Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser is a poet and essayist, a Presidential Professor of English at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He served as the U. S. Poet Laureate from 2004-2006, and his book Delights & Shadows won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. His writing is known for its clarity, precision and accessibility. The official website of Ted Kooser. His biography is found in many places, but I haven’t seen one that has been updated from 2006. For example, the one from Poets.org is good, but only goes to 2004. If I might be so bold to update the information I found on the internet,

Born in Ames, Iowa, in 1939, Ted Kooser is one of Nebraska’s most highly regarded poets and the country’s newest Poet Laureate of the United States. He earned a BS at Iowa State University in 1962 and the MA at the University of Nebraska in 1968. He is the author of thirteen collections of poetry, including Sure Signs (Pittsburgh, 1980), One World at a Time (Pittsburgh, 1985), Weather Central (Pittsburgh, 1994), Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison (Carnegie-Mellon UP, 2000), winner of the 2001 Nebraska Book Award for poetry, Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry (Copper Canyon, 2003), written with his longtime friend, Jim Harrison, Delights and Shadows (Copper Canyon, 2004), Flying at Night (Pittsburgh, 2005), and Valentines (Nebraska, 2007). He also wrote The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (Nebraska, 2005) His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The Hudson Review, The Kenyon Review, Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. His poems appear regularly in textbooks and anthologies currently in use in secondary schools and college classrooms across the country. Among other awards and distinctions he has received two NEA fellowships in poetry, the Pushcart Prize, the Stanley Kunitz Prize, The James Boatwright Prize, The Society of Midland Authors Prize (twice), and a Merit Award from the Nebraska Arts Council. A book of prose, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (U of Nebraska P, 2002), won the Nebraska Book Award for Nonfiction in 2003 and Third Place in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award in Nonfiction for 2002. The book was also chosen as the Best Book Written by a Midwestern Writer for 2002 by Friends of American Writers, and it won the Gold Award for Autobiography in ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Awards. His most recent book is Delights & Shadows (Copper Canyon Press, 2004), winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He is former vice-president of Lincoln Benefit Life, an insurance company, and lives on an acreage near the village of Garland, NE. He teaches as a Visiting Professor in the English department of the University of Nebraska — Lincoln.

The first poem I had seen of his was Heat Lightning and it was on Verse Daily. The astounding impact for a poem of such brevity is remarkable. He deftly handles the extended metaphor and uses everyday farm experiences to write this lovely love poem. Some consider him a master of the short poem. I would have to agree. Here are some comments I made about this poem. (Open the poem in a separate window.) Notice the following:

This lovely poem employs an extended metaphor of light for love through the use of echoes: (flashes of) heat lightning/(flashes from a) jiggling lamp/(flashes of) firefly hills/(flashes of moonlight in the inner surface of a metal pail) sloshing moonlight.

But there is a subtle subtext of love carried through those items as well:
heat lightning—the flashes of passionate love, and the line “is that you, my love, approaching/across the firefly hills” has a flavor of the approaching bridegroom for his bride in the sensuous passage in the Biblical text led the Song of Solomon, 1 July fireflies blink at each other in mating call, and the sloshing pail (of moonlight) brings to mind Jack and Jill. 2

Regardless, the short poem is rich with imagery of farm country which one can almost “hear,” too.

The rhythm and flow are perfect and the lines are the right length which gives pleasant rhythm to the ear; i.e. the syllabic count is a little variable (11, 9, 9; 9, 9, 7), but the stress count is more uniform (4, 4, 4; 4, 4, 3). But more important is the lyrical quality of the lines. For example, I like the use of the plosives b and p in the third line of the first verse and the sharp z and k sounds that go so well with lightning earlier in that verse. But all of this is tempered with plenty of sibilants, in particular the l sounds. And there is that great use of onomatopoeia with the “sloshing” moonlight. Though normally shunned, the use of the –ing words in the second verse work for my ear.

1 The voice of my beloved!
Behold, he cometh
leaping upon the mountains,
skipping upon the hills. (Song of Solomon 2:8)

2 This is a major stretch and seriously doubt Kooser intended this. I know that Jack and Jill refer to the French king, Louis XVI, who was beheaded, followed by his Queen Marie Antoinette (who came tumbling after), but time has a way of massaging this historical image, and vestiges of a romance remain when the rhyme is recited—in love head-over-heels, if you wish.

More of his poetry is on his website:
Flying At Night From Flying at Night
Carrie From Sure Signs
Father From Delights and Shadows
Skater From Delights and Shadows
Tattoo From Delights and Shadows
At The Cancer Clinic From Delights and Shadows

He hosts a weekly column, American Life in Poetry, a project of The Poetry Foundation and the Library of Congress. He brings very accessible poems to us. And he makes a brief introduction to the poem and artist. I highly recommend this as part of your reading diet.


5 Responses to Ted Kooser

  1. JAM says:

    Wow! I need to check his work out. Thanks for that link to his poetry.

  2. Richard Weaver says:

    I find Delights and Shadows a constant itch to answer by re-sampling. But, Braided Creek – a conversation in Poetry, is Kooser’s one book that always drives me to write. The back and forth poem swapmeet with Jim Harrison continues to offer up pleasures and treasures.

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