaphor alive in the country, and for this alone he deserves honor,” wrote Mason in a review of Winter Morning Walks for Prairie Schooner.
Kooser strayed from poetry with his next book, a collection of essays titled Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (2002). Once again, Kooser zeroes in on the place he calls home. Just outside of Garland, Nebraska, the community is facetiously referred to as the “Bohemian Alps.” The essays cover one year, or four seasons, in the author’s life. Although Kooser reflects on his younger days, the essays focus largely on the details of his current life and surroundings. In a contribution to Writer, Kate Flaherty said, “Kooser’s meditations on life in southeastern Nebraska are as meticulous and exquisite as his many collections of poetry, and his quiet reticence and dry humor are refreshing in this age of spill-it-all memoirs.” For Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry (2003) Kooser again teamed up with Harrison to publish their correspondence consisting of entirely short poems written to each other while Kooser was recovering from cancer. Writing in Poetry, contributor Ray Olson noted that “wit and wisdom” are the mainstay of these correspondences. Olson added, “Their conversation always repays eavesdropping.”
Kooser’s next book, Delights and Shadows (2004) went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In the Washington Post poet and critic Ed Hirsch noted that “there is a sense of quiet amazement at the core of all Kooser’s work, but it especially seems to animate his new collection of poems.” Describing the work as “a book of portraits and landscapes…small wonders and hard dualisms,” Hirsch compared Kooser’s art to other Great Plains’ poets who write “an unadorned, pragmatic, quintessentially American poetry of empty places, of farmland and low-slung cities,” crafting poems of “sturdy forthrightness with hidden depths.” When Kooser was named America’s national poet laureate in 2004, the honor coincided with the publication of Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985 (2005), a collection of his previously published poetry. At the time, the self-effacing poet was by no means a household name. Of Flying at Night,New York Times Book Review contributor Brad Leithauser wrote, “This is good, honest work,” and Library Journal reviewer Louis McKee wrote that “Kooser’s pure American voice and clear-eyed observation are a refreshing treat after the cynical, skeptical poetry from the...coasts.”
Kooser used his post as laureate to further the cause of poetry with a general reading audience. Partnering with the Poetry Foundation, he began the “American Life in Poetry” program, which offers a free weekly poem to newspapers across the United States. The aim of the program is to raise the visibility of poetry. Kooser’s other publications, including The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (2005) and Writing Brave and Free (2006), offer help to aspiring poets and writers, both in the guise of practical writing tips and essays on poetry, poets, and craft. Kooser’s next non-fiction book, Lights on a Ground of Darkness (2009) returned to the meditations on place that marked Local Wonders, though the book focuses on Kooser’s family, especially his Uncle Elvy. David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times described the book as “written in a prose as spare as a winter sunset,” adding that “it is an elegy, not just for Kooser’s forebears but for all of us.”
Kooser teaches poetry and nonfiction at the University of Nebraska, and continues to write. “I waste very little time anymore,” he said an interview for the University of Nebraska English Department newsletter. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, his many honors and awards include the Nebraska Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Stanley Kunitz Prize, a Merit Award from the Nebraska Arts Council and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Commenting on his writing, Kooser also told Contemporary Authors: “I write for other people with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.”
Splitting an Order by Ted Kooser
One of the poems that stays with me the most from Splitting an Order, Ted Kooser’s first new collection in ten years, is “Those Summer Evenings,” his take on Robert Hayden’s classic and much-anthologized “Those Winter Sundays.” In his characteristically laconic but nonetheless musical voice, Kooser allows the poem to unspool as a single sentence, beginning like this:
My father would, with a little squeak
and a shudder in the water pipes,
turn on the garden hose, and sprinkle
the honeysuckle bushes clipped
to window height . . .
His father sprayed the bushes, he goes on to say, so the night breeze might “brush across the honeysuckle,/sweet and wet, and keep us cool.” And the fact that the bushes were “clipped/to window height” suggests how much forethought went into this small act. “Those Summer Evenings” is not a flashy poem, seeking only, as it does, to capture a fleeting moment of kindness offered by a father to his children without any of the regret or grief that often suffuses poems about family. “At Arby’s, at Noon,” another of my favorites, is unassuming as well, yet it is also one of the riskiest poems in the collection, not only because its setting is a roast beef restaurant chain (perhaps a first for poetry), but also because Kooser speaks in a difficult-to-pull-off collective voice (“Some of us were arriving, hungry, impatient . . . “). This welcoming perspective, however, allows us to accompany the speaker as the poem unfolds (again as a single sentence) and feel that we are there with him as the “pretty young woman, blind” kisses a badly scarred man and startles the lunch crowd into sudden attention:
. . . and though their kiss was brief
and askew and awkwardly pursed
we all received it with a kind of
wonder and kept it on our lips
through the afternoon.
Why these poems, and the collection as a whole, should have such a profound effect on me as a reader and writer, I cannot entirely say—but they do. I am drawn to Kooser’s poems, in part, because they are radically and unapologetically sincere. In a digital age in which hardly a day goes by that I do not feel inundated with information and horrific news from around the world (epidemics of disease, outbreaks of war, displaced and terrified children pouring across our border), Kooser dares to look around and pay attention to the smaller, ordinary things, people and everyday experiences we often neglect to elevate and appreciate. He knows that only redeeming moments like these can lift us out of distraction and worry for the state of the world, and help us awaken to our lives again.
In a recent piece for The New York Times, “Wipe that Smirk off Your Poem,” Pulitzer Prize- winner Tracy K. Smith identifies “something that has gotten into a heap of contemporary poetry and deadened it, making it about as interesting and relevant to others as a dog yipping at its own shadow: Irony.” She asks the same question that must plague readers brave enough to try to read some of the poetry being published these days: “Why are there so many people who think poems are like pretty little locks to be teased open?” A version of that question runs through my own mind whenever I crack open another new book of inscrutable poems, or come upon a journal whose pages are populated only with poetry whose main preoccupation, it seems, is convincing me of the hipness, trendiness or difficulty of its author. If poets want to be read (and I assume we do), shouldn’t more of us, as Kooser has been doing for fifty years, leave the doors unlocked, even if that means feeling more vulnerable, even if that means being labeled a “sincere” or “boring” poet? Surely some readers prefer their poems with smirk and swagger, and I do not mean to suggest that there is only one “right” kind of poem or “right” kind of reader. But if, as Smith posits, irony is the poison currently infecting our poetry, and likewise preventing us from genuine connection with each other, then the work of Ted Kooser is surely one of the antidotes.
I have been a fan of Kooser’s since coming across Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems (1980) and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Delights & Shadows (2004). I am also a regular reader of his nationally syndicated newspaper column, American Life in Poetry, a project put into place during his term as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004-2006 so that shorter, accessible poems might find their way to mainstream readers again. But Splitting an Order, perhaps even more than his other books, functions as a kind of manual for seeing more clearly and moving away from the “pull” of cultural irony. Readers will find intact Kooser’s trademark accessibility and his affection for finding the transcendent in the most common or seemingly mundane of experiences, whether watching “an old man cutting a sandwich in half” for his wife, or being visited in the morning by “a tiny moth clipped from the edge/of the night before.” These are poems, as Tracy K. Smith puts it, that “examine the vulnerability at the core of human experience” because Kooser speaks in a voice that is unarmored, unalloyed by intellectual wordplay, and recognizably human.
Part of Kooser’s genius is also his ability to describe an inanimate object so meticulously that it comes to life in the reader’s mind. When asked if paying attention to such things can help us better understand ourselves, Kooser said in a 2012 interview with Midwest Miscellany: “It does seem that objects are the conveyances for certain kinds of emotions. I’d venture that if I gave you a chipped cup and saucer that you had never seen before, and let you keep it around and think about it for a while, it would begin to reveal a little history to you.” Kooser’s views affirm those of the scientist George Washington Carver, famous for his work with peanuts, who once said, “Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough.” If unclouded attention to actual things is a kind of “love,” it makes sense that whatever Kooser chooses to observe, also gives up its “secrets” to both poet and reader. The long poem, “Estate Sale,” which serves as a kind of interlude in the collection, takes up the afterlife of cast-off, broken or forgotten objects. But “Zinc Lid” has the most to teach us about how to watch something with such patience and intention that it eventually transforms how we see it for the rest of our lives. After reading this poem, I will never look at a jar lid or wing nut with the same eyes again:
. . . Today on a bench
in a dark garage it’s upside down,
a miniature galvanized tub adrift
on time, and in it two survivors,
a bolt that once held everything
together, season in and season out,
and a wing nut resting its wings.
