Saturday, May 12, 2007

Ted Kooser and Me

Ted Kooser
(click on image to enlarge)

Last night we managed to find our way to the Dowagiac Fine Arts Festival to listen to Ted Kooser read his poems. We were running late, of course. It was only our second trip to Dowagiac and we were unsure of the way. Luckily we had my new favorite toy: a gps device. It shows and tells you where to go. I love pushing its buttons. L. finally had to suggest I might want to enjoy the lovely scenery instead of the virtual fields and lakes.

We had tickets dead center and about halfway back from the podium in the quite posh Dowagiac Central Middle School. Junior High never looked so good.

Ted Kooser turns me on. Wait. Ted Kooser's poetry turns me on. But it is him too. His softly angled face full of stories, ready for a joke, eyes and hands eager to get outside with his notebook calms me into a readiness to gaze into his poems and wait for the pressure of his elegant verse to set off little explosions under my skin.

He is one of those poets who have that power to compel me to pay attention. To observe. To listen. He is not flashy or aggressive. He doesn't demand attention. I just find myself turned inside out when listening to his poems. If he asked me about my deepest secrets, I would tell him with comfort. One of those types.

I am sure not everyone feels this way about Ted. But maybe not.

Maybe it is because I am from Kansas and he is from Nebraska.

L. and I were two of the youngest audience members in the sizable crowd. What an honor. What a shame that more young people (by young, I am thinking 40 or under) didn't come out to hear these words simply spoken with such delight and power.

He read two of my favorites "Beaded Purse" and "Tattoo." I heard "A Washing of Hands" in a new way. He also read a poem about a couple splitting a roast beef sandwich. I can't find it in my copy of "Delights and Shadows", his 2004 book of poems. I want a copy of that poem. Please let me know if you know it.

He read one poem that he had composed that morning. It was a portrait or "snapshot" poem he had written called "Will Work for Food" and depicted a person living in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Kooser makes it his habit to write every morning from 4:30 - 7:00. For something like 30 years he sold insurance and had to find a time to write. After serving as poet laureate of the United States two times, he nevertheless maintains his morning writing routine.

Kooser's poetry starts in observation. He sees insects. He sees his wife washing her hands. He sees stories. He sees humor and pathos. He sees strangers. His poetry does not start in the depths of the Bodleian stacks tangled in linguistic theory. You do not need to read Dante in the original or be able to define "trochaic" to understand and find pleasure in his words. You do not need a PhD. You need to be human. You would be surprised that many are unsure about how to meet this qualification.

Ted Kooser’s poems give me pleasure. They don’t stretch my vocabulary or sting my political correctness. They don’t spur me on to political revolution or social activism. They make me aware of the delicate pleasure of being alive and call me to see the world, really see it. This is a welcome reminder for a girl who gives into the tempation of pushing buttons on a tiny handheld gps device screen instead if seeing the landscape in front of her eyes.

A few Kooser poems:

Selecting A Reader

First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
"For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned." And she will.


What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.


Ted Kooser's Official Site:

A list of his published works:

Weekly Column: American Life in Poetry:

No comments: