Ted Kooser celebrated his 80th birthday this past April and is one of America’s most distinguished living poets. In 2004 he was named U. S. Poet Laureate, and his collection Delights & Shadows won the Pulitzer Prize.
He was born in Ames, Iowa, where he attended public school and college, getting his bachelor’s degree in 1962. He married after graduation, taught high school English for one year, then enrolled as a graduate student at The University of Nebraska in Lincoln, attracted there by the presence of Karl Shapiro, a celebrated American poet.
But he was a sluggard of a graduate student, interested only in writing poetry, and by the end of the first year his advisor cut off his assistantship. He then went to work at a life insurance company, thinking to make enough money to pay his tuition and finish his Master’s degree, but as it happened he worked in the life insurance business for the next 35 years, retiring as a vice president of a successful company when he was 60. His early retirement was precipitated by a bout with Stage IV head and neck cancer, and following surgery and radiation he accepted a part-time position as Visiting Professor at the university, where he has taught since, using the traditional tutorial method, which is uncommon in American universities.
Ted Kooser has published many books of poetry, nonfiction, and children’s stories, and his most recent collection of poetry is Kindest Regards; New and Selected Poems, from Copper Canyon Press (2018).
Highly recommended also is The Poetry Home Repair Manual, published by The University of Nebraska Press, in which he offers helpful suggestions for writers of poetry.
His website is www.tedkooser.net, where one can learn more and see a full listing of his books. You can also read, and hear him reading, some more of his poems.
The following poems are from a manuscript he has been preparing for eventual publication. It is tentatively entitled Red Stilts.
Ted Kooser: Six Poems
IN EARLY AUGUST
At dusk I glanced out one of our west windows
and saw a stirring in the golden air, the way
a glass of water stirs when some enormous truck
drives past, but this was dragonflies, a hundred
or more out hunting together, darting and diving,
snatching mosquitoes or gnats from the last light
of the afternoon. Each was its own, with its own
small part of the work to do, like men with sandbags
damming a rising tide, and what it was that they
were holding back, it seemed to me, was nightfall,
and they held it a long, long time as I looked on,
afraid to step outside and stand among them,
not knowing what there’d be that I could do.
It was one of those common goldfish bowls
in the shape of a mantel clock, curved sides
and a flat face front and back, two fish
with tails that swept along behind them
for the clock’s two hands, though they were
loose and swam through time, ahead and back,
with nothing to age or change, just hours
of kissing the lips of their own reflections
and swimming past the tilted plastic anchor
as each delivered a bubble, always the same
tiny bubble, bright as a bead of mercury,
up to the locked door of the aqua castle.
Oh, now and then a sprinkle of fish food
momentarily clouded the mirror above,
then, zigzag, drifted down, and the fish would
swirl as if dancing in veils to catch the flakes
as they fell. But that was all that happened,
ever. All was well. But when I awoke
from dreaming in that easy, timeless world
I had to leave the timeless part behind.
Most of the time it hung flat
down her flat front, like a shade
drawn over a window. No one
could see within her, or who
she really was, all grays behind it,
her legs below it, thin in loose
brown stockings coarse as burlap,
fallen in rings above her slippers,
their insteps slit for comfort.
Some afternoons in apple time
she’d be out in her yard, the hem
bunched up in one hand, forming
a basket, while with the other
she’d pick out only three or four
nice apples, leaving a hundred
hanging. Passing by, you wouldn’t
have noticed her inside the arms
of that tree, a cobbler’s worth
of apples clutched in her apron,
invisible woman, tilted a little
to favor the leg on the right.
From a fourth-story hotel window
looking out into rain, I watched
a starling make its way across
the low-sloping ribbed-metal roof
of a nearby building, hopping up
on each rib and then jumping down,
walking the spaces between them,
apparently intent on making it
on foot all the way over the roof
to its end, maybe seventy feet,
a distance any bird could cover
in an instant, flying. But no, this
starling was walking, although
the roofing was shiny with rain
and must have been slippery.
I expected that at any moment
it might give up and fly away,
but on it hopped and walked as if
unaware that someone might be
high up in a window watching.
And though I couldn’t hear it,
I supposed it was talking to itself
in the manner of starlings, and
enjoying the shine on its feet—
hop, step and hop—the roof
all the more vast for its efforts,
with me its witness, the two of us
joined by the rain to a bit of forever.
The garbage truck’s tires had left two keyboards
impressed in the snow, with the shadows of treads
for the sharps and flats, at least a hundred octaves
reaching far into a silence, and a tattered leaf
appeared as if out of thin air, sat down, and started
playing, first picking out a few simple scales, then
in a gust of breeze and confidence launched into
a complicated study composed for one hand,
too difficult, I would have thought, to be played
in front of songbirds, for there were cardinals,
finches and juncos perched in the nearby bushes,
but on it played, and after a while as the wind
came up and swelled around us, the leaves above
burst into spontaneous applause, some of them
standing, and the birds nodded, one to another,
and the leaf that had played got up and stiffly
turned toward me and bowed, then bowed again,
and I began to clap along with all the others.
He has been walking along among others,
all of them on their way somewhere else,
when his steps start to lag, and he stops,
and the others side-step out and around
as he stands there, a snag in a river, bent
a bit forward, his ordinary human head
shining a little, with no hat and thin hair,
his eyes halfway closed, his ordinary hands
first clenching, then opening again, as if
to a pulse, the others not seeming to notice.
And then, quite suddenly, he awakens
from wherever he went in that moment,
from whatever he’d stopped to peer into,
and he opens his eyes onto the brightness
that’s all over everything and everyone
passing around him, and he steps ahead
into the stream, not ever quite to catch up
with the others, but swinging his arms
a little more than he needs to, striding
away from whatever has happened.