(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and pioneering publisher of City Lights Books, registered his dissatisfaction with the poet selected to fill the position of the U.S. poet laureate by observing, “He's an independent voice, but he doesn’t say anything.” While Ferlinghetti might prefer a poet with a specific political agenda, someone whom he describes as “the true conscience of a people,” his own employment of an American vernacular style in his work should enable him to recognize that there is a singular voice with something vital to say in the poetry of Ted Kooser, whoseDelights and Shadows has been published coincident with his selection as the thirteenth poet laureate of the United States.

In choosing Kooser to follow Louise Glück as American poet laureate, the Academy of American Poets recognized a mode of poetic expression that had been somewhat neglected by previous selections. While the citation reads more like a photograph caption than a pointed description, the academy called Kooser “a major poetic voice for rural and small town America.” This is geographically accurate in that Kooser has always lived in the American heartland. For thirty-five years he worked at an insurance company and wrote in the early dawn hours. He arose “at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning and I would write till about 7:00 and then I’d have to get ready for work.” In addition to underscoring Kooser's commitment to poetry, this schedule effectively removed him from an involvement with academic considerations, preventing him from being too heavily influenced by prevailing patterns or styles.

Living in Nebraska, saturated by the culture of a locality, becoming a teacher at the University of Nebraska only after retiring from the insurance company, Kooser would later declare “Being the first poet laureate from the Great Plains is very important to me …all I really know is Iowa and Nebraska, so I’m writing about those things.” Of course, if his poetry depended exclusively on the features of a specific locale, it would not have interested the members of the national academy, nor would it have earned the praise of many contemporary poets who have regarded Kooser as a kind of private treasure deserving more attention.

While Kooser maintains that “I write about what is under my nose,” it is the ability to respond to the universal in the particular, an attribute extolled as long ago as Aristotle's De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), that is crucial to Kooser's accomplishments. As Kooser puts it, “I look at ordinary things quite closely to see if there isn’t a little bit of something special about them.” If it were not a clichéd film reference, he might also have mentioned that his central subject is “ordinary people.”

The first section of Delights and Shadows, called “Walking on Tiptoe,” contains a series of portraits of people whose lives register a diminution of strength as they approach old age. “Tattoo” sets the tone, a mood of reflective regret, with an image of “What was once meant to be a statement—” but is “now just a bruise/ on a bony old shoulder.” However, even though “he is only another old man,” the recollection of a time when he was “someone you had to reckon with” prevents the poem from being merely a study in dejection.

Similarly, “At the Cancer Clinic” depicts a woman whose pain does not diminish her dignity; the poem is paralleled by the vivid image of “A Rainy Morning” where the progress of a woman in a wheelchair is likened to a pianist performing at a concert. Beginning with a direct statement—typical of Kooser's method—“A young woman in a wheelchair,” the poem presents an extended picture akin to the metaphysical conceit of the seventeenth century:

You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.

“So expertly she plays the chords,” Kooser exclaims, his admiration and pleasure evident in witnessing and recording the act, an affirmation that counters the circumstances that inspired the poem.

The people Kooser writes about in this section—a student, a ten-year-old girl, a biker—are individualized in spite of their anonymity, and prepare the reader for the close friends and family members Kooser writes about in the remainder of the collection. Poems, deeply felt, to and about his “Father,” his “Mother,” his cousin “Pearl,” neighbors close enough to be family, “hardworking men,” are built on such fundamental human emotions that they require a careful control to avoid the soft sentiment and fraudulent enthusiasm that reduces poetry to greeting-card verse.

Kooser is careful to reject any appeal to the obvious, his technique based on several essential components, including a close attention to crucial detail; a precision of language that results in striking, indelible images; and a modest but tangible vision...

(The entire section is 2149 words.)