Pulitzer Prize winner and Poet Laureate Ted Kooser talks to the Yonder about finding inspiration in everyday things and writing poetry as an act of affirmation.
Ted Kooser’s poetry is a collection of moments, simply described but carrying great meaning. He shares small but profound insights about human relationships, how we relate to our past, and what it is to live in America. Poetry critic Ed Hirsch wrote of Kooser, "Many of his poems have a distinctly Midwestern feel, which may reflect the poet’s upbringing in Ames, Iowa, and his current home in Lyons, Nebraska." Kooser began writing in his teens, but spent much of his adult life working for an insurance company in Nebraska after leaving the graduate writing program at the University of Nebraska in 1963. He remained in the insurance business for over 30 years, but continued to write poetry in the mornings before he left for work. In 1980, at the age of 41, Kooser published his first book of poetry, Sure Signs. Since then, he has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and served as Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. Kooser’s most recent collection, Splitting an Order, was published in October of last year. Kooser spoke with The Daily Yonder about his curiosity about strangers, his ability to see things that often go unnoticed, and why he likes to stay at home. You can read some of Kooser’s poems on his website.
Daily Yonder: You’ve been publishing poetry for 50 years. How has your poetry changed over time?
Ted Kooser: My earliest poems were imitations of poetry I admired. In my first book I can easily identify, say, the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem, the May Swenson poem, the William Carlos Williams poem, and so on. The influence of other writers is still there in my poems, but there have been so many influences over the years that they can no longer be separated and identified. And over the years I’ve very gradually learned who I am, and how to write out of myself.
DY: On your website, you say that you’ve made it a specialty to look at things in the Nebraska landscape that often go unnoticed. Why do you think it’s important to write about things people might not take the time to see?
TK: Maybe forty years ago I published a poem, “Spring Plowing,” about field mice moving their nests into a fencerow to be safe from the plow, and a woman who had seen the poem wrote to me and said that she would never again pass a freshly plowed field without thinking of those mice, and it came to me at once, “This is my job, to show people new ways of looking at things!” And that’s what I’ve done.
DY: Some of your poetry takes place in cities, but so much of it has a distinctly small town feel. Why are you drawn to writing about small towns?
TK: I’ve written lots of poems about people I’ve observed in cities, but because I like to isolate my subjects, to push all the other people out of the frame and thus put the focus on one or two people, it may seem that my subjects are walking the streets in small towns. I don’t think I could write a poem in which I described a crowd. For me a crowd is a lot of separate poems standing around together.
DY: The title poem of your 2005 collection Flying at Night reads:
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.
The image of the farmer’s light in contrast with the multitude of lights from the cities is very striking. How did this image become a poem?
TK: I really have no idea. I very rarely have any ideas, any rational or calculating thoughts. Things just happen. I get caught up in the writing and it takes me wherever it seems to be going. Most of the time it takes me nowhere good, but sometimes I’m lucky.
DY: Even when you’re describing scenes that carry emotional pain, your poems exude a gentle optimism. Is this a choice, or is it just a reflection of how you view the world?
TK: The act of writing a poem is an affirmation. In fact, all of the arts are affirmative, even celebratory. We are given this world, with all its joys and sorrows, and artists make an effort to celebrate this gift. I remember my teacher, Karl Shapiro, once saying that the proper response to a work of art is joy, even hilarity. We see a great movie like “Schindler’s List,” which is hip deep in loss and sadness, and we say to each other as we leave the theater, “Wasn’t that beautiful?”
DY: You’re also an educator. Currently a professor at University of Nebraska, you’ve also taught high school. Does teching impede or enhance your writing?
TK: Any interaction with others can be good for a writer. We profit by being out there in the world. I greatly enjoy teaching at the university, partly because the graduate students I meet with are already committed to writing. I teach privately, in the tutorial style, meeting each student for an hour a week, in my office, and we talk about what they’ve been writing since we last met.
DY: So many of your poems are about people you see in passing—at a diner, in a store, walking down the street. Have you always had a curiosity about the inner lives of strangers?
TK: Yes, I suppose I have. From childhood I seem to have dreamed myself into the lives of others: What would it be like to live in that house, with those people? What would it feel like to be that man, looking out of his homely face? What would it be like to be handsome?
DY: You’ve been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, served as the Poet Laureate, and received countless other accolades. Is it difficult to stay grounded and writing about the simple details of every day life after receiving so much praise?
TK: I’m very thankful to have survived into my 70s, and to have had grateful readers, and to have received those honors, but I earned those readers and honors by sitting by myself, writing, morning after morning, and I have always known that my best work comes out of isolation. My writing has brought me into contact with thousands of people, but at every public appearance I have wished I could be at home with my wife and my books and my dog.