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After a Whirlwind Tenure as Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser Goes Gently Back to the Prairie, to Where the Wild Plums Grow


Blooming Wild Plum

Image by ShaharEvron via Flickr

This is the second story I wrote about poet Ted Kooser. It followed the first one I did on him by several months. That earlier story is also posted on this site.  This second profile appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and nearer the completion of his duties as U.S. Poet Laureate.  He’d enjoyed the position and the opportunities it afforded to spread the art of poetry around the nation, but as the article makes clear, he was also relieved he would soon be leaving that very public post and returning to his quiet, secluded life and the sanctuary of home.

After a Whirlwind Tenure as Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser Goes Gently Back to the Prairie, to Where the Wild Plums Grow

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Late spring in Seward County will find the wild plums Ted Kooser’s so fond of in full bloom again. If he has his way, the county’s most famous resident will be well ensconced in the quiet solitude he enjoys. Once his second term as U.S. Poet Laureate is over at the end of May, he returns to the country home he and his wife share just outside the south-central village of Garland, Neb., tucked away in his beloved “Bohemian Alps.” It’s served him well as a refuge. But as a historical personage now, he’s obscure no more, his hideaway not so isolated. It makes him wonder if he can ever go back again to just being the odd old duck who carefully observes and writes about “the holy ordinary.”

When named the nation’s 13th Poet Laureate, the first from the Great Plains states, his selection took many by surprise. He wasn’t a member of the Eastern literary elite. His accessible poems about every day lives and ordinary things lacked the cache of modern poetry’s trend toward the weird or the unwieldy.

“I knew in advance there would be a lot of discontent on the east coast that this had happened. I mean — Who’s he? — and all that sort of thing,” he said. “If it had been given to me and I had failed it would have really been hard. So I felt not necessarily I have to do it better than anyone else but that I really needed to work on working it. It’s really been seven-days-a-week for 20 months now. And I think I have had a remarkable tenure.”

The fact he pledged to do “a better job than anyone had ever done before” as Laureate, said partly out of a pique of regional pride, set him up for failure. By all accounts, though, he’s been a smashing success, taking The Word with him on an evangelical tour that’s brought him to hundreds of schools, libraries, museums, book clubs, writing conferences and educational conventions.

No less an observer than Librarian of Congress James Billington, Kooser said, told him he’s “probably been in front of more people than any other Laureate, at least during his tenure. So, that counts for something.”

 

 

 

 

Kooser wanted to connect with a public too long separated from the written word. To reverse the drift of poetry away from the literay elite and return it to The People. Swimming against the tide, he’s managed to do just that with the stoic reserve and grim resolve of a true Midwesterner. No figurehead Laureate, he’s a working man’s Poet, sticking to an itinerary that’s seen him on the road more than at home for nearly two years. “I can’t remember where I’ve been and when,” he said recently.

For a shy man who “really prefers to be at home,” the thought of coming out of his shell to make the rounds as Laureate seized him with panic.

“At first, I didn’t think I could do it. Looking down the line right after it happened I thought, No way are you going to be able to be that public a person. I’ve always been kind of an introvert and it’s always been very difficult for me to get up in front of groups of people,” he said. “But I decided I would throw myself into it and make myself do it. I learned how to do that and I’m much more comfortable now after doing hundreds of things, although I’m still nervous.”

He estimates he’s appeared before some 30,000 people as the Laureate.

Much as a post-Sideways Alexander Payne expressed a desire to immerse himself in the unseen depths of a new film, a process he likens to “scuba diving,” Kooser craves a time when he can once more lose himself on the road less traveled.

“Now of course my impulse is, as of the end of May, to start retreating back into that very comfortable introversion that I’ve always loved,” he said.

His 2004 Laureate appointment and 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry brought the world to his quiet country home, if not literally to the doorstep, then virtually there via requests for interviews, readings and appearances of one kind or another. He still gets them. The fact he’s obliged many of these entreaties says much about the man and his avowed mission to bring poetry to the masses.

“My principal goal is to show as many people as I can who are not now reading poetry that they’re missing out on something,” he’s said.

His honest, pinched, Presbyterian face, set in the detached, bemused gaze of a portrait subject, is familiar as a result of his weekly newspaper column, “My American Poetry.” The column, the primary vehicle he chose to promote poetry, appears in hundreds of papers with a combined readership of some 11 million. Not that the townies in and around Garland didn’t already recognize him. He’s only reminded of his celebrity when he puts on a tie for some fancy event or is spotted in a public place, which happens in Omaha, Lincoln or more distant spots, like Washington, D.C., the home of the Laureate’s seat, the Library of Congress, where a 3rd floor office is reserved for him. Not that he uses it much.

Besides the phone calls, e-mails and letters he wades through, there’s the more mundane perhaps but still necessary chores to be done around his acreage. Fallen branches to pick up. Dead trees to bring down. Repairs to make. Dogs to feed and water. Distractions aplenty. It’s why he must get away to get any writing done. Yes, there’s sweet irony in having to find an escape from his own would-be sanctuary.

