A voice from the heartland

New poet laureate, Ted Kooser, hailed for accessible, graceful verse

Poetry

September 05, 2004|By Bettijane Levine and Lynell George | Bettijane Levine and Lynell George,Los Angeles Times

Ted Kooser was out there in the Nebraska heartland, in the landscape he loves, on the 62 acres of it he owns and monitors with what he calls "wolf vision" for late-breaking news from the natural world.

Birds, spiders, coyotes with curled lips; moths so relaxed they fall off ledges, forgetting that they can fly. The way a snake moves: "All it knows is behind it already / nothing it knows is ahead." Small observations that Kooser transforms in the early morning hours into poems that he imagines few people will ever read. Poetry is not the national passion it might be. And his books, while highly acclaimed by critics, typically sell only about 2,000 or 3,000 copies each, he says.

Kooser was out there in the Great Plains one day last month, contemplating nature and what to eat for dinner, when the phone rang and a man on the other end announced upheaval in his life. "He said I'd been chosen" as the nation's poet laureate and "would I accept the position?"

Kooser couldn't answer. "I was so completely surprised, so staggered by it, that the man said maybe he'd better call me back the next day and try again."

But of course, Kooser accepted the prestigious one-year position, which pays $35,000 and confers a lot of opportunity but little obligation. He wouldn't have to leave home too often, he says: "About four times during the year, when I will be needed at the Library [of Congress] in Washington."

Platform for poets

If he wishes to take a more active role, he is welcome to do so. Although the position was considered largely ceremonial for many years, it has recently become an activist's platform for poets to disseminate verse beyond libraries and universities to the great masses of Americans who might not otherwise come in contact with it. In fact, that is the official job description of America's poet laureate: "To raise the status of poetry in the everyday consciousness of the American public."

Kooser, who succeeds Louise Gluck, has no idea exactly what he'll do in office but says he already has some interesting activist ideas. He is 65 and a few years ago was successfully treated for oral cancer, after which he retired from his 35-year career in the insurance industry.

He has written poetry since the age of 18, awakening every morning at 4:30 and writing until it was time to go to work.

His selection as poet laureate is an "interesting choice" in an unusually complicated year for the nation, according to some in the poetry community. With the presidential election, the war in Iraq, the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and the threat of new terrorist attacks, the right appointment seemed particularly critical, says Theresa Eiben, editor of Poets and Writers magazine.

In times of trouble, "people have historically turned to poetry" to help "find our humanity and strengthen it even more," she says.

Kooser is the first poet laureate ever chosen from the Great Plains, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said when he announced the appointment Aug. 12. "He is a major poetic voice for rural and small-town America," but "his verse reaches beyond his native region to touch on universal themes in accessible ways."

Kooser's work is simple, plain-spoken, touching but not sentimental. It deals with universals of nature and the human condition, distilling the obvious into something unexpectedly full of luminous grace. He has been likened to Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters and William Carlos Williams.

"Kooser has written more perfect poems than any poet of his generation," stated Dana Gioia, poet and National Endowment for the Arts chairman.

But Kooser says he is not concerned about other poets' opinions of his work. He preferred to write for regular folks, in such a way that people "who are not professional literary people can understand my work." He has always showed his new poems to those around him. "I used to show them to my secretary at the insurance company, for example. If she didn't understand it, I'd go home and rewrite it until she did.

"Poetry can do some remarkable things for people if they have access to it. It gives you fresh new ways of looking at an ordinary-appearing world. Once you read my friend Joe Hutchison's words about an artichoke -- 'Oh heart, weighed down by so many wings' -- once you read that, you can never look at an artichoke the same way again."

Kooser's own work has some of the same transformative effect. After his illness, Kooser wrote a 17-line poem called "At the Cancer Clinic," which describes with exquisite simplicity a patient who is both tragic and blessed. There is pride in Kooser's voice as he says his doctor liked the poem so much that he "had it enlarged and hung it on the wall at the nurses' station." He says he hopes others will find it comforting.

Impact on America

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