October 11, 2004

Worthy Laureate


In case you failed to notice it, the United States has a new poet laureate, Ted Kooser. For once, this office seems to be filled by someone worthy of the honor. "What could possibly be wrong with a world in which everybody was trying to write poems?" Kooser said. "Is that not better than watching 'Survivor' or engaging in some sort of nefarious, stupid activity?" -- Omaha.com

Two by Kooser.

After Years

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.


In January   Only one cell in the frozen hive of night is lit, or so it seems to us: this Vietnamese café, with its oily light, its odors whose colorful shapes are like flowers.

Laughter and talking, the tick of chopsticks.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.
A great wind rushes under all of us.
The bigger the window, the more it trembles.

What is there about the Plains states that provides us with poets of plain speech? Is it the effect on the soul of the vaulting sky running from one end of the eye's reach to the other with no interruption? Perhaps it could be the constant bass note of being cast adrift on the land's ocean. In any case, from before and after Sandberg, we see a long line of poets who can look a man in the eye and tell them what it means to be here, now, and engaged in a poetry that knows that "mind" and "body" are words written on the same stone.

In an interview Kooser allows, "The really clear and accessible poem that I could sell to a general audience does not get the critical attention, so it never has the reputation of being among the great poems. I try very hard to write poems that people can understand."

And that, in the end, is the hardest poetry to write.

Some books by Kooser are Here.

Posted by Vanderleun at October 11, 2004 11:30 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

For once, this office seems to be filled by someone worthy of the honor.

It has been filled by someone worthy before: the first US poet laureate, Robert Penn Warren (All the King's Men, etc; first writer to win Pulitzer for both fiction and poetry).

Thanks for bringing this to our attention; I haven't seen it anywhere else.

Posted by: Johnny Walker Red at October 11, 2004 12:47 PM

Yes, you are correct in that. Warren gets my vote. I should have qualified it as the first in a long time.

Posted by: Van der Leun at October 11, 2004 1:13 PM

I wonder if Laura Bush had any influence here.

Posted by: Yehudit at October 11, 2004 2:06 PM

Although Robert Penn Warren was the first to be called Poet Laureate, he previously held the same position (in 1945) when it was called Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress - a post later held by Conrad Aiken, William Carlos Williams, and (the poet of poets) Robert Frost.

Anyway, congratulations to Ted Kooser.

Posted by: Glen Wishard at October 11, 2004 2:43 PM

Something about those poems from Kooser reminds me of another favorite poet of mine -- and another Poet Laureate of the United States: the late, sadly under-appreciated Robinson Jeffers.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at October 11, 2004 3:22 PM

Call me hopelessly unsophisticated and out-of-date, but couldn't someone occasionally write a poem that rhymes? Or would the poet immediately run off to Nashville to cash in?

Posted by: slimedog at October 11, 2004 3:48 PM

Two great choices Gerard. I was really moved by "After Years". Someone else who's books I will now have to buy. Good poets are so few and far between. Thanks for letting us know.

Posted by: Bill at October 11, 2004 6:05 PM

Anybody ever read Mark Strand? He was Laureate for a while in the 80's, and I like some of what I've seen. But I admit I'm ignorant of any others we've had, besides Warren and now Kooser. Anyway, thanks again for the information. It's good to know, and I look forward to reading more of him.

Posted by: Johnny Walker Red at October 11, 2004 7:21 PM

I read with Ted at the National Mall on Saturday. RPWarren was my tutor at Yale, Mark Strand was my teacher. Lauriates? Consultants in Poetry to the LOC? It's a continuum. There have been four who to my taste have been major figures in American Poetry. Auden, Frost, Wilbur and Hecht. Red Warren is in a separate class, a major man of letters. All the King's Men and his work as a critic make him a damn important figure in American lit. I don't much read the poetry anymore.

Posted by: Timothy Murphy at October 13, 2004 9:50 AM