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Ted Kooser: A poet for the people power: Former insurance executive touts ‘accessible, openhanded’ poetry

By Dave Jones on November 3, 2006 in University

Direct from the Great Plains to UC Davis last week came Ted Kooser, Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate, to read some of his works and meet the next day in a seminar setting with students, faculty and people from the community.

The 67-year-old Nebraskan said he jumped at the invitation to be poet laureate "because this was an opportunity to show that someone from the middle of the country could do this and do it well," he told an audience of two dozen people in a Voorhies Hall conference room on Oct. 27.

The night before, he gave a reading to some 170 people in the Wyatt Pavilion Theatre. Music professor Pablo Ortiz, director of the Davis Humanities Institute, which organized Kooser's visit, said: "I was very encouraged to see that there is considerable interest and a significant audience for poetry readings in Davis."

Kooser received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry last year for his book Delights and Shadows. He served as poet laureate from 2004 until last month.

Jack Hicks of the English faculty introduced Kooser at the Wyatt Pavilion, saying his poetry captures "the arresting, poignant and spiritual in everyday life."

Hicks called the poet "a champion of accessibility," referring to his ability to write poetry that is simple to understand. Kooser would explain later that he likes "to take an ordinary thing … and ornament it with language."

Some of those ordinary things, all of which are poem titles: "The Leaky Faucet," "The Spiral Notebook," "A Jar of Buttons," even "The Urine Specimen."

His poetry also includes heartwarming visions of plain people, like an elderly couple "Splitting an order," in this case, a sandwich; thrifty "Aunt Mildred"; and "A Good-bye Handshake" with his cousin Ira Friedlein.

During his seminar the morning after his reading, Kooser said he sees poetry as a way for people "to replenish their souls."

"There is a huge audience out there of people who want to read poetry, they like it," he said, "but we have systematically shoved it to the side" by making it too complex — referring to works by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, for example.

Enter Kooser, who during his tenure as poet laureate launched a newspaper column and Web site called American Life in Poetry, showcasing the works of authors other than him who also write in an "accessible, openhanded" way.

Newspapers have free access to the column, and Kooser said the column appears weekly in 150 to 200 papers. The columns also appear online, at www.americanlifeinpoetry.org, which recently received its 100th millionth hit.

In his introduction to "Green Tea," the 83rd installment of American Life in Poetry, Kooser wrote: "Poems of simple pleasure, poems of quiet celebration, well, they aren't anything like those poems we were asked to wrestle with in high school, our teachers insisting that we get a headlock on 'the meaning.' This one by Dale Ritterbusch of Wisconsin is more my cup of tea."

Also during his term as poet laureate, Kooser made some 200 appearances and gave 100 interviews. Oh, and he won the Pulitzer. During his Wyatt Pavilion talk, he read two dozen poems, including "A Box of Pastels," "A Rainy Morning," "Tattoo" and "At the Cancer Clinic," all from "Delights and Shadows."

In between, he commented on a number of subjects:

On writing — He would write from 4:30 to 7 a.m. daily before going to his job at a life insurance company, and he still writes daily in retirement. "Most of the poems are dismal failures." But he keeps at it. "Unless you're sitting there when the good one comes by, you're not going to get it at all."

About the process: "I do revise and revise. … My revision is away from difficulty toward simplicity and clarity."

On writing about family — "Get their stories down on a piece of paper, and then somebody comes along and picks up that piece of paper, and up they come into the life for a little while again, and then they subside."

On when a poem is finished — "I just usually quit when I can't think of anything else to do."

On engaging young children to write poetry — "We have to show them that it's fun — that's the trick. In public schools, we have made poetry an onerous task for too long, ferreting out the meaning," the single meaning, as if there were only one.

"We need to get them interested in the pleasure of poetry. It's all about encouragement."

On how he himself became interested in poetry — "Girls."

On Valentines — Each year for the last 21 years he has written a Valentine poem. "They're not traditional Valentines at all but they go to the subject of love in general or they have a heart in them somewhere." He sends them by regular mail, "they actually come with a stamp on 'em," to a list of women that numbers around 2,400. He left UC Davis with a handful of addresses to add to his list.

On coincidences — On Dec. 31, 1979, he set out from Lincoln, Neb., by car, headed to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, about six hours away. It was morning, during "one of those Great Plains ground blizzards (with) the snow coming sideways." He was going to see his father, who had collapsed the night before.

As he drew closer, he tuned in WOI Radio, a public broadcasting station out of Ames, Iowa. Doug Brown was reading poetry, and five minutes after Kooser turned it on, he heard one of his own works, "Christmas Eve," a poem that he had written for his father. Kooser pulled off the road, listened to the poem, snow piling on his car windshield, completely overwhelmed.

He resumed his journey and arrived at the hospital, where he learned that his father had died while he was on the road.

THE GOOD-BYE HANDSHAKE

By Ted Kooser

Though you and the nursing home

are miles behind me now, your hand

with its dark blue age spots

is here in my hand, your fingers warm

from all of the hot steel handles

they held in your eighty-eight years —

levers of threshing machines,

of sickle bar mowers and balers —

but cooling now and slowly going

all blue-black over brown, like a pool

of blue oil on the floor of a barn,

that darkness working its way up

into the cuff of your new plaid shirt,

up past your elbow, sharp as a plowshare

there on the wheelchair armrest,

easing over your heart like a shadow.

A hundred miles down the road, stopped by

the highway and sitting in shade

at the edge of a shimmering cornfield,

I say good-bye. I am headed farther

and further than you, Ira Friedlein.

With love I take your blue-black hand,

which has held nearly everything once

and has squeezed it shyly and politely.

— from Weather Central,

University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004,

reprinted by permission of the author

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556, dljones@ucdavis.edu

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