As Kooser constantly proves, an image described with precision and accuracy still has the power to alter how we relate to something most of us might think of as commonplace, not worthy of close attention. Take these lines from the poem, “A Morning in Early Spring,” for instance, which have forever changed the way I look at birds as they peck the ground:
A fat robin bobs her head,
hemming a cloth for her table,
pulling the thread of a worm,
then neatly biting it off.
Another example of this type of seeing is “Lantern,” in which what was once a farmer’s only source of light on cold mornings becomes, after its long abandonment in a barn, a nest for a pregnant mouse in which “to raise/her bald and mewling, pissy brood.” The poem could have stopped there, but as he often does, Kooser uses this object as an occasion to meditate on our own human transience. He tells us that this brood of mice will eventually
. . . disappear,
the way we all, one day, move on,
leaving a little sharp whiff
of ourselves in the dirty bedding.
This new collection leads readers more deeply into the natural world as well, as Kooser shows us an apple tree, a dead bat, a tree frog and a dead mouse as we could never have imagined them. But there is something more than simile and metaphor at work in his nature poems. They seem to function as what Robert Bly has called “poems of twofold consciousness,” which find in the environment a consciousness just as active and real as that of humans. As Kooser also said in the aforementioned interview: “I believe that everything around us—nature, each other, and so on—are all parts of one universal unity, and that we can glimpse that unity in many ways, one of them being a sense of union with nature.” This “unity” is apparent in “Opossum,” when that unremarkable animal begins to take on an undeniable agency of its own:
. . . It is those fingers that might
make a person fear you, for they seem
almost human, greedy and dangerous.
I think you may know this, because you
slowly turned toward me and lifted
one of your hands to show me how it could
grasp and squeeze a tiny piece of the light . . .
Many of these new pieces were published as a limited edition chapbook called Together in 2012, and togetherness (“unity”) is one of the main themes at work here. Kooser spends a good deal of the book seeking out moments of connection and acts of kindness between pairs of people (fathers and sons, husbands and wives, an elderly woman and her caregiver) as if to remind us what is often difficult to remember—that we are all participants in each other’s joys and moments of suffering. This is not a popular stance for contemporary American poetry, and no doubt some readers and critics will label these poems as “sentimental” or “saccharine.” But Kooser’s immense skills as both a seer and maker of images culled from what he finds in daily life rescue this book from any easy labels. It is enviable—brave, even—that a former U.S. Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize would choose to focus on such plain scenes, like the one described in “Two,” in which he meets a father and a son on the stairs of a parking garage:
. . . in the middle they were
holding hands, and when I neared,
they opened the simple gate
of their interwoven fingers
to let me pass, then reached out
for each other and continued on.
It is a palpable relief that Kooser writes not for other poets or academics, but for those of us who seek out poetry in order to find kinship with everything and everyone we encounter, “to reach out/for each other” as we move through our days.
Ted Kooser has been called a “regionalist,” no doubt because the images, objects and people of his native Great Plains find their way into almost every one of his poems. What Dana Gioia once said of Kooser’s work in his now seminal book of essays, Can Poetry Matter?, remains unfortunately true: “To many critics such regionalism still equals provincialism, especially when the region in question is the Middle West . . . Regionalism is ultimately a political term, a dismissive label applied to literature produced in and concerned with areas outside the dominant cultural and economic centers of a society. Classifying a work as ‘regional’ implies that it cannot be judged by ‘national’ standards.” Those who have mistakenly called Kooser a “regionalist” have sought to reject his poems out of hand, not only because they do not take place on the East or West Coasts (the locales of many of our “dominant cultural and economic centers”), but also because he presents no puzzles in his poems for critics to solve. Because the average reader can understand most of the references in a Kooser poem, she or he does not need the help of a professor or critic to decipher it. In our current literary climate, to be called a “regionalist” should be considered a compliment, since part of the act of writing and reading is surely to imagine ourselves into the lives of the people we meet, the things we touch and the places we inhabit. A poet’s task, if nothing else, is to act out of empathy, and if a poet is paying close attention to her or his world, how can it not find its way into the work?
