When Kooser's poetry is discussed, reference is usually made to the fact that he has spent his entire career in Nebraska. He is characterized as being a midwestern poet. Midwestern poetry is thought of as poetry that uses plain language and simple structure. To some extent, such a generalization is excessively broad, as most generalizations are. The Midwest is a wide range, encompassing the Great Plains, the areas around the Great Lakes, and the eastern fringes of the Rocky Mountains. It would be highly improbable that the same sensibilities exist in all writers in that geographic terrain, from Detroit, Michigan, to Bismarck, South Dakota, from the Germans who founded Milwaukee to the relatively new Vietnamese population of the Quad Cities at the Illinois-Iowa border. Even if there are differences within the region, though, the basic characteristics are still thought of when talking about midwestern writing.
The tendency toward directness and simplicity in literature is often linked to the physical environment of the area. The northern United States is known for difficult, freezing winters and blistering summers. Unlike other northern areas, the Midwest has the additional drawback of being mostly flat. The area has fertile farmland—soil enriched by the glaciers that drained toward the center as they created the Mississippi River—but the temperature extremes make farming a struggle. It is the constant battle...
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Although the focus of this poem is on the sick woman, the women helping her walk, and the nurse, there is another important character who is neither discussed nor described: the person referred to, just once in the third line, as "I." Readers who know that Kooser, the author, went through a bout with cancer around the time that he wrote this poem will be tempted to assume that Kooser is talking about himself, probably even relating an experience that he once had. It is, however, very possible that the incident described was entirely formed within his imagination. It is also possible that the "I" speaking to the reader could be any type of person: young or old, male or female. The first-person narrator is a persona that the author wears, a mask, and not necessarily the author himself. By using a first-person narrator, Kooser reaches a level of intimacy that would not come out if the poem were entirely descriptive. Readers are asked not only to experience the event itself but also to experience what it would be like to be there and see it unfold.
In some places, this poem conveys its ideas with abstract terms, as when the narrator describes the sick woman and her helpers as having "the straight, tough bearing of courage." Words like these do not represent the physical world with objects that readers can understand experiencing with their five senses. More often, "At the Cancer...
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Topics for Further Study
- The narrator of this poem assumes that the people who are with the sick woman are her sisters. Read about people who care for terminally ill patients and make a chart to compare the characteristics that they have in common.
- Kooser uses the phrase "crisp white sails" to describe the nurse's uniform. Members of the medical profession have come to purposely shun the idea of wearing clothes that convey the ideas of severity and sterility. Look through catalogs of medical uniforms and present the best ones to your class in a discussion of why you think they would be effective.
- Rewrite this scene as a poem or short story from the point of view of one of the women accompanying the sick woman. Be sure to focus on what she thinks of the poet who is watching them.
- As the U.S. population ages, medical facilities, such as cancer clinics, have become viable commercial ventures. Write a song that could be used in a television or radio commercial for such a place, taking care to be tasteful as well as memorable. Perform it for your class.
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- The Library of Congress's website at www.loc.gov/poetry/laureate-1990-2005.html discusses Kooser's background and his work as a poet laureate and provides several links to other websites about him.
- The page that the Nebraska Center for Writers keeps on Kooser at mockingbird.creighton.edu/NCW/kooser.htm contains links to poetry, biography, and excerpts from book reviews.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Kooser's book The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (2005) outlines his philosophy of poetry for students and the theories by which he lives.
- Kooser has published his postcards to his friend Jim Harrison in Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison (2001), written while undergoing treatment for cancer.
- Kooser cowrote with Jim Harrison Braided Creek (2003), about his diagnosis with cancer.
- Jim Harrison's novella Tracking is a long, twisting, semi-autobiographical account of his own life. It is included in the collection The Summer He Didn't Die (2005).
- Many of the poems in The Cancer Poetry Project: Poems by Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them (2001), edited by Karin B. Miller, are by nonprofessional poets, people drawn together by a similar life experience, but they resemble Kooser's work in their emotional focus.
- The fiction writer Ron Hansen has a prose style that is as controlled and yet plain as Kooser's is in poetry. Hansen's story "Wickedness," from his collection Nebraska: Stories (1995), is a fine, poetic work of haunting imagery.
- Lisel Mueller is another midwestern writer whose style is often associated with that of Kooser. Her poetry is informed by personal history, such as immigrating to the United States at an early age and experiencing the death of her mother. Her...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Anderson, Sherwood, "An Apology for Crudity," as quoted in Heartland: Poets of the Midwest, edited by Lucien Stryk, Northern Illinois University Press, 1967, p. viii.
De Grave, Kathleen, Review of Delights & Shadows, in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 4, Summer 2005, pp. 439-40.
Olson, Ray, Review of Delights & Shadows, in Booklist, Vol. 100, No. 15, April 1, 2004, p. 1342.
Phillips, Brian, Review of Delights & Shadows, in Poetry, Vol. 185, No. 5, February 2005, p. 396.
Kelvin, Joanne Frankel, and Leslie B. Tyson, 100 Questions and Answers about Cancer Symptoms and Cancer Treatment Side Effects, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2005.
This book is not meant for medical professionals but is easy for a person researching the topic to understand.
Kooser, Ted, "Lying for the Sake of Making Poems," in After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, edited by Kate Sontag and David Graham, Graywolf Press, 2001, pp. 158-61.
Kooser rejects the idea of making up events from one's life, finding life itself rich enough to sustain poetry—a position that is clearly evident in "At the Cancer Clinic."
Solomon, Deborah, "The Way We Live Now: 9-12-04: Questions for Ted Kooser; Plains Verse," in...
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