Plain Speaking: The Poetry of Ted Kooser

by Lee Gurga

Ted Kooser’s poems are full of people, but they are not the sort of people we ordinarily meet in poems. First, the people in Kooser’s poems are not Ted Kooser. The poet’s characters are also not the people most of us meet in our daily lives. They are the ordinary and extraordinary people of rural America. Real people. Farmers with smelly feet. Greedy relatives. Old men with hands molded to the curves of ash tool handles. Husbands and wives who have lost their individual symmetry by sharing the same narrow bed for fifty years.

Ted Kooser was born in Iowa in 1939 and has lived his whole life in Iowa and Nebraska. His life has coincided with the rapid destruction of much of America’s rural culture, a process for which Wendell Berry coined the term “the unsettling of America.” And unsettling it is, both literally and figuratively. The rural landscape is littered with things that have not disappeared even though they have become useless—including the people. The rural culture that sustained America for almost two centuries is becoming little more than a subject of minor interest to anthropologists and hobbyists. Kooser has helped to keep the memory of this culture alive by preserving the most important part of it—not the cultural artifacts such as Shaker chairs and horse-drawn plows, but the people who made these objects for real use.

The characters of Kooser’s poems are at the same time unique to the landscape they inhabit and universal in their humanity. They are members of a class of which the majority of Americans have little understanding. As Michael Lind pointed out in The Hudson Review (LII:1), the media has neglected entire classes of people, “in particular the white working class and the white rural poor, about whom the media elite has derived most of its scant knowledge from Deliverance and The Beverly Hillbillies.” These are the folks Kooser presents to us with sympathy, humor, and insight. His poems, however, are not mere exercises in nostalgia. Each figure is the starting point for a meditation on life. Grounded in the particular, Kooser uses his poems to explore our common heritage of hopes, fears, and denials.

Kooser has been called the master of the short metaphorical poem. An excellent summary of Kooser’s career and poetics (“The Anonymity of the Regional Poet”) appears in Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? (Graywolf Press, 1992). Gioia explains how Kooser’s decision to remain in the Midwest has resulted in a limited audience for his work, but Gioia concludes by observing that Kooser “has written more perfect poems than any poet of his generation.”

Most of Kooser’s poems are short, but not because of any conscious intent to limit their length. Kooser told me of the process that shapes his poems: “Because I frequently write a poem based upon a single figure of speech, expanding that figure to what I consider to be its maximum extension, the length of the poem is determined by what volume and weight I think that metaphor can carry. . . . I would never decide in advance that a poem be short, or long, or of any other shape or limit. All that gets determined in the writing.” As Gioia points out, the fact that Kooser has produced mostly shorter forms can be interpreted negatively as a lack of range. But if one is good at something, is it a flaw not to be able to do something else? Even Michael Jordan was never promoted from the roster of the Birmingham Barons.

Robert Bly has observed that “the [typical] American poet sitting at his desk writes a fine, intense poem of seven or eight lines, then . . . hastily adds fifteen lines, telling us what the emotion means, relating it to philosophy, and adding a few moral comments.” Kooser has for the most part avoided this pitfall and the result is a life’s work of fine short poems.

Gioia points out that Kooser seems to feel a need for a special relationship with his readers. In a recent essay in the Midwest Quarterly, Kooser tells us how he approaches his reader:

It’s never made much sense to me to set poetry apart from its social context, so when I’m writing a poem I try to behave just as most people would if they were meeting somebody for the first time. Every stranger’s tolerance for poetry is compromised by much more important demands on his or her time. Therefore, I try to honor my reader’s patience and generosity by presenting what I have to say as clearly and succinctly as possible. I try to avoid peculiarities of usage, grammar or punctuation that merely call attention to themselves; reading a poem should be like passing through the printed words into a state beyond the page; no reader should be asked to pull back from this state to puzzle over the surface. This also holds for form or shape; I try to keep the poem’s form as unobtrusive as possible. Form that calls attention to itself draws the reader’s attention back to the surface of the page and away from the poem beyond it. Also, I try not to insult the reader’s good sense by talking down; I don’t see anything to gain by alluding to intellectual experiences that the reader may not have had. I do what I can to avoid being rude or offensive. . . . Being harangued by a poet rarely endears a reader. I am also extremely wary of over-cleverness; there is a definite limit to how much intellectual showing off a stranger can tolerate. Finally, displaying a little personal charm is every bit as helpful in engaging a reader as it would be in any social situation.

The way Kooser respects his audience also shows in the way he respects his subjects. The characters we see in his poems are drawn precisely, and they are allowed to speak for themselves. In the following selections you can see rural America and, by extension, Kooser himself. So please read on and meet Ted Kooser. You’ll be glad you stopped by.

Click to view a selected poem from Tundra #2 by Ted Kooser.