Ted Kooser | Poetry Foundation (2024)

Ted Kooser is known for his poetry and essays that celebrate the quotidian and capture a vanishing way of life. Poet and critic Brad Leithauser wrote in the New York Times Book Review that, “Whether or not he originally set out to…[Kooser’s] become, perforce, an elegist.” Populated by farmers, family ancestors, and heirlooms, Kooser’s poems reflect his abiding interest in the past while offering clear-eyed appraisal of its hardships. While Kooser’s work often treats themes like love, family and the passage of time, Leithauser noted that “Kooser’s poetry is rare for its sense of being so firmly and enduringly rooted in one locale.” His collections of poetry include Delights and Shadows (2004), Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985 (2005), Splitting an Order (2016), and Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems (2018). In partnership with the Poetry Foundation, Kooser founded “American Life in Poetry,” which offers a free weekly poem to newspapers across the United States. The aim of the program is to raise the visibility of poetry. Kooser’s other publications, including The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (2005) and Writing Brave and Free (2006), offer help to aspiring poets and writers, both in the guise of practical writing tips and essays on poetry, poets, and craft. Commenting on his writing, Kooser has said, “I write for other people with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.”

Though Kooser does not consider himself a regional poet, his work often takes place in a recognizably Midwestern setting; when Kooser was named US poet laureate in 2004, he was described by the librarian of Congress as “‘the first poet laureate chosen from the Great Plains.” However, David Mason in the Prairie Schooner saw Kooser’s work as more than merely regional. Kooser, Mason wrote, “has mostly made short poems about perception itself, the signs of human habitation, the uncertainty of human knowledge and accomplishment.” In his book Can Poetry Matter, the critic Dana Gioia described Kooser as a “popular poet”—not one who sells millions of books, but “popular in that unlike most of his peers he writes naturally for a nonliterary public. His style is accomplished but extremely simple—his diction drawn from common speech, his syntax conversational. His subjects are chosen from the everyday world of the Great Plains, and his sensibility, though more subtle and articulate, is that of the average Midwesterner. Kooser never makes an allusion that an intelligent but unbookish reader will not immediately grasp. There is to my knowledge no poet of equal stature who writes so convincingly in a manner the average American can understand and appreciate.” Gioia argued that it is Kooser’s interest in providing “small but genuine insights into the world of everyday experience” that cut him off from the “specialized minority readership that now sustains poetry.”

Though Gioia noted that Kooser has “not received sustained attention from academic critics,” he is considered by some to be among the best poets of his generation. However, Kooser’s fame—including a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry—came late in his career. Kooser began writing in his late teens and took a position teaching high school after graduating from Iowa State University in 1962. He enrolled in the graduate writing program at the University of Nebraska but essentially flunked out a year later. Realizing that he had to make a living, Kooser took an entry-level job with an insurance company in Nebraska. He would remain in the industry until 1999, eventually becoming a vice-president of Lincoln Benefit Life Company. Throughout his insurance career, Kooser wrote poems, usually from about five-thirty to seven o’clock each morning before he went to the office. Kooser has wryly noted that, though both he and Wallace Stevens spent their working lives as insurance executives, Stevens had far more time to write on the job.

Kooser’s early work attends to the subjects that continue to shape his career: the trials and troubles of inhabitants of the Midwest, heirlooms and objects of the past, and observation of everyday life. Kooser’s first new and selected, Sure Signs (1980) was critically praised. The Black Warrior Book Review maintained it “could well become a classic precisely because so many of the poems are not only excellent but are readily possessible.” In Blizzard Voices (1986), Kooser records the devastation of the “Children’s Blizzard” of 1888, using documents written at the time as well as reminisces recorded later. The Omaha World-Herald called it a “reader’s theater … short but powerful.” The well-observed truths of Kooser’s next book, Weather Central (1994), led Booklist critic Ray Olson to note that “the scenes and actions in [Kooser’s] poetry (especially the way that, in several poems, light—the quintessential physical reality on the plains—is a virtually corporeal actor) will seem, to paraphrase Pope, things often seen but ne’er so well observed.” In the late 1990s, Kooser developed cancer and gave up both his insurance job and writing. When he began to write again, it was to paste daily poems on postcards he sent in correspondence with his friend and fellow writer Jim Harrison. The result was the collection of poems called Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison (2001). In poems both both playful and serious, Kooser avoids talking directly about his illness. Rather, he refers to disease and the possibility of dying in metaphors focusing on the countryside around his Nebraska home, where he took long walks for inspiration. Kooser’s gift for simile and metaphor is notable: “Kooser is one of the best makers of metaphor alive in the country, and for this alone he deserves honor,” wrote Mason in a review of Winter Morning Walks for Prairie Schooner.

Kooser’s essay collections include Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (2002) and Lights on a Ground of Darkness (2009). Both volumes meditate on place and family. The essays in Local Wonders cover one year, or four seasons, in the author’s life. Although Kooser reflects on his younger days, the essays focus largely on the details of his current life and surroundings. In a contribution to Writer, Kate Flaherty said, “Kooser’s meditations on life in southeastern Nebraska are as meticulous and exquisite as his many collections of poetry, and his quiet reticence and dry humor are refreshing in this age of spill-it-all memoirs.” Lights on a Ground of Darkness focuses on Kooser’s family, especially his Uncle Elvy. David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times described the book as “written in a prose as spare as a winter sunset,” adding that “it is an elegy, not just for Kooser’s forebears but for all of us.”

For Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry (2003) Kooser again teamed up with Harrison to publish their correspondence consisting of entirely short poems written to each other while Kooser was recovering from cancer. Writing in Poetry, contributor Ray Olson noted that “wit and wisdom” are the mainstay of these correspondences. Olson added, “Their conversation always repays eavesdropping.” Kooser’s next book, Delights and Shadows (2004) went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In the Washington Post poet and critic Ed Hirsch noted that “there is a sense of quiet amazement at the core of all Kooser’s work, but it especially seems to animate his new collection of poems.” Describing the work as “a book of portraits and landscapes … small wonders and hard dualisms,” Hirsch compared Kooser’s art to other Great Plains’ poets who write “an unadorned, pragmatic, quintessentially American poetry of empty places, of farmland and low-slung cities,” crafting poems of “sturdy forthrightness with hidden depths.”

When Kooser was named America’s national poet laureate in 2004, the honor coincided with the publication of Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985 (2005), a collection of his previously published poetry. At the time, the self-effacing poet was by no means a household name. However, Kooser used his post as laureate to further the cause of poetry with a general reading audience, founding “American Life in Poetry,” and writing the critically acclaimed Poetry Home Repair Manual. Kooser’s most recent collections include Splitting and Order and Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems, which James Crew reviewed in the North American Review. Crews noted that “these poems train us to pay attention to what we might be tempted to ignore in pursuit of the louder and more colorful entertainments now available to us at the touch of a screen. Yet even the briefest moments that Kooser preserves can lead us more deeply into our own lives.”

Kooser teaches poetry and nonfiction at the University of Nebraska, and continues to write. “I waste very little time anymore,” he said an interview for the University of Nebraska English Department newsletter. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, his many honors and awards include the Nebraska Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Stanley Kunitz Prize, a Merit Award from the Nebraska Arts Council and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ted Kooser | Poetry Foundation (2024)


What is Ted Kooser nationality? ›

Ted Kooser (born April 25, 1939, Ames, Iowa, U.S.) is an American poet, whose verse is noted for its tender wisdom and its depiction of homespun America.

What is the meaning of the poem "abandoned farmhouse"? ›

Instead, he is a poet who draws from specific details of life in the Great Plains to create widely accessible poems exploring universal themes. “Abandoned Farmhouse” looks at loss, isolation, and perception in its cataloguing of items left behind.

What once was meant to be a statement "A dripping dagger held in the fist"? ›

When the man was younger—the speaker concludes—he got a tattoo of a “dripping dagger in the fist / of a shuddering heart” (Lines 2-3). He did so as a “statement” (Line 1), perhaps to show the world he'd lost love or faced betrayal, the traditional meaning of such a tattoo.

What emotion does the poet want the readers to feel while reading the poem "Abandoned Farmhouse"? ›

Answer and Explanation:

The mood that dominates the poem is somber, melancholy, and subdued. The poet speaks of a farmhouse that holds pieces of evidence of a family living there.

When did Ted Kooser write abandoned farmhouse? ›

First published in 1980 with Kooser's collection Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems, the poem uses open verse, simple diction and personification of inanimate objects to infer a family's story and possible reasons for their departure, through observation of their abandoned home.

What was a personal or professional obstacle Kooser faced? ›

Although Kooser has been writing poetry for most of his adult life, he had what he calls an avocation in the insurance industry. Kooser was forced to drop out of graduate school because he says he only wanted to write poetry, and neglected his other schoolwork.

What went wrong in the poem "Abandoned Farmhouse"? ›

The Abandoned Farmhouse

Failure is because the farmer was not much of a successful farmer and he failed his family to provide the things they need to be happy. Abandonment is because the wife and child abandoned the husband which causes the entire family to abandon the barn.

What kind of event is kooser trying to portray in abandoned farmhouse? ›

In the poem “Abandoned Farmhouse” by Ted Kooser, the effects of failure is present in the family that is torn apart by an unsuccessful career. Through diction, imagery and symbolism, Kooser conveys the damaging lasting effects of abandonment and failure.

What does "dusty with sun" mean? ›

The other examples of earth in the poem further the connection between earth and futility. The upstairs floor is “dusty with sun” (Line 6). Those fine, dry particles revealed in the light are signs of neglect. There is no one there to clean or care.

What is the summary of tattoo by Ted Kooser? ›

“Tattoo” is a 15-line poem in which the speaker observes an old man at a yard sale. The speaker sees that the heart and dagger tattoo the man once got to show the world he was heartbroken is now barely recognizable, having faded with time. The man's aging skin now merely looks bruised.

What is the theme of the tattoo by Ted Kooser? ›

The issue the speaker describes is how time changes a person. Another way this poem can be read is that tattoos can tell a personal story. Many people conform judgments on a person, based on tattoos. Some of those people who have tattoos are images representing something meaningful, while others are drunken mistakes.

What does that tattoo mean in a poem? ›

One way to interpret this poem is viewing the tattoo as being used as imagery. This imagery explains how elderly men are constantly trying to live the way they did when they were young. This point of view is obvious in the poem, but it is not the primary controversy being addressed in the poem.

Why is the poet sure that there was a woman in the house? ›

The poet is sure that there was a woman in the house because there is a dress hanging in an upstairs closet . 4. The poet assumes that the people who lived in the house left in a nervous haste because there are many things left behind such as food on plates and clothes hanging in closets .

What is an example of personification in the poem Abandoned Farmhouse? ›

The shoes, the bed, the “Bible with a broken back” tell their stories as