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Former U. S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser Plus Poems, “Tattoo" and "Selecting a Reader"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

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

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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's Poetry

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:

Gabardine

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.

Abandoned Farmhouse

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.

Ted Kooser's "Tattoo"

Former U. S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser offers one of his fascinating observations, as he allows his speaker to speculate on the character of an aging, tattooed biker-type.

Introduction and Text of "Tattoo"

The four movements in Ted Kooser's "Tattoo" play out without a rime scheme or even a hint of a rhythm sequence. They do feature prominently a folksy kind of jauntiness but unfortunately a bit of superciliousness on the part of the speaker, as he observes this aging biker at a yard sale.

Kooser's speaker forces a folksy but judgmental attitude on a man whom the speaker obviously does not know personally but is still delighted to concoct his own scenario about the man's thoughts and inner being.

Makes one wonder if the poet might have experienced a bit of run-in with a biker type somewhere in his illustrious path.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Tattoo

What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—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.

Reading of "Tattoo"

Commentary on "Tattoo"

The speaker is musing on the character of an aging, tattooed biker-type.

First Movement: A Sagging Image

What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on.

The speaker in Ted Kooser's "Tattoo" observes a sagging image of the very popular dagger-through-heart tattoo on the shoulder of an aging biker. The speaker assumes and thus asserts that the tattoo once had a purpose; it was meant to be a statement.

But now it just resembles a bruise as it sags "on the bony old shoulder" of the man who still seems to proudly flaunt it. Of course, people become tattooed for their own individual reasons, but this speaker concludes that the man got his dagger-through-heart tattoo out of sheer vanity.

Because undergoing the tattoo process is not without pain, the speaker assumes that this spot on this aging biker's skin is where "vanity once punched him hard / and the ache lingered on."

Because the meaning of this particular tattoo is often linked to a broken heart, the speaker also implies that the man probably got the tattoo because of a broken relationship. The speaker's own vanity seems to be motivating him to assume the worst about this tattooed individual.

Second Movement: Reading Character

He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,

The speaker then reports, based solely on the man's looks, that he would have been "someone you had to reckon with," that is, someone who would not run from a quarrel or physical altercation.

The speaker can see that the man was, and perhaps still is, "strong as a stallion." The speaker also assumes that the man was, and perhaps still is, "fast and ornery."

Third Movement: Past His Prime

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,

The speaker shifts from the possibilities of the man's past to what he is now observing: the speaker sees the man at a yard sale on a rather cool morning, but the man is wearing a tight-fitting black T-shirt, and he has his sleeves "rolled up to show us who he was."

The speaker assumes that the man is still quite proud of his dagger-through-heart tattoo because he has it displayed so prominently even on this chilly morning. The man is still so identified with the period of his life that fetched him the tattoo that he still has to exhibit it to the world.

This speaker's attitude toward the tattooed man is one of unearned disdain.

Fourth Movement: A Vain Creature

he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

The speaker concludes that this vain creature is just "another old man." And this old man is doing what the other old men are doing at the yard sale, "picking up / broken tools and putting them back."

The speaker is unduly hard on this target of observation. As the man picks up the tools and puts them back, the speaker assumes that his heart has "gone soft and blue with stories."

Of course, he is playing on the term heart, referring to the biker's physical heart as well as the tattoo, giving the speaker a smug sense of accomplishment for his lame double-entendre.

Because of the sagging soft flesh to which the aging physical body is heir, the tattoo has sagged into a softness that the speaker associates with the man's inner spiritual stamina. The speaker's unfairness to this man in the final lines cheapens his overall observation, making the speaker a quiet bully.

While the body's sagging flesh denotes age, it does not necessarily reveal anything about the soul of the individual where the stories would be memorialized, and those stories might be quite bright, not blue.

Ted Kooser's "Selecting a Reader"

The former poet laureate's poem provides an ambiguous title, but the poem is quite literal while offering an amusing yet profound kink in the speaker's thought process.

Introduction and Text of “Selecting a Reader"

Ted Kooser's title, "Selecting a Reader," can be interpreted at least two ways: one refers to a reader selecting something to read, and the other is the poet selecting the type of person he would like to have select his books.

It is the latter that prevails, even though the first makes a cameo. The poem resembles a versanelle; its short thirteen lines offer the pungent imagery that unveils a short narrative and ends with a punch. The lines are unrimed yet steamy.

(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Selecting a Reader

First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
"For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned." And she will.

