Former U. S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser
Born in Iowa in 1939
The former U.S. poet laureate (2004-2006), Ted Kooser, was born in Ames, Iowa, in 1939. In 1962, he completed a bachelor of science degree from Iowa State University and in 1968 a master of arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Kooser currently holds the position of Presidential Professor at The University of Nebraska, teaching the writing of poetry. Prior to teaching, he served many years until his retirement in 1999 as a vice-president of Lincoln Benefit Life, an insurance company. He and his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, a former editor of The Lincoln Journal Star, reside on a farm near Garland, Nebraska. They have a son, Jeff, and two granddaughters, Penelope and Margaret.
Appointed Poet Laureate
The position of the American poet laureate remains important for poetry. A glimpse into the biographies of recent holders of that position will shed light on the position of poetry in 21st century America.
Ted Kooser was appointed poet laureate in 2004, and in April 2005 James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, reappointed him to that position for 2005. During the same week in April that Kooser received the reappointment as poet laureate, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his book of poems, Delights & Shadows.
Kooser is widely published in such influential journals as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Hudson Review. His work has appeared in textbooks used at the high school and college level, and he has been awarded two National Endowments of the Arts fellowships in poetry, the Stanley Kunitz Prize, the Pushcart Prize, the James Boatwright Prize, and a Merit Award from the Nebraska Arts Council.
The 13th poet laureate has read widely across the country for the Academy of American Poetry. He has also read at many universities including the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell at Ithaca, Case Western Reserve at Cleveland, The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and Wesleyan University in Connecticut. And he has taught workshops at many of these universities.
Essayist, Playwright, Children's Book Author
Not only is the former laureate a poet, but he is also an essayist, playwright, fiction writer, literary critic, and children's book author. His nonfiction prose book, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, has won numerous awards.
The University of Nebraska Press brought out his latest book of prose The Poetry Home Repair Manual in January 2005, a book to help beginning poets get started with their craft.
Kooser has also authored a number of children's books, including Bag in the Wind, Candlewick Press, 2010; The House Held Up by Trees, Candlewick Press, 2012; The Bell in the Bridge, Candlewick Press, 2016. He has two further and Making Mischief: Two Poets at Play Among Figures of Speech, in collaboration with Connie Wanek, also from Candlewick slated to appear in 2019 or 2020.
Editor and Publisher
As editor and publisher at Windflower Press, Kooser has published contemporary poetry, including two literary magazines, The Salt Creek Reader (1967-1975) and The Blue Hotel (1980-1981). The former won several grants from the National Endowment of the Arts.
The Windflower publication, The Windflower Home Almanac of Poetry, was honored as the best book from a small press in 1980.
American Life in Poetry
Each poet laureate infuses his/her own agenda into the position, and Ted Kooser initiated a unique venue for achieving the goal of increasing readership for poetry. His American Life in Poetry offers a column free to newspapers each week. The column has gained readership since its inception and now boasts an estimated circulation of 3.5 million readers worldwide.
The site allows readers to register to receive weekly email messages with links to each current American Life in Poetry Column. Description of this site's endeavor from the site explains:
The poem in each column is brief and will be enjoyable and enlightening to readers of newspapers and online publications. Each week, a new column will be posted. Registered publications will receive new columns by email. Our archive of previous columns is also available for publication.
If a reader misses a column or just wishes to reread certain poems, an archive list of all poems is available. This Kooserian poetry function, American Life in Poetry, is likely one of the best ideas coming from the poet laureates, who often come and go without much notice and without leaving such an important impact of the art's promotion.
Kooser has published fourteen collections of poetry. Critics have characterized his style as "haiku-like imagist." His work is often compared to Kentuckian Wendell Berry, but Kooser’s work is seen as less intense than Berry, less religious, and probably less universal.
Kooser’s poetry is called “accessible” which means it is easy to understand. To many modern, or postmodern, American minds, such a distinction is the kiss of death. The lovers of obscure verse will find plenty in Kooser to deride, but the whole point of the position of poet laureate is to help make poetry more accessible in order to attract a wider audience for the art.
Kooser's work is pleasing with just enough wit to bring a smile and just enough nature description to bring a moment of recognition from time to time. Whether reading his work or listening to him read it, the audience cannot but be aware that this is a man in love with life and poetry.
Kooser remains available for lectures; his booking agent for speaking engagements and other public events is Alison Granucci.
Two Sample Poems
The following poems represent Kooser's style and the types of subjects the poet often addresses in his poems:
To sit in sunlight with other old men,
none with his legs crossed, our feet in loose shoes
hot and flat on the earth, hands curled in our laps
or on our knees, like birds that now and then
fly up with our words and settle again
in a slightly different way, casting a slightly
different shadow over our pants legs, gabardine,
blue, gray, or brown, warmed by the passing sun.
He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
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 cellar 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.
Reading of "Abandoned Farmhouse"
Kooser's Art Connection
On Ted Kooser's official Web site, the poet features a video created by Bill Frakes and Laura Heald of Straw Hat Visuals for the Nebraska Project, in which Kooser explains his heartfelt connection with creating art both poetry and painting. To get a true sense of this poet's dedication, a visit to this video is a marvelous way to spend three minutes and twenty-four seconds.
© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes