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....
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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...
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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 found the location for her fiction, her "triggering town" (in Richard Hugo's words), in and around Milledgeville, Georgia. Poet Ted Kooser finds his in Garland, Nebraska. At first glance, these writers could not seem more disparate. By native ground, temperament, and chosen genre, they are distinctly apart. But in one endeavor they are united: both recognize the "mystery" of the human condition and both delight in the "manners"—the community of a shared culture and past, a time and place—of their peculiar regions.
While O'Connor finds her crossroads in the deeply human, flawed, sometimes grotesque characters who, as she notes, "lean away from typical social patterns"—a wondrous understatement—Kooser finds his crossroads...
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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 hard-won clarity chastened by experience. It is an unadorned, pragmatic, quintessentially American poetry of empty places, of farmland and low-slung cities. The open spaces stimulate and challenge people. One's mettle is tested." I grew up in Oklahoma, where we also had the Internet.) There is some quaintness in Kooser's new book; there are lines about "small hope" and "the ones who got away" and a staggeringly unsuccessful attempt to use creamed corn as a metaphor for race relations. But it comes more from Kooser's outlook than from any particular flaw in his use of rural Nebraska settings or his plainspoken register. His poems are written from the perspective of a man who has resolved his life's pressing conflicts, who now moves familiarly...
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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 first section, "Walking on Tiptoe," is in some respects indeed like an art gallery, a hall of portraits. Each poem is a brilliant moment in the life of a child, an old man, a student. The poems rise from image to insight, as if, as the lead poem of the section says, we are "suddenly able to see in the dark." Stereotypes turn human, as in "Tattoo," which gives us a man in a tight black T-shirt with "a dripping dagger held in the fist / of a shuddering heart" on his arm. By the end of the poem, the man has shown his age as he picks among the trinkets at a garage sale, "his heart gone soft and blue with stories." Sometimes a poem develops a subterranean metaphor, as in "Student," in which we suddenly realize we are not watching merely a...
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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 those stories, cultivating instead a more worldly image. But for Kooser, the first US laureate from the Plains States, ordinary moments are the impetus for art. His poems are like flashlights illuminating small dramas: a father watching his son get married; a tattoo that has faded; a brown recluse spider walking inside the bathtub. The setting may be rural America, but the scene is universal. That resonance, along with his clear, graceful style, have earned him numerous awards, including two NEA fellowships and a Pushcart Prize. Yet what really makes Kooser a "thoroughly American laureate"—as predecessor Billy Collins has called him—is not just his approach but the way his perspective seems to mirror that of "average" Americans.
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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 business, rising at 4:30 or 5:00 A.M. to put in a few hours of writing before heading to the office—he also speaks with authority, having published 10 collections of poetry, earned numerous awards, and now, taken on the role of the 13th U.S. poet laureate. Kooser officially began his new post as the Library of Congress's consultant in all things poetry by opening LC's annual literary series October 7 and speaking at the National Book Festival October 9.
[American Libraries]: How did you find out about your appointment? Was it a surprise? [Ted Kooser]: I received a phone call, and it was, indeed, a complete surprise. I am still a little surprised, two months later.
What do you see as the role...
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