Recitation of Kooser's "Selecting a Reader"

Commentary on “Selecting a Reader”

The ambiguous title seems to begin the poem with a riddle.

First Movement: First Image of Beauty

First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing

The speaker claims that the first image he has of his reader is that she is beautiful, but even before that thought he has decided that the reader is a "she, "instead of a "he." He then has his potential reader ambling gingerly "up to my poetry."

For some drama, he adds that it is the "loneliest moment of an afternoon." This descriptor adds just the right flavor. If the woman's mood appeared jolly, the mood of the speaker's fantasy would take a different direction.

Second Movement: Intimacy without Boorishness

a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there

The speaker then offers the image of wet hair on the woman, adding the saucy flavor heralded by the fact that "her hair [is] still damp at the neck / from washing it." This image directs the reader's attention to a fairly intimate detail of the woman's anatomy without becoming boorish.

The speaker then reveals that the woman is wearing a raincoat—"an old one, dirty / from not having money enough for the cleaners." He piques the reader's interest by piling detail on detail about the woman.

Each detail allows the reader to learn more about her as the speaker continues his fantasy.

The woman becomes much more visible, so that by the time she is taking out her classes to check out the book, she is a developed character.

Third Movement: Perusing in the Bookstore

in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,

After taking out her glasses, "there / in the bookstore," she samples a few poems, but then chooses not to buy the book. She simply returns the book to the shelf.

The speaker does not allow himself the audacity of having her actually buy the book. And if she did buy the book, his little drama could not end with the punch he has in store.

Fourth Movement: Books to Expensive

"For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned." And she will.

After sampling the poems, the potential reader makes a decision. She realizes that she has a better use for money that she would have fork over for this book of poems. She remarks "to herself," "For that kind of money, I can get / my raincoat cleaned."

The speaker, it seems, would find that decision less than acceptable, but he proves to be exceedingly understanding. He simply responds, "And she will." He approves of her decision, even though it costs him the price of a book sale.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the mood of Ted Kooser's "Tattoo"?

Answer: The speaker in Kooser's "Tattoo" boasts a supercilious attitude; thus, he is a holier-than-thou mood.

Question: What predictions can I make about the poem?

Answer: Absolutely none.

Question: What is the message of Kooser's "Tattoo"?

Answer: Kooser's speaker is forcing a folksy but judgmental attitude on a man whom the speaker obviously does not know personally but is still delighted to concoct his own scenario about the man's thoughts and inner being. It makes one wonder if the poet might have experienced a bit of run-in with a biker type somewhere in his illustrious path.

Question: What does the last line, "His heart gone soft and blue with stories," mean?

Answer: It must be noted that the speaker of this piece is a supercilious jerk, who is judging a man from a totally unfair perspective. As the biker picks up the tools and puts them back, the speaker assumes that his heart has "gone soft and blue with stories." Of course, the speaker is playing on the term heart, referring to the biker's physical heart as well as the tattoo, giving the speaker a smug sense of accomplishment for his lame double-entendre. Because of the sagging soft flesh to which the aging physical body is heir, the tattoo has sagged into a softness that the speaker associates with the man's inner spiritual stamina. The speaker's unfairness to this man in the final lines cheapens his overall observation, making the speaker nothing but a disgusting bully. While the body's sagging flesh denotes age, it does not necessarily reveal anything about the soul of the individual where the stories would be memorialized, and those stories might be quite bright, not blue.

Question: Who is the speaker in Kooser's poem?

Answer: The speaker is a person who seems to hold a grudge against bikers.

Question: What is the shift in Kooser's "Tattoo"?

Answer: In the third movement, the speaker shifts from the possibilities of the man's past to what the speaker is now observing: he sees the man at a yard sale on a rather cool morning, but the man is wearing a tight-fitting black T-shirt, and he has his sleeves "rolled up to show us who he was."

Question: What does the poem "Tattoo" by Ted Kooser say about pain?

Answer: Because undergoing the tattoo process is not without pain, the speaker assumes that this spot on this aging biker's skin is where "vanity once punched him hard / and the ache lingered on." Because the meaning of this particular tattoo is often linked to a broken heart, the speaker also implies that the man probably got the tattoo because of a broken relationship.

Question: What message does Kooser's "Tattoo" poem convey?

Answer: The poet's speaker is attempting to describe an aging bike-type individual. However, the poet reveals himself to be judgmental, supercilious jack ass.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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