“We have a lovely place and all that, but the problem’s always been that when I’m sitting there in my chair at home with my notebook I’m constantly noticing all the things that need to be done” he said. “So getting away from that is going to be nice. I’ve bought an old store building in Dwight (Neb.). It’s about 10 miles from where we live. It’s a thousand square feet. One story. It’s been a grocery store and various things and I’m fixing it up as a sort of office. In the front room I have a desk and bookshelves and in the second room I have a little painting studio set-up.

“Nobody in Dwight’s going to bother me. I’m really going to try and figure out having a work day where I would go up there at eight in the morning and stay till five and see what happens. Paint, write, read books. And then go back.”

 

 

 

The demands of his self-imposed strict Laureate schedule have seriously cut into his writing life. With a few weeks left before he can cut the strings to the office and its duties, he’s resigned to the fact his writing output will suffer “for awhile” yet, but confident his return to productivity “is gradually going to come about.”

He’s already whetting his appetite with the outlines of a new project in his head. “I’ve been thinking about a little prose book I might like to do in which I would go to my building in Dwight and sit there in the middle of that little town of 150 or 200 people and read travel literature and write about armchair travel all over the world from Dwight, Neb. It’d be a book like Local Wonders (his 2000 work of prose), but I’d be sitting there daydreaming about Andalusia, you know. I don’t like to travel, but that might be a sort of fun way of doing it…learning about the world.”

He may also keep busy as general editor of an anthology of poems about American folklore to be published by the Library of Congress. Kooser originally broached the project with the Library soon after being installed as Laureate.

Then there’s his ongoing column, which he’s arranged to have continue even after he’s out of office. The column, offered free to newspapers, supports his strong belief poetry should be inclusive, not exclusive. He hit upon the idea for it along with his wife, Lincoln Journal Star editor Kathleen Rutledge.

“Kathy and I talked for years and years about the fact poetry used to be in newspapers and how do you get it back,” he said.

A column made sense for a poet who describes himself as “an advocate for a kind of poetry newspaper readers could understand.” Making it a free feature got papers to sign on. He said the number of papers carrying “My American Poetry” is “always growing” and one paper that dropped it was pressured to resume it after readers complained. He’s most pleased that so many rural papers run the column and that perhaps schools there and elsewhere use the poems as teaching tools.

 

 

Karl Shapiro, center, with students in Nebraska nearly a half century ago. Left is Poet Ted Kooser .(Reprinted with permission from Reports of My Death by Karl Shapiro, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Besides the feedback he gets from readers, the poets whose work he features also get responses. “And, of course, the poets are tremendously excited. They’re in front of more readers than they’ve ever been in front of in their lives,” he said. It’s all part of breaking down barriers around poetry.

“The work that is most celebrated today is that work that needs explaining…that’s challenging. The poetry of the last century, the 20th century, was the first poetry ever that had to be taught. That had to be explained to people,” he said in an April 24 keynote address before the Magnet Schools of America conference at Qwest Center Omaha. It began “when the great Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs of contemporary poetry fell upon poetry in the persons of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.”

This drift toward a literary poetry of “ever-more difficulty” and “elitism” continues to this day, limiting its appeal to a select circle of poets, academics and intellectuals. “The public gets left out,” he said. He has a different audience in mind. “I’m more interested in reaching a broad, general audience. I’m in the train of those poets (in the tradition of William Carlos Williams) who always believed in wanting to write things that people could understand.” Rather than a focus on form, he said, “I believe in work that has social worth.”

As a missionary for a common poetry that really speaks to people, his newspaper column amounts to The Ted Kooser Primer for Poetry Appreciation. “I have felt like a teacher all through it,” said Kooser, a poetry instructor for select graduate students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Basically with the column I’m doing what a teacher would do. I’m trying to teach by example…what poetry can offer.”

He realizes his insistence on realism and clarity rankles the established order.

“I try pretty hard to make it understandable,” he’s said of his own work. “That sort of thing runs against the grain in poetry right now. I’m very interested in trying to convince people that poetry isn’t something we have to struggle with.”

Kooser harbors no allusions about making a sea change on the poetry scene.

“I think by the time I’m done at the end of May, when my term as Poet Laureate is over, I will have shifted American poetry about that far,” he said, his clamped hands moving ever so slightly to mimic those of a clock. “And the minute I’m out of office there’ll be a tremendous effort to get back where it was.”

Still, he feels emboldened by the response he gets. “Everywhere I go doing poetry readings throughout this country I run into people who have felt excluded from poetry almost all their adult lives,” he said. “Invariably after one of my readings a man who was drug there by his wife will come shambling up to me and say, ‘I had a pretty good time and I think I’m going to try this poetry stuff a little bit,’ which is wonderful for me. It’s exactly what I want to happen.”

