Ted Kooser: A kindly uncle of a poet

Of the grand success of his first novel (tellingly titled, "This Side Of Paradise") F. Scott Fitzgerald confessed, "Riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again."

I can't imagine the poet, Ted Kooser, ever doing such a thing. And not because he is unfamiliar with the lofty summits of success. The same week it was announced that he had been selected to be our nation's Poet Laureate, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection, "Delights Shadows." Who can top that for a banner week?

No, I can't imagine him bawling in a cab over fleeting fame &

firstly, because he has said that he had never expected to be notable, outside of small literary circles, and, more importantly, because I believe him to be the least narcissistic author on the planet. And here lies (for my money) Ted Kooser's most important lesson about writing, and about living. He makes it his business to treat his readers with respect, even honor.

He'll tell you it wasn't always so. In a book I have learned much from, "The Poetry Home Repair Manual," he confesses, "I've inadvertently written lots of poems that meant nothing to anybody else, and I've mailed those poems to editors from coast to coast, hoping that they would be published, only to realize when they were rejected that I'd written them just for myself. . . You chose what to write and how to write it, but if you want to earn an audience for your work, you need to think about the interests, expectations, and needs of others, as well as how you present yourself to them." He recommends having an imaginary reader in mind when you write. "If you keep the shadow of that reader &

like a whiff of perfume &

in the room where you write, you'll be a better writer."

I think it might also make you a better person. You may not win the Pulitzer, but hey, what's the writing life really about anyway? As Thich Nhat Hanh has said, "We are on this earth to wake up from the illusion of our own separateness."

Ted Kooser writes about family, barn animals, bats, and mystified chickens. His colors come from middle-America, dishwater is one of them.

His writing is known for its clarity, precision and accessibility, but his accessibility is not at all about pandering for an audience. No, as I have suggested, it is about his respect for his readers. All of them.

Ted Kooser is, above all, a friendly poet. There are no ambushes in his poems. It's like sitting on the porch and being read to by a kindly uncle. Arguing against poets with angry agendas Kooser has said, "Being harangued by a poet rarely endears a reader." There you go.

Addressing the epidemic of cleverness in poems today, Kooser faults the witty for taking liberties with their audience:

"I am . . . extremely wary of over cleverness; there is a definite limit to how much intellectual showing off a stranger can tolerate."

Maybe this is why his poems are read by such a wide variety of readers. Here is what he has said about his own accessibility ""

"I would like to show average people, with a high school education or just a couple years of college, that they can understand poems. They are not to be afraid or feel they are being tricked by them. I'm trying to do that by example."

He comes from the William Carlos Williams, 'no ideas but in things" school of writing. Remember "the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain" poem you read in high school? Listen to this echo from Kooser:

A young woman in a wheelchair

wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,

is pushing herself through the morning.

You have seen how pianists

sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,

then lift their hands, draw back to rest,

then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.

Such is the way this woman

strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,

letting them float, then bends again to strike

just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.

So expertly she plays this difficult music she has mastered,

Her wet face beautiful in its concentration,

While the wind turns the pages of rain.

"" "A Rainy Morning," from "Delights Shadows"

Yes, we have all seen how pianists bend forward, attacking a score, a piano, but it takes a deft poet like Ted Kooser to show us that we have seen that move along every urban street all our lives without even knowing it. But that's what poetry, at its best, always does. Opens our blind eyes.

So, get your tickets now for an evening with the friendliest artist you'll ever spend an hour with. Ted Kooser will be at Ashland High School Auditorium Thursday, Oct. 25, at 7:30 p.m.

Scott Dalgarno is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Eugene.

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