by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
This week, my husband and I are celebrating our 34th wedding anniversary, so I’m just going to give you a brief introduction to one of my all- time favorite poets, then let you explore on your own. Please pay close attention, because his work is so simple you could miss his deeper meaning, yet it’s always honest and direct.
Ted Kooser (1939 – ) was born in Ames, Iowa on April 25, 1939. He received his BA from Iowa State and his MA in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A very long list of his awards and honors is down at the end of this profile, but it took awhile for critics and academics to catch on to his poetry, so most of the awards have come later in his life.
Kooser was the thirteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry chosen by the Librarian of Congress. He used his time as laureate to further the cause of poetry with American readers. Partnering with the Poetry Foundation, he began the “American Life in Poetry” program, which offers a free weekly poem to newspapers across the United States, aiming to raise the visibility of poetry.
There’s a cosmic clock ticking in Ted Kooser’s poems, not loudly, just always there. He’s so aware of what once was but now is gone, of what is now, and of each change of season.
Kooser is solidly connected to his place in the world, the American Midwest. He uses the words of its pragmatic, hard-working people, with an unembellished eloquence like Sandberg and Frost, but full of the whisper of prairie grasses in a rhythm all his own, that ticking cosmic clock. But no matter where you’re from, you’ll find people you know living in Kooser’s poems, and some very familiar places.
So This Is Nebraska
The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.
On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.
So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.
Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.
You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,
clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like
waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.
A Birthday Poem
Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.
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 chickens,
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.
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.
“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.
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.
Today you would be ninety-seven
if you had lived, and we would all be
miserable, you and your children,
driving from clinic to clinic,
an ancient fearful hypochondriac
and his fretful son and daughter,
asking directions, trying to read
the complicated, fading map of cures.
But with your dignity intact
you have been gone for twenty years,
and I am glad for all of us, although
I miss you every day—the heartbeat
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.
On this day each year you loved to relate
that the moment of your birth
your mother glanced out the window
and saw lilacs in bloom. Well, today
lilacs are blooming in side yards
all over Iowa, still welcoming you.
Flying At Night
Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.
Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer’s retina
as he stood on the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.
A Happy Birthday
This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.
I hope you like Ted Kooser as much as I do.
If you’re an aspiring poet, or you’re feeling like your writing is stuck in a rut, I recommend his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets.
Official Entry Blank, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1969
A Local Habitation & A Name, Solo Press, San Luis Obispo, 1974
Not Coming to be Barked At, Pentagram Press, Milwaukee, 1976
Sure Signs, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980
One World at a Time, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985
The Blizzard Voices, Bieler Press, St. Paul, 1986. Reprinted in 2006 by University of Nebraska Press
Weather Central, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994
Winter Morning Walks; 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000
Braided Creek, with Jim Harrison. Copper Canyon Press, 2003
Delights and Shadows. Copper Canyon Press, 2004
Flying at Night, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005
Valentines, University of Nebraska Press, 2007
Splitting an Order, Copper Canyon Press, 2014
Local Wonders; Seasons in the Bohemian Alps. University of Nebraska Press, 2002
The Poetry Home Repair Manual, University of Nebraska Press, 2005
Writing Brave and Free; Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing (with Steve Cox), University of Nebraska Press, 2006
Lights on a Ground of Darkness, University of Nebraska Press, 2009
The Wheeling Year; A Poet’s Field Book, University of Nebraska Press, 2014
Bag in the Wind, Candlewick Press, 2010
The House Held Up by Trees, Candlewick Press, 2012
The Bell in the Bridge, Candlewick Press, forthcoming in 2015
Chapbooks and Special Editions:
Grass County, privately printed, 1971
Twenty Poems, Best Cellar Press, Crete, NE, 1973
Shooting a Farmhouse/So This is Nebraska, Ally Press, St. Paul, 1975
Hatcher, Windflower Press, 1976
Voyages to the Inland Sea, with Harley Elliott, Center for Contemporary Poetry, LaCrosse, WI, 1976
Old Marriage and New, Cold Mountain Press, Austin, TX, 1978
Cottonwood County, with William Kloefkorn, Windflower Press, 1979
Etudes, Bits Press, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, 1992
A Book of Things, Lyra Press, Lincoln, 1995
A Decade of Ted Kooser Valentines, Penumbra Press, Omaha, 1996
Lights on a Ground of Darkness, University of Nebraska Press, 2005. (Limited clothbound edition, numbered and signed, and given to friends of the university.)
Out of the Moment, Brooding Heron Press, Waldron Island, WA, 2006
Together, Brooding Heron Press, Waldron Island, WA, 2012
Pursuing Blackhawk, Cedar Creek Press, 2013
The Windflower Home Almanac of Poetry, Windflower Press, 1980
The Poets Book of Birds, with Judith Kitchen, Anhinga Press, 2009
AWARDS AND HONORS
Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry, 1976 and 1978
Writing Fellowships, National Endowment for the Arts, 1976 and 1984
Society of Midland Authors Poetry Prize, 1980
Stanley Kunitz Poetry Prize, Columbia Magazine, 1984
Pushcart Prize, 1984
Governor’s Art Award, 1988
Mayor’s Art Award, 1989
Richard Hugo Prize, Poetry Northwest, 1994
James Boatwright Award, Shenandoah, 2000
Nebraska Arts Council Merit Award in Poetry, 2000
Mari Sandoz Award, Nebraska Library Association, 2000
Nebraska Book Award for poetry, 2001
Barnes & Noble Discover Nonfiction Prize, third place, 2003
Friends of American Writers Prize, 2003
Honorable Mention, Society of Midland Authors nonfiction prize, 2003
First place, ForeWord Magazine autobiographical writing competition, 2003
The Best American Poetry, 2003
Nebraska Book Award for nonfiction, 2003
Society of Midland Authors Poetry Prize (with Jim Harrison, 2004)
Named United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, 2004
Honorary Doctorate, University of Nebraska, 2004
Delights & Shadows named as a “Best Book of the Year” for 2004
Reappointed U. S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. 2005
Honorary Doctorate, South Dakota State University, 2005
American Library Association Notable Book Citation for Delights & Shadows, 2005
Milton Kessler Award, State University of New York at Binghamton, 2005
The Best American Essays, 2005
Society of Midland Authors Poetry Prize, 2005
Pushcart Prize, 2005
Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, 2005
Midwest Booksellers Association Poetry Award. 2005
Sower Award, Lincoln Community Foundation, 2005
Jason Award, Children’s Square, 2005
University of Nebraska Presidential Professorship 2005
Sower Award, Lincoln Community Foundation, 2005
Sower Award, Nebraska Committee on the Humanities, 2006
Sower Award, Nebraskaland Foundation, 2006
University of Nebraska Presidential Professorship 2006
Chosen to be on the three-person jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, 2006
Honorary Membership, Sigma Tau Delta, 2007
Distinguished Alumnus, Iowa State University, 2007
Alumni Achievement Award, University of Nebraska, 2007
Midwest Booksellers Association Poetry Award. 2007
University of Nebraska Presidential Professorship 2007
Honorary Doctorate, State University of New York at Binghamton, 2008
Midwest Booksellers Association Poetry Award. 2008
Word Sender Award, John G. Neihardt Foundation, 2008
Honorary Doctorate, Doane College, 2009
Pushcart Prize, 2009
Dedication of Ted Kooser Elementary School, 2009
Mildred Bennett Award, Nebraska Center for the Book, 2009
Hall Kenyon Award in American Poetry, 2010
Local Wonders; Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, chosen as the “One Book, One Nebraska title for 2011
Chosen to be on the three-person jury for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry
Teachers Choice Award – International Reading Association, 2011
Pushcart Prize, 2012
Honorary board of directors, The Poetry Center, Passaic, NJ, 2012
New York Times Best Illustrated Book, for House Held Up By Trees, 2012
Mark Twain Award from The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, 2013
House Held Up by Trees named a Best Children’s Book of the Year for 2013 by the Children’s Book Committee
House Held Up by Trees named (NCTE) Children’s Literature Assembly’s 2013 Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts
Nebraska Book Award for children’s books for House Held Up by Trees, 2013
- Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud