I collect odd bits of historic detail and stray facts. I look for unlikely connections. Sometimes my mind wanders off in a completely new direction in the middle of a sentence, and what I started out writing turns into something else entirely.
So when I was looking at a list of poets born in April, this caught my eye:
Walter de la Mare and Ted Kooser were both born on April 25.
Sir Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) was born in Kent, in southern England.His father was a Bank of England official. His mother was related to Robert Browning. Educated in London at St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School, he worked for Anglo-American Oil Company(1890-1908) in London as a statistic clerk. His first story, ‘Kismet’ (1895), was published under ‘Walter Ramal.’ In 1908, he was awarded a yearly government pension of £100, and devoted himself entirely to writing. Better remembered for children’s stories and novels, his edition of collected poems was almost a 1,000 pages. Walter de la Mare twice declined a knighthood before he became a Companion of Honour (1948), and a member of the Order of Merit (1953).
Ted Kooser (1939 – ) was born in Ames, Iowa. He received his B.A. from Iowa State and his M.A. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Kooser worked for many years as a life insurance executive; now retired, he teaches half time at The University of Nebraska. Among many other honors, he was awarded two Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate (2004-06), and had an elementary school named after him in 2009. Editor of a weekly newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry,” which is carried online and in over 150 newspapers, with a readership of 3.5 million. He lives on an acreage near the village of Garland, Nebraska.
Walter del al Mare was admired in his day for his ‘romantic imagination,’ and the eeriness of pieces like The Listeners, which still sends chills up my spine.
Ted Kooser is a poet and essayist, known for his honest, accessible verse, which often highlights fragments of a rural way of life that has largely vanished in America.
So are there points of comparison between two such different poets? See what you think:
— from Four Poems by Walter de la Mare
Things are the mind’s mute looking-glass —
That vase of flowers, this work-box here,
When false love flattered me, alas,
Glowed with a beauty crystal clear.
Now they are hostile. The tulip’s glow
Burns with the mockery of despair;
And when I open the box, I know
What kind of self awaits me there.
by Ted Kooser
It seemed those rose-pink dishes
she kept for special company
were always cold, brought down
from the shelf in jingling stacks,
the plates like the panes of ice
she broke from the water bucket
winter mornings, the flaring cups
like tulips that opened too early
and got bitten by frost. They chilled
the coffee no matter how quickly
you drank, while a heavy
everyday mug would have kept
a splash hot for the better
part of a conversation. It was hard
to hold up your end of the gossip
with your coffee cold, but it was
a special occasion, just the same,
to sit at her kitchen table
and sip the bitter percolation
of the past week’s rumors from cups
it had taken a year to collect
at the grocery, with one piece free
for each five pounds of flour.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much in common between these two poems, except glass and tulips. However, they are both using objects as symbols, and there was a time in the past when the objects meant something very different than they do in the present day of each poem. Both poets combine nostalgia with bitterness.
— from Four Poems by Walter de la Mare
THE CHINA PAINTERS
by Ted Kooser
They have set aside their black tin boxes,
scratched and dented,
spattered with drops of pink and blue;
and their dried-up, rolled-up tubes
of alizarin crimson, chrome green,
zinc white, and ultramarine;
their vials half full of gold powder;
stubs of wax pencils;
frayed brushes with tooth-bitten shafts;
and have gone in fashion and with grace
into the clouds of loose, lush roses,
narcissus, pansies, columbine,
on teapots, chocolate pots,
saucers and cups, the good Haviland dishes
spread like a garden
on the white lace Sunday cloth,
as if their souls were bees
and the world had been nothing but flowers.
Both poets are again looking at the past, at things that are now almost forgotten. Walter de la Mare is talking about words that are no longer in common use because the traits they describe are out of fashion, while Kooser is talking about a craft that was once popular, both as a hobby for women of the leisure class, and a skilled profession which was replaced during the industrialization of the chinaware industry.
by Walter de la Mare
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
by Ted Kooser
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.
I found the strongest connection between these two poems — they both rely on the uncanny atmosphere of empty houses to draw us into the stories they are almost telling us, while still leaving it out details we must supply from our imaginations.
So, two writers who share the same birthday, but born in different eras in different countries, with very different reputations. And yet – they both went into dry work with statistics for a number of years before becoming professional writers. Both are preoccupied with the past and its influence on the present. And both demand that their readers use their imaginations to find the untold parts of their tales.
More in common than one might think, with just a glance.
Sources and Further Reading
- ‘Things’ and ‘Antique’ from Four Poems by Walter de la Mare, POETRY Magazine, August, 1940 — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=22659
- ‘Depression Glass’ from Delights and Shadows, © 2004 by Ted Kooser, Copper Canyon Press — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42656
- ‘The China Painters’ from Delights and Shadows, © 2004 by Ted Kooser, Copper Canyon Press — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42653
- ‘The Listeners’ from The Collected Poems of Walter de la Mare (1979) — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47546
- ‘Abandoned Farmhouse’ from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems, © 1980 by Ted Kooser, University of Pittsburgh Press — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52935
- The Walter de la Mare Society — http://www.walterdelamare.co.uk/4.html
- Walter de la Mare — The Poetry Foundation — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/walter-de-la-mare
- Walter de la Mare — http://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/walter-de-la-mare
- Ted Kooser — http://www.tedkooser.net/about.shtml
- Ted Kooser — https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/ted-kooser
- Ted Kooser — http://www.americanlifeinpoetry.org/kooser.html
- Ted Kooser — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/ted-kooser
- Detail of border from Rabbit Patch Quilt
- Photo of Walter de La Mare
- Photo of Ted Kooser
- Portrait of a young woman, Ann Preston circa 1867
- Haviland Limoge china, Edouard Dammouse pattern
- ‘The Listeners’ – woodcut
- Abandoned farmhouse, interior
- Rabbit Patch Quilt
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud