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Analysis of Poem 'A Spiral Notebook' by Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser and 'A Spiral Notebook'

'A Spiral Notebook' is a poem that focuses on what is an ordinary object, known to most of us who have ever been to school or wanted to take notes. Nothing unusual about the subject matter then.

What is unusual, and quite inspiring, is the way the poet approaches this commonplace thing. In typical Kooser fashion, what seems simply ordinary is transformed into a series of extraordinary images and thoughts.

Ted Kooser has been doing this for a long time, taking everyday events, moments and objects and turning them into poems that allow the reader to view the mundane world in a fresh light.

He has an approachable style, uses simple language, sees beneath the surface and paints pictures that the reader can readily access and understand. His poems are often expanded snapshots, capturing background routines, changing dull realities for the better.

First published in the book Delights and Shadows, 2004 (which gained him a Pulitzer Prize), 'A Spiral Notebook' is more of a musing on the uses and potential of a new notebook and how it reflects the measurement of life itself.

'I write for other people with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their every day experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.'

'A Spiral Notebook'

The bright wire rolls like a porpoise

in and out of the calm blue sea

of the cover, or perhaps like a sleeper

twisting in and out of his dreams,

for it could hold a record of dreams

if you wanted to buy it for that

though it seems to be meant for

more serious work, with its

college-ruled lines and its cover

that states in emphatic white letters,


a part of growing old is no longer

to have five subjects, each

demanding an equal share of attention,

set apart by brown cardboard dividers,

but instead to stand in a drugstore

and hang on to one subject

a little too long, like this notebook

you weigh in your hands, passing

your fingers over its surfaces

as if it were some kind of wonder.

Literary Devices Used

'A Spiral Notebook' is a single stanza poem of 21 lines. There are just two sentences making up the whole poem.

It is a free verse creation because it does not have a rhyme scheme and there is no consistent metric to the lines. This doesn't mean that it is beyond study from a rhythmic perspective!


Let's examine a few lines to make sure there is no hidden regular meter (metre in British English) or solid rhythmic core.

The first four lines:

The bright / wire rolls / like a / porpoise (8 syllables, tetrameter)

in and / out of / the calm / blue sea (8 syllables, tetrameter)

of the / cover, / or per / haps like / a sleeper (11 syllables, pentameter)

twisting / in and / out of / his dreams, (8 syllables, tetrameter)

for it / could hold / a re / cord of dreams (9 syllables, tetrameter)

So it's plain from these first five lines that the basic template for the poem is tetrameter BUT there is no settled rhythm or stress pattern.

'A Spiral Notebook' starts out with an innocent first few words, mere description until the simile takes over towards the end of the line. Who would have thought that the simple coil of wire could inspire an image of a porpoise as it surfaces and drops in a calm blue sea?

The speaker has started the magic show, creating a wonderful visual with his first glance at the notebook.

The visuals continue as lines three and four introduce an alternative - not another sea creature but a human being sleeping and dreaming, restless in the night.

Note the lack of a first-person approach. The speaker is observing at a distance, no mention of the 'I', no direct involvement in the narrative. In fact, in line six the speaker addresses a third person 'you' - if you wanted to buy the notebook - to record your dreams in.

And in the same quiet, reflective tone the speaker goes on to suggest that, perhaps this notebook is made for more serious work - academic work - the study of 5 subjects, the classic 5. Note the capital letters, taken straight off the actual notebook font.

  • Line eleven is the turning point of the poem. The narrative shifts away from description and simile to enter a kind of new reality.

The speaker focuses on those 5 subjects and contrasts growing old with leaving these subjects, and study, and youth, behind. What use are cardboard dividers, equal time for each subject?

Is the speaker growing old? Yes, in a sense. But has the speaker been old right from the start? The second part of the poem focuses on the present, with the notebook in the hands of an older person, someone who is standing in a drugstore, perhaps waiting for medicine and drugs to treat an ailment?

Note the use of the verb 'hang on'..and a further clue with...'a little too long'...adds to the idea that here is someone older, looking back maybe, but still able to gain a sense of wonder simply by feeling the notebook's surfaces.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey