Ted Kooser: A Poet of Connection

“One of my mother’s Moser uncles had raised, from a seed, in a copper laundry boiler, a little lemon tree that as it had grown had twisted this way and that, trying to escape those bone-cold Iowa winters, though it stood in the warmest spot, a parlor window to the south, and was now and then turned so each little leaf got a taste of the sun.

Each summer it bore a handful of rock-hard, acorn-sized lemons, and her aunt would make one pie, lathered with sweet meringue to overpower that poor tree’s sour reluctance, and all the relatives would be invited to their house to taste a little slice of miracle.”

-Ted Kooser, The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book (2014)

Lines distilled like the tart of lemon. Sweet delights in prose balanced with stunning insight. The literature of Ted Kooser, which includes the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner, Delights & Shadows, draws in the sun to bring readers to the table of subtle transformation.

Described by poets and critics as “authentic,” “skilled,” “gifted,” and as a “poet of the American people,” his work connects us to our environment, to each other, and to ourselves. I’m proud to be a former student of Ted’s, as well as his friend, and I’m thrilled to welcome him to Brookings for this year’s Festival of Books.

Admirers of Kooser’s work often celebrate it as “literature of the Great Plains,” and certainly, he writes place exceptionally well. To infer that its appeal is limited to an audience “of the Great Plains,” however, would be a misjudgment.

The first time I met Mr. Kooser, he told me about a woman who said she couldn’t look at a snowy ditch without seeing it the way one of his poems depicted it.As readers, we may learn about the flora and fauna of Nebraska, whether that’s Lobocarspis griseifusa, the “tiny moth who lives on tears,” or the horses that come up to old lilac bushes “nodding their heads/ with a nickering of twigs,” because Kooser curates images from this place for us to behold. Yet he does more than paint pictures of his beloved “bohemian alps;” he models the way we can connect to our own environments by teaching us how to pay attention. When he selects words like “nickering” to conjure the sound of horses and the ways they touch the bush, he’s showing us how to slow down and observe the sensory details of our experience.

For Kooser, shifting a reader’s perspective of something as simple as a student wearing a backpack (“Student”), a man’s tattoo (“Tattoo”), or an ordinary object “(A Jar of Buttons”) makes a poem a success. After turning our eyes to details we might otherwise ignore—just his aunt and uncle turned the potted lemon tree so that each leaf could bathe in winter sun—our perceptions are sharpened. Then we can consider the artfulness in these shimmering objects, people, and events in our own lives.

As a beginning writer, paying attention gave me a new way to use my environment in my work. It gave me permission to find poems walking to class, cooking dinner, and running errands.

Kooser’s version of the writing dictum “write what you know” means to cultivate the possibilities for wonder and imagination in daily life. He reminded me that writers need not live in an exotic location or a bustling metropolis to discover good writing material; they need to look for opportunities in their normal experiences for inspiration from which to grow a delicious poem or essay.

Just as the occasion for lemon pie brought the Moser family together, Kooser’s essays and poems give us an occasion for mindful connections to other people, even strangers.

Kooser, Ted - Delights and Shadows.jpg

In Delights & Shadows, for example, “Cosmetics Department” portrays two young women at the makeup counter whom Kooser transforms into figures on a ceramic cup, timeless and archetypal. He doesn’t plant layers of allusions and obscure contexts for readers to puzzle out, however; his facility with metaphor is magical, morphing one image into another with a phrase, a line, a mere suggestion of another possible way to see; in this poem, a “white cup with two lithe figures painted in black.”

Likewise, Kooser doesn’t veil his insight in jumbled syntax or difficult diction. Kooser aims to invite any English speaker into his poetry. His clarity of language mimics the everyday gestures in the poems themselves.

He begins “Flow Blue China” with the lines: “No real flowers would give of themselves / as these do, the soft tips of their petals / easing out under the painted gold borders,” personifying the flowers with one phrase. Even when he reaches far into a subject, as he does in “Telescope,” he does so with a conversational declaration: “This is the pipe that pierces the dam / that holds back the universe.” What makes these poems fresh—what makes them art—is his choice of perfect words to transform a seed of an idea—far from its native roots—into a tree. His craft is as complex as the chemistry of baking and yields just as rich results.

Kooser’s poems connect readers to strangers by way of introduction. It’s as if he says, “You might see a person like this every day, but here, let me point this out something you might not have noticed before.”

In much the same way, he introduced me to Rochelle Harris, a fellow student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln whom I didn’t know. Kooser suggested we would be good readers of each other’s work, and he described her strengths—the way she rendered sounded beautifully in a poem about clogging and the way her carefully wrought images seemed three-dimensional—before we actually met. He was wise, as he usually is when making these introductions, and Rochelle and I have been friends and writing partners for the last thirteen years.

When the speakers of Kooser’s work reflect on timeless themes—love, loss, mortality—we, too, let those thought bounce back and forth from our heads to our hearts, or sometimes from our heads to the pit of our stomachs. In this way, his work helps us connect to ourselves.

For example, we know almost nothing about the relationship mentioned in “After Years,” but we understand the catch of the heart at that instant the speaker sees “you / walking away,” and we understand the significance of that lost relationship by the power and breadth of the metaphors Kooser uses to describe it:

“At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of ours exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer’s retina
as he stood in the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.”

Immediately, our memories find parallel moments of synchronicity that made us stop in our tracks, or we draw connections with our loves lost.

Furthermore, in “Surviving,” Kooser invites us into a meditation about dying: “There are days when the fear of death / is as ubiquitous as light. It illuminates / everything.” Again, we read a gorgeous, compelling comparison that we can’t help but ponder personally even though Kooser turns to what this light allows him to see—a ladybird beetle—sensitive to the fear of death.

Kooser’s superb use of analogy and juxtaposition suggest ways for us to apprehend these universal concerns.

After the title “Turkey Vultures” conjures decay and carrion, he juxtaposes those associations with their “wing-tips fanned / like fingers, it is as if they are smoothing / one of those tissue-paper sewing patterns / over the pale blue fabric of the air.” With subtle stacking of description and metaphor, he transforms our associations of vultures and death to beauty—and perhaps, by extension, transforms what these associations mean.

In another Delights & Shadows poem, “Praying Hands,” the faith symbolized by the pairs of hands becomes a butterfly, “press[ing] its wings like that / as it rests between flowers.” Readers are left to contemplate that lovely image as well as its deeper suggestions about the nature of faith.

Striving to reach both outward (with grounded sensory language) and inward (with suggestions to universal themes) is something I learned from Kooser early in my writing career. It remains one of the most difficult writing aspirations. Yet to reflect on what it means to be human and suggest ways for others to ponder those same truths makes wonderful literature, goals Kooser has inspired me to strive for.

What makes the facets of connections to self, others, and environment possible in Kooser’s work is the way he conveys a willingness to be vulnerable. The title Delights & Shadows speaks to his subject matter as well as the ways he demonstrates vulnerability by peering into shadows and understanding how they become part of delight, or at least how both exist side by side.

Kooser The Wheeling YEar.jpgWhen we move too quickly through our lives, when our gazes are superficial, it’s easy to ignore these shadows. Paying attention is a practice of vulnerability because it enables us to recognize the possibilities of light and shadow and the paradoxes of human existence.

In The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book, Kooser writes: “Don’t talk to me about the stars, about how cold and indifferent they are, about the unimaginable distances. There are millions of stars within us that are just as far, and people like me sometimes burn up a whole life trying to reach them.”

Here he demonstrates his willingness to reflect on what motivates him—perhaps as writer, perhaps as a human being. Like the lemon tree burning itself out to make lemons, it makes me feel vulnerable to contemplate the “millions of stars within.” But just as Kooser has been “a little slice of miracle” in my life as a mentor and friend, so too, he encourages me to see the stars within myself, and cautions against the price of burning toward them.

His work can model this for all readers, and this year’s Festival of Books attendees have the opportunity to experience Kooser’s work in person. 

stewartchristine.jpgAbout the author: Poet, memoirist, professor and mother of two, Christine Stewart-Nuñez is fueled by painting and sculpture, international travel, medical science, world history and tensions in contemporary culture. She writes at the intersection of experience and research to figure life out, and she uses her work to help others make meaning, as well. She is the author of several poetry collections, most recently Untrussed, and her piece “An Archeology of Secrets” was a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2012.