In this season of noisy discord, when Midwestern states and cities compete for bad jobs and large young men concuss each other on Saturdays for our amusement, it’s good to be reminded that our region still harbors poets who speak to our better natures and to more homely verities.
This describes Ted Kooser, an Iowa native and Nebraska insurance executive, a thin and quiet man who rises early, pours himself a cup of coffee and starts each day by writing a poem or, at least, trying to write a poem. He’s been doing this for years – his first books were published nearly 45 years ago – and they have won him every prize, including the Pulitzer Prize for poetry eight years ago, when he was midway through his two-year term as America’s Poet Laureate.
Ted Kooser isn’t fancy and he doesn’t shout. Sometimes he’s deep but often he’s content to describe the every-day things, items we know but will never see again the same way once he, like Monet with his haystacks, has given them a new image in our minds.
It’s a good time to pick up one of Ted Kooser’s books, now that Nebraska and its deceptive landscape are on view in the new Bruce Dern film, called “Nebraska.” Here’s one of Ted’s poem, called “Dishwater:"
Slap of the screen door, flat knock
of my grandmother’s boxy black shoes
on the wooden stoop, the hush and sweep
of her knob-kneed, cotton-aproned stride
out to the edge and then, toed in
with a furious twist and heave,
a bridge that leaps from her hot red hands
and hangs there shining for fifty years
over the mystified chicken,
over the swaying nettles, the ragweed,
the clay slope down to the creek,
over the redwing blackbirds in the tops
of the willows, a glorious rainbow
with an empty dishpan swinging at one end.
This is from the book, Delights and Shadows, that won the Pulitzer. We’re not talking Allen Ginsburg here.
Kooser, who is 74 now, lives on an acreage outside Lincoln with his wife, who used to be the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star. I’d heard him give a poetry reading in Chicago: he’s a marvelous reader, funny, with a comic’s timing. When I was writing a book on the Midwest, I went to Lincoln to talk with him about being a Midwesterner.
Ted said he stayed in the Midwest “because I felt safe here.” It’s a steady, sure part of the world. “We’ve got tractor pulls here. No amount of Islamic terrorism can ever touch this part of America.”
But he sees this safe, sure past threatened now, with change – fast change – coming to a region that still sees itself in the glow, perhaps imaginary, of what he called “the golden Ike years.”
“In 1905,” he said, “leather-harness makers could retool for cars, Now nobody can retool that fast. If you’re a Californian, you resort to crystals or I Ching. If you’re a Midwesterner, it’s Bud Light.”
Kooser understands this wariness of the future. In a lovely book of prose essays called Local Wonders, he wrote:
“We are always trying to find footing on the damp edge of the future, but to most of us, the dry sand of the past feels firmer under our sneakers.”
Kooser grew up in Ames, Iowa, and graduated from Iowa State. To make a living, he took a job with an insurance company in Nebraska and, like another poet, Wallace Stevens, he rose, ending up as vice president of Lincoln Benefit Life Company. But poetry came first: up before dawn each day, composing over coffee, when his mind was freshest.
He writes about his neighbors in the Bohemian Alps, the hill country near Lincoln settled mostly by Czechs. No snow-covered peaks here: Ted describes the Bohemian Alps as “a worn place in the carpet of grass we know as the Great Plains, the spot where the glaciers wiped their snowy galoshes coming in and out.”
As you can see, Ted Kooser is a master of metaphor and simile. Such figures of speech, of course, are part of the poet’s tool kit but he wields these tools more skillfully than most, as in this wry description of the Nebraska topography:
“Contrary to what out-of-state tourists might tell you, Nebraska isn’t flat but slightly tilted, like a long church-basement table with the legs on one end not perfectly snapped in place, not quite enough of a slant for the tuna-and-potato-chip casseroles to slide off into the Missouri River... Across this plain, the Platte River meanders side to side, like a man who has lost a hubcap and is looking for it in the high grass on both sides of the road.”
Among his best books of poetry are Weather Central, Winter Morning Walks (actually, poems sent on postcards to his friend and fellow writer, Jim Harrison) and Flying at Night. Apart from Local Wonders, he has published another book of prose, a slim volume about his wife’s family near Gutenberg, Iowa. It’s called Lights on a Ground of Darkness. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. The University of Nebraska press brought it out in an expensive special edition, but it’s since been released in paperback.
Let’s close with a few more poems. Here’s one, called “Abandoned Farmhouse:”
He was a big man, says the size of his shows
on a pile of broken dishes by the house:
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room: and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun:
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.
A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.
Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer: the still-sealed jars
in the cellars say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm – a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.
If Ted Kooser evokes the past, he can be cautionary about the present. This poem, called “Tattoo,” which should be required reading for every young person about to submit to the skin artist’s needle:
What once was meant to be a statement –
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heat – 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.