Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2149
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...
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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 fingers,
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 of a cosmos beyond the poem's specific setting. The poem “Depression Glass,” from the second section, “The China Painters,” is one of his most effective and demonstrates these elements in action. Beginning with a person and her place, Kooser recalls:
It seemed those rose-pink dishes
she kept for special company
were always cold . . .
before deepening the image as the woman, an unnamed figure common to the community one might infer, is seen in a familiar gesture that defines her life, taking the dishes
from the shelf in jingling stacks,
the plates like the panes of ice
she broke from the water bucket
winter mornings, the flaring cups
like tulips that opened too early
and got bitten by frost.
The connection to the natural world situates the poem in the flow of the seasons suggesting the span of a life, while the particulars of the moment, the cups too chilled to keep the coffee warm, give the kitchen a distinctive design. The speaker notes that “a heavy/ everyday mug would have kept/ a splash hot for the better/ part of a conversation,” and it is this idiosyncratic signature that distinguishes the experience, one which the speaker asserts is “a special occasion, just the same.”
In the kind of comment that Kooser inserts almost casually, the speaker observes that what was special was to “sip the bitter percolation/ of the past week's rumors,” a merging of the immediately personal and the wider polis, or political arena, followed by a return to the personal, as the speaker notes that these cups had “taken a year to collect/ at the grocery, with one piece free/ for every five pounds of flour.”
Like most of the poems in Delights and Shadows, “Depression Glass” is a message from the American heartland, a poem like many of those which touch on subjects vital to a community as they honor and celebrate inhabitants not necessarily memorable beyond their neighborhood and family. Here, they are solid and substantial in Kooser's poems, which ponder and catalogue the ordinary items of a day-to-day life.
In a poem such as “Memory,” an extraordinary occurrence, a devastating tornado, sets the mundane objects of the landscape in turmoil. Kooser heightens the imagery, as the wind, “Spinning up dust and cornshucks,” is likened to a demonic beast, which “sucked up into its heart/ hot work, cold work, lunch buckets/ good horses, bad horses,” before moving on its destructive path, as it:
then rattled the dented tin sides
of the threshing machine, shook
the manure spreader, cranked
the tractor's crank that broke the uncle's arm . . .
This is another catalogue, the wild wind an excuse to cover familiar ground once again, with the swirling vortex pulling everything inward a structuring device. As in many of these poems, the concrete, directness of Kooser's language offers unadorned images that have a striking clarity.
An important aspect of this element is Kooser's insistence on the tight precision of a poem, so that “When a poem is finished, you can’t move anything around in it …in other words, it's language brought to a kind of state of perfection.” While the reader will not have Kooser's comment immediately available, an understandable curiosity about the aesthetic intelligence that has shaped these poems is likely to emerge through the course of the collection. Although Kooser does not place a distinct “self” in all of his poems, the poet who proclaims, “I try to pay very close attention to the things that sort of fall before me,” is frequently present as an attentive observer, and in the last section, “That Was I,” as a palpable presence.
The title poem from that section serves as an introduction to the poet's sensibility. Characteristically, Kooser deflects attention, using a progressive past to form a composite portrait of a watchful, almost placid person whose appearance is relatively nondescript, almost a nonentity, as he moves through the world. In each stanza, he addresses the reader directly, beginning “I was that older man,” then continuing in the next stanza, “And that was I, the round-shouldered man,” before recapitulating in the third stanza:
And that was I you spotted that evening
just before dark, in a weedy cemetery
west of Staplehurst, down on one knee
as if trying to make out the name on a stone,
some lonely old man, you thought, come there
to pity himself in the reliable sadness
Then, in a direct challenge to conventional perception, Kooser asserts, “but that was not so,” and in a confident moment of illumination, reveals that, rather than consumed by self-pity, he “had found in its perfect web/ a handsome black and yellow spider/ pumping its legs to try to shake my footing.” The actuality of the scene is that of a man who is entranced by the efforts of a creature of which he had been unaware. He imagines the spider reacting as if the man himself were “an enormous moth/ that it could snare and eat.” Thus, the entire cosmos has been reenvisioned, another world than the one the passerby assumed.
This is a gentle admonition to look more closely, listen more carefully, and let the poet present himself in his own way, the way of a man who has reached a place in his life where a remembrance from the past is often a trigger for meditative reflection; while the path to the future, as in “The Old People,” is a route for a generation “feeling their way out into the night.”
Now in his seventh decade, Kooser is understandably intrigued with the process of aging, pointing out in the poem “The Last Tomato” that he had “come to an age at which I can’t stop noticing the last of things.” The poems in the fourth section expand the persona introduced in “That Was I,” a man aware of loss but not dejected, registering the persistence of wonder in a brief work, “Starlight”:
All night, this soft rain from the distant past.
No wonder I sometimes waken as a child.
or exulting in “A Glimpse of the Eternal” because “Just now,/ a sparrow lighted/ on a pine bough/ right outside/ my bedroom window/ and a puff/ of yellow pollen/ flew away,” or acknowledging a common concern in “Surviving,” by admitting:
There are days when the fear of death
is as ubiquitous as light. It illuminates
but then continuing on with the realization that
Without it, I might not
have noticed this ladybird beetle,
bright as a drop of blood
on the window's white sill.
The poem “Tectonics,” the next to the last in the collection, epitomizes the philosophical position that Kooser has been exploring. In an evolving image of altered perception, the poet uses an extended metaphor to convey the shifting planes of the mind, “fissures/ in what we remember,” so that “the facts break apart,” and “shapes have been changed.” Following this daunting prospect, Kooser, utilizing the lyric mode that he reserves for moments of special feeling, recalls “a love affair,/ one lush green island/ all to itself” that “may slide under the waves.” The poignancy of this image underscores the vision of a past that “has become/ a new world,” with implications of disruption and confusion akin to a mental disorder. The overall cast of the poem, though, is to generate a feeling of quiet contemplation leading toward an aura of gratitude for what has previously taken place, and beyond this, a lingering feeling of pleasure in reviving that moment, even in a new, strange and ultimately reconfigured form.
With characteristic candor, Kooser has claimed that “the real test” is “whether or not an individual reader is moved by a poem.” The metaphoric and metaphysical motion evident in “Tectonics” makes it an impressive answer to this test.
Booklist 100, no. 15 (April 1, 2004): 1342.
Library Journal 129, no. 3 (February 15, 2004): 130.