Study Guide

At the Cancer Clinic

by Ted Kooser

At the Cancer Clinic Essay - Critical Essays

Criticism

David Kelly

David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature. In this essay, he makes the case that a poem as plain and direct as this one can be read for a richer meaning by paying attention to the line endings.

Kooser's poetry is clearly an example of midwestern folk art; like all folk art, it sometimes seems simple, the kind of work that could be accomplished by earnest but underskilled people who are guided by what their hearts tell them is right. In poem after poem, Kooser's work focuses readers' attention on the subject he is talking about and away from the poet or the poet's style.

Poets use the techniques that critics identify and explain, such as rhyme and rhythm, for emphasis: to polish the meanings embedded in their words and to make the situations described in their works clearer. Technique and poetic style are tools for taking their poems to a level of meaning beyond that which the words can reach on their own. There is another school of thought, though, that treats such structural elements as distractions or even as useless decorations, which call too much attention to themselves and away from the central points they are supposed to be assisting in making.

An example of one extreme of this view is prose poetry, which uses none of the physical elements that are usually associated with poems; prose poems focus on the meanings and sounds of words, but they do not make use of their arrangement on the page. Kooser's poetry is not as unadorned as prose poetry, but it comes close. A typical piece from his 2004 collection Delights & Shadows tends to run down the middle of the page in a large, blocky rectangle, each line approximately the same length, often in one continuous piece with no stanza breaks.

With so little going on in the way of technique, critics have characterized Kooser's style as "plain." There is still an undeniable structural element to Kooser's poems. The very fact that the poems do run down the center of the page means that they are products of design. Unlike prose or prose poetry, in which the ends of the lines are determined by the size of the paper and the size of the type, it is clear, in even the plainest of poems written in Kooser's style, that care has been put into determining where each line should end (and, conversely, where each following line should begin).

Assuming that the poet has chosen his line endings, an examination of the end words should reveal something about the poem's priorities. As with any critical examination of structural elements, this is not meant to reveal a secret code embedded by the poet only for those who hold the answer; rather, it is a way of appreciating the dynamics that already exist in the piece. For example, the main idea in a poem like Kooser's "At the Cancer Clinic" is not difficult for the average reader to understand. The poem depicts a scene in the waiting room of a medical facility, describing, with awe and admiration, the progress of a woman weakened by disease, while, with the help of two women the narrator takes to be her sisters, she crosses the room. The action in the poem is this: the woman and her aides walk tentatively; a nurse holds the door to the examination area and waits, patient and smiling, for the sick woman; sensing the miracle of her struggle against affliction, the onlookers bring an end to the small distractions that characterize life in a waiting room. Kooser does nothing to obscure or hide these actions.

The scene itself has enough inherent power to earn its readers' attention, and there is a very good possibility that any more stylistic technique would have done harm, drawing attention to the poem and the poet and away...

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Lisa Trow

Lisa Trow is a published poet and journalist and has been an instructor of creative writing. In this essay, she discusses the use of free verse in allowing careful word choice to express meaning.

Kooser's poetry is so easy to read and understand that readers might assume that anyone could have written it. But its simplicity is really an aid to the reader in reaching for the poem's deeper meanings. By refraining from using complicated and formal poetic devices that might have driven away the average reader, Kooser has cleared the way for readers, allowing them easier access to the poem. There is no rhyme scheme, no singsong cadence, and no flowery language that many of us associate with the poets we have been assigned to read in literature classes. Kooser's simple poetry, like the work of many contemporary poets, relies on its ability to create an image. It depends on carefully chosen words to give us the key to the poem's meaning.

Formal style, with prescribed line endings, line length, and rhythm, creates poetry that is part literature and part engineering. Rhyme and form work together to support the poem's main idea. The poet should not, however, allow form to intrude jarringly on the reader's appreciation of the poem. Formal poetry offers the poet one traditional way to integrate all the tools at his or her disposal—the sound of the words spoken together and the shape they form on the page—using universal poetic principles. The artistry in using such formal devices in this way is apparent in its subtlety.

Some modern poets, such as Theodore Roethke and Anthony Hecht, have used form successfully. Although some modern and contemporary poets have continued to employ formal verse forms, many contemporary poets have avoided form for the freedom to write without constraints. The reader who is drawn to poetry but challenged by the conventions of more formal types of verse may enjoy reading Kooser's uncomplicated free verse for that reason.

Formal verse typically requires the poet to write to fulfill the rules of the chosen poetic form. For example, in an English sonnet the poet must write exactly fourteen lines of poetry. Each line of a sonnet contains a certain number of unstressed and stressed syllables, which gives the poem a singsong quality when it is read aloud. In the sonnet form, the poet must rhyme the words ending every other line until the closing couplet, made up of two rhyming lines. Poets attempting a sonnet may feel as though they must "fill in the blanks" to meet the requirements of the form and must choose words that work with the set rhyme scheme. With free verse, poets can select whatever words they wish. The artistry in free verse often lies in the ability of the poet to choose words that most powerfully convey the poem's meaning. In contrast to that of formal poetry, the effect of free verse is sensual rather than intellectual....

(The entire section is 1186 words.)

Jo McDougall

In the following essay, McDougall explores how Kooser "finds his crossroads in the mystery and eternal truths of the plain folk and unpretentious subjects of the Great Plans" in Delights & Shadows.

In her enlightening essay about Southern literature, "The Regional Writer" in Mystery and Manners, Flannery O'Connor makes a fascinating and well-known comment: "The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location." Although her essay is primarily about Southern writers, her comments apply to all writers who use regional details to transmit what they believe to be eternal, abiding truths to a univeral audience.

O'Connor...

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Brian Phillips

In the following review, Phillips finds a limited range in Kooser's celebration of "daily life and his memories" in Delights & Shadows.

If there is something maddening about Ted Kooser's success—something about the abridgement of a region into seventy-five synonyms of "homespun"; something about the way the word "heartland" seems to embroider itself in six-inch sampler letters across the covers of his books—then in all fairness, it has as much to do with the way his work has been received by critics as with the work itself. (Edward Hirsch in the Washington Post Book World: "Something about the Great Plains seems to foster a plain, homemade style, a sturdy forthrightness with hidden depths, a...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Kathleen De Grave

In the following review, De Grave finds "bright image,… compassionate tone, and…. Insight into human nature" across Kooser's collection, Delights & Shadows.

Opening Ted Kooser's collection of poetry, Delights & Shadows is like walking into an art gallery, each poem a painting or photograph, sometimes a sculpture. Kooser is the Poet Laureate of the United States, has ten books of poems published and has received numerous awards, including two NEA fellowships, and this book lives up to that reputation. The collection of poetry is broken into four parts, each with its theme or motif. But common threads are the bright image, the compassionate tone, and the insight into human nature.

The...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Elizabeth Lund

In the following essay, Lund profiles Kooser's career upon his being named poet laureate of the United States.

Ted Kooser isn't embarrassed to say that the poems he wrote in grade school were decidedly ordinary: "I love my dog/ his padded paws/ at Christmas he's my/ Santa Claus." He doesn't try to hide the fact that as a teenager "my impulse toward poetry had a lot to do with girls." Mr. Kooser, a retired insurance executive, even admits to knocking the sideview mirror off his car after being named poet laureate of the United States in August. He was so excited, he says in a phone interview, that he didn't pay attention as he backed out of his driveway in Garland, Neb.

Some poets might not mention...

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Ted Kooser and "American Libraries"

Ted Kooser and "American Libraries"

In the following interview, Kooser discusses what his approach to being poet laureate will be and the importance of libraries and poetry.

You'll never be able to make a living writing poems," Ted Kooser cautions beginning poets in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, due out in January from the University of Nebraska Press. "But look at it this way: Any activity that's worth lots of money, like professional basketball, comes with rules pinned all over it. In poetry, the only rules worth thinking about are the standards of perfection you set for yourself." While Kooser speaks from experience—for 35 years, he supported himself with a job in the insurance...

(The entire section is 736 words.)