It’s all about making converts. “Yeah, and, you know, they’re only one at a time. but for the one person that comes up there are others in the audience that are feeling the same way,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s my poetry that’s making the difference. This is not something I’m doing intentionally, but in looking at myself from over on the side I think have de-mystified the process. You know, it’s really about working hard and learning to write. There’s no magical thing I have that nobody else has. It’s just the fact I’ve been writing poetry for 50 years and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. And I think people like to hear there’s nothing really mysterious about it.”

Part of the exclusion people feel about poetry, he said, stems from how it’s taught in schools. It’s why soon after getting the Laureate he made a point of speaking at the National Conference of Teachers of English, “an organization on the front line for expanding the audience for poetry,” yet one ignored by his predecessors.

“I wanted to go there because I thought, Here are the people who have all the experience teaching poetry and usually where poetry goes wrong is in the public schools. It’s taught poorly. It discourages people, and so they never know to read it. And so I figured these teachers are really the prime teachers — any teacher who will pay his or her own way to a convention is pretty serious about teaching — and would have the really good ideas about how to teach poetry. And, as a matter of fact, there were a lot of ideas that came out of it. Mostly enthusiasm, really, and encouragement and that sort of thing.”

 

 

 

 

He never underestimates the power of “a great big dose of encouragement, no matter how bad the students’ work is, because I was one of those students,” he said. Growing up in his native Ames, Iowa, his earliest champion was his mother, the woman who taught him to see and to appreciate the world around him — the local wonders so to speak, and to not take these things for granted. Another early influence was an English teacher named Marian McNally. In college, teachers Will Jumper and Karl Shapiro, the noted poet, inspired him.

As Laureate Kooser’s embraced diversity in poetry. A 2005 program he organized in Kearney, Neb. saw him share the stage with an aspiring poet, a cowboy poet, a romantic poet, a performance poet and a fellow literary poet. Whatever the form or style, he said, poetry provides a framework for “expressing feelings,” for gaining “enlightenment,” for “celebrating life” and for “preserving the past.”

When he battled cancer eight years ago he didn’t much feel like celebrating anything. “And then…I remembered why I was a writer. That you can find some order and make some sense of a very chaotic world by writing a little poem. People need to be reminded there are these things out there that they can enjoy and learn from — and there might be something remarkable in their own backyard — if they would just slow down and look at them. To really look at things you have to shut out the thinking part and look and just see what’s there. It’s reseeing things”

True to his openness to new ideas, he’s agreed to let Opera Omaha commission a staged cantata based on his book The Blizzard Voices, a collection of poems inspired by real-life stories from the 1888 blizzard that killed hundreds of children in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas. Adapting his work is composer Paul Moravec, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer for Music. The March 2008 production will premiere at the Holland Performing Arts Center and then tour. Recording rights are being sought.

For Kooser, who once adapted his Blizzard poems for a Lincoln Community Playhouse show, the possibilities are exciting. “I met with him (Moravec) and I liked him immensely and so I decided I would trust him to do anything he wanted to do. I think the idea of a blizzard and the kind of noise you could associate with it could be really interesting.”

Music-poetry ties have long fascinated Kooser, who hosted a program with folk musician John Prine. The March 9, 2005 program “A Literary Evening with John Prine and Ted Kooser,” was presented by the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress in D.C.  The program included a lively discussion between the songwriter and the poet as they compared and contrasted the emotional appeal of the lyrics of popular songs with the appeal of contemporary poetry.

“I’ve been following John Prine’s music since his first album came out and have always been struck by his marvelous writing: its originality, its playful inventiveness, its poignancy, its ability to capture our times,” Kooser said. “For example, he did a better job of holding up the mirror of art to the ’60s and ’70s than any of our official literary poets. And none of our poets wrote anything better about Viet Nam than Prine’s ‘Sam Stone.’ If I could write a poem that somebody could sing and make better for being sung, that would be great.”

In anticipation of the Opera Omaha cantata, the University of Nebraska Press has reprinted Kooser’s Blizzard Voices in paperback.

Whoever’s named the next Laureate will get a letter from Kooser. If his successor asks for advice he will say to be sure to avoid talking politics. If Kooser had responded to a national reporter’s question two years ago about who he voted for in the presidential race, he’s sure he’d still be dogged by that admission now. “Instead,” he said, “I’ve gotten to talk about poetry…the job I was hired to do.”

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  1. ed wickliffe
    June 8, 2012 at 2:45 am

    I met Ted Kooser briefly in Tampa following a reading of his when he was Poet Laureate. I admire the clarity of his poems and those of a few others like Billy Collins and James Tate. Good for Kooser for writing poems that are actually interesting, Compare them to the inbred, boring, and obscure output of so many others.

    Not all clear poems are good, of course, and not all obscure poems are mediocre. On balance, though, there is a lot to be said in favor of Kooser’s clarity.

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