Ted Kooser was named Poet Laureate this week. His quiet poems and observations of Nebraska capture both mood and tempo of small town & farming plains life. A retired vice president of Lincoln Benefit Life, he has, rather quietly, built a body of work. This year he published Delights and Shadows. Ed Ochester, editor of the Pitt Poetry Series, which published his first collection, Sure Signs, in 1980 and three more collections of his poetry, says:
“His work ultimately deals with the everyday stress we encounter all around,” he said. “His works have a way of bringing a new understanding to ordinary life and, really, that’s what poetry is supposed to do.”
His fine creative non-fiction includes Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps.
A Happy Birthday – Ted Kooser
This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.
From Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser.
Local Wonders is permeated by the bittersweet laconic sensibility of plains farmers and the soft irony of their Bohemian wisdom. (Nebraska Czechs tended to be from urban Bohemia areas, musically sophisticated and often free thinkers.) Kooser remains understated as he mixes the real & present with the fictional & past – noting Willa Cather’s poignant Czech violinist, Mr. Shimerda (father of Antonia in My Antonia) who commits suicide at the blankness of that large flat (if ultimately wonderfully fertile) prairie.
You can find better tributes to Kooser elsewhere. I know little about contemporary poetry and admit my affection is tribal. (There aren’t all that many of us Nebraskans, even fewer that went through UNL in the sixties and heard of his poetry; I’m glad someone people said then would go far has). His work has a quiet mellow glow, like that of tools well used and well loved; it handles the simplicity of life among the Bohemian Alps, with the “Roosians” and Mennonites and Germans and Scandinavians as well as the Czechs.
I’d like to conclude with some of the folk wisdom Kooser weaves into his prose:
“A house without a woman is a meadow without dew.”
“Only a pumpkin is a head without cares.”
“He who places his ladder too steeply will easily fall backward.”
“The longest journey is from the mother to the door.”
”Do not choose your wife at a dance, but on the field amongst the harvesters.”
“A word which flies out of the mouth like a sparrow cannot be drawn back, even by four horses.”
He gives one power as he uses it to give structure to his narrative: “When God wishes to rejoice the heart of a poor man, He makes him lose his donkey and then find it again.” His short, moody descriptions of life in rural Nebraska quietly lead to the fight with cancer that also drained his ability to write; he triumphed and his rich later work, as well as this honor, followed.
In this tone is the one my friend Turek, from the other Czech belt, that along the southern tier of counties, chose for his father’s headstone:
Jak krasny je zivot! – “How beautiful life is.”
[It continues: “Where the sun is so brightly shining and the birds are so sweetly singing.” And I apologize to Czech readers – I didn’t know how to do the carkas on a & y in krasny and hacek on z in zivot.]