After reading through Splitting an Order and re-reading some of Kooser’s past collections, including Flying at Night (2005), Weather Central (1994), and One World at a Time (1985), I could not help but notice several striking similarities between Seamus Heaney’s County Derry in Northern Ireland and Ted Kooser’s Nebraska. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995 for what the committee called “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” In Kooser’s previous works (including the prose books, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps and the recently published, The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book), he brings “the living past” to vivid life with his descriptions of cast-off tools, objects and ways of being that will soon vanish altogether from the American landscape. Gioia rightly identified Kooser’s “grand overriding theme” as “the gradual disappearance of American rural culture,” and I link that theme to Heaney’s constant drive to capture the disappearing rituals of rural life in Ireland. It mystifies me that when critics discuss which American writer might next win the Nobel Prize, Ted Kooser’s name is seldom mentioned, in spite of the fact that he has sought, perhaps more than any other living poet, to “exalt everyday miracles” in American life while writing with unparalleled “ethical depth.”
Though talk like this would surely embarrass a humble writer like Kooser, there are undeniable connections between these two masters. “A Person of Limited Palette,” one of the last poems in Splitting an Order, put me in mind of one of Heaney’s most famous pieces, “Postscript.” In Kooser’s poem, he claims rather playfully that he would have been happy to live out his last years in a cottage, painting scenes of the nearby sea, to have been “a pleasant old man/who ‘paints passably well, in a traditional/manner.’ ” Yet Kooser also seems to be acknowledging here how some of his more jaded critics might indeed see him as that “local artist” whose work, with its “earth tones and predictable blues,” is good enough, but remains overly “traditional.” The poem culminates in a quiet invitation to readers as the speaker comes to terms with where he has chosen to live and practice his particular art, no matter what other plans he might have had for his life:
. . . If you should come looking
for me, you’ll find me here, in Nebraska,
thirty miles south of the broad Platte River,
under the flyway of dreams.
Heaney’s “Postscript” begins in a similar tone:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other. . .
Heaney then goes on to describe the sea and flocks of swans, urging his readers not to try to capture the scene. He ends the poem like this:
You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Over the course of their long and distinguished careers, both of these poets have sought to “catch the heart off guard and blow it open” in their poems, and they succeed more than any other contemporary poets I know who are writing in English. They speak to an actual audience, and endeavor to touch the daily lives of and be of use to those who read their work. Heaney and Kooser may also be called masters because the cadences and syntax of their unadorned English are so clearly their own. It does not take a trained ear to hear the many long, lonesome “O” sounds that populate Kooser’s poems (some of his favorite words are “cold,” “old,” and “only”), and the mark of any writer seeking a wider audience is that he creates an idiosyncratic yet accessible language inextricably tied to the landscape he describes and inhabits.
In Local Wonders (2004), Kooser’s lyrical memoir of life on the Great Plains, he offers readers advice for finding inspiration without straying too far from the places we know best:
If you can awaken
inside the familiar
and discover it new
you need never
The long-anticipated Splitting an Order proves that Ted Kooser has been putting this kind of “awakening” into practice for a lifetime, and this collection is a culmination of 75 years’ worth of honest discoveries and “everyday miracles.” His radically sincere and clear poems are inoculations against inattention and the seductive pull of distraction that can keep us from intimate connection with one another. Of course, a single collection of poems cannot fully expunge the poison of irony from our country’s sometimes-“deadened” poetry, but we desperately need more poets like Kooser, who are not afraid to throw off the pretenses of literary armor and enshrine the ordinary world just as it is.
James Crews’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Times Literary Supplement, Ploughshares, and other journals. His manuscript, The Book of What Stays, won the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. James lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. More from this author →