Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1224
Detailed images—deceptively simple yet ultimately profound—characterize Ted Kooser’s poetry. His literary style is concise and accessible. His metaphors may reflect the Nebraska or Iowa landscapes he knows well, but the effect is universal. Kooser writes what he knows, and he knows about life. The poet’s aim is to find order...
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- Critical Essays
Detailed images—deceptively simple yet ultimately profound—characterize Ted Kooser’s poetry. His literary style is concise and accessible. His metaphors may reflect the Nebraska or Iowa landscapes he knows well, but the effect is universal. Kooser writes what he knows, and he knows about life. The poet’s aim is to find order in a disordered world and to touch readers with insight or truth. So even when Kooser suffers through taxing radiation treatments for cancer, he looks for hope in the face of death and for beauty in a windswept midwestern landscape. His style varies from haiku-like images to historic tales, such as the narratives recounting the blizzard of 1888 that swept across the Nebraska Territory in The Blizzard Voices. Kooser also likes to paint. That artistic attention to detail is evident in his writing, which reveals his eye for the often overlooked or nearly imperceptible aspect that makes an image realistic. His affinity for illustration is reflected in his books, which often feature drawings to accompany the poems.
Part of the Pitt Poetry series, Weather Central offers fifty-eight works first published in literary journals over a ten-year period. Therefore, the topics are far ranging, from poems about insects, pets, and people to poems about buildings, sounds, and art. In the opening poem, “In Late Spring,” the poet describes the season’s sights and sounds: the howl of jet fighters overhead, the musical tones in the neighbor’s conversation, the spent blossoms of tulips and peonies, and his distracted mind. However, he asserts that though he may temporarily forget his place, the world “holds a chair” for him planted firmly on his own Nebraska acres. In “Four Secretaries,” the speaker, a detached observer, recounts the interaction of young women forging an office sisterhood in which they hum their woes from desk to desk, express their anger at one another in clenched fists and silence, yet ultimately gather to cry in sympathy when one of them is sad. A common theme in Kooser’s verse is the interplay of creatures and creations as exemplified in “The Mouse in the Piano.” The century-old instrument becomes home to a mouse, whose early morning melody disturbs the slumbering speaker and shows “. . . little respect/ for the old piano itself.” The interplay of mouse and mindless music, Kooser asserts, is a “great abstraction.”
Winter Morning Walks
Beginning in 1998, as Kooser recuperated after being treated for cancer, he took walks at dawn to avoid sun exposure. These walks inspired a series of short meditative poems collected in Winter Morning Walks. Instead of a title, each poem bears a date, like a journal entry, and a description of the weather conditions, such as “low forties and clear.” The pieces express hope in the sunrise, note the beauty of the birds against the snow, and reflect the bittersweet realization that life is fragile. Kooser wrote these verses on postcards and mailed them to his friend. The poet insists that he chose postcards over letters because they were cheaper to send and also because he likes the postcard as a compressed literary form. The book’s cover design features the poet’s watercolor painting Old Snow. His continued convalescence fostered a second collection, Braided Creek, which includes short poems Kooser and his friend Harrison created as correspondence to each other. The brief images and metaphors the men exchanged reflect bits of thought. Like epigrams and haiku, the verses extol the significance of a moment, like the longing to be a blackbird “seeding the sky” or the observation that the clock ticks like raindrops.
Delights and Shadows
Kooser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Delights and Shadows, contains poems grouped into four sections: “Walking on Tiptoe,” “The China Painters,” “Bank Fishing for Bluegills,” and “That Was I.” In this collection, the poet eyes the ordinary to discern its underlying significance. For example, in “Tattoo,” the speaker observes an older man shopping at a yard sale. The man’s blue arm tattoo, a “dripping dagger” that was once a “statement,” is now only a fading bruise on the man’s sagging shoulder. His youthful swagger has been replaced by an ambling walk, his bravado lessened by the soft heart of middle age. Time changes everyone, even the daring rebel. “A Rainy Morning” employs a conceit in which Kooser compares a woman in a wheelchair to a pianist. Just as the pianist bends toward the keyboard and then draws back before striking another chord, the woman strikes, rests, and strikes again at the wheels propelling her forward. Her efforts produce a sonata of motion and silence. In “Depression Glass” from “The China Painters” section, the poet describes the useless grace of the pink dishes collected over time as free pieces awarded with every purchase of “five pounds of flour.” The cups cannot keep the coffee warm like an “everyday mug,” but they are brought out for special occasions just the same. The housewife insists on using the cheap, impractical glassware for special occasions as if it were fine china. Only her guests are aware of the irony that the Depression ware, so prized by the farmwife, reveals her poverty.
Flying at Night
Works first published in Sure Signs and One World at a Time were compiled for a new audience in Flying at Night. Some of the poems mark the seasons, while others describe geographical locations such as Minnesota, Highway 30, a Nebraska train depot, and a Goodwill Store basement. The title poem, “Flying at Night,” echoes Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” in which the speaker contemplates vast oceans of stars. In Kooser’s work, the speaker asserts that when a galaxy dies, an ordinary farmer, seemingly unaware of the cosmic event, puts on a light, “feeling the chill of that distant death.” “A Death at the Office” exemplifies that attention to detail that makes Kooser’s images realistic. A woman worker dies unexpectedly, and management buries her nameplate “deep in her desk” while the sad news of her passing travels through the office “like a memo.” “But who grieves here?” the speaker asks as the dead woman’s coworkers quietly dispose of the possessions remaining at her vacant workstation: a bud vase, medication for menstrual cramps, lip balm, family photos, and ballpoint pens. “Abandoned Farmhouse” exemplifies Kooser’s insistence that details imply a story. The man’s discarded shoes, the housewife’s canned tomatoes forsaken in the cellar, and the child’s doll left behind in the yard together say, “something went wrong.”
In 1986, Kooser sent poetic valentines on postcards to fifty women. Over the years, the recipient list grew to twenty-six hundred. By 2007, the poet could no longer afford the postage for that many valentines, so he ended the tradition. The collection Valentines incorporates all the poems mailed over the decades, accompanied by artist Robert Hanna’s illustrations of Nebraska landscapes. As expected, the poems speak of hearts and love but not always in stereotypical fashion. There are “celery hearts” in the supermarket aisle, chocolates in the hands of homeless men, and the barn owl’s feathery white heart. The opening verse speaks of “gifts of loneliness” that are “wrapped by nervous fingers.” The expression reflects much of Kooser’s focus—the poignancy of human intention, the painful realities of life, and the enduring and sympathetic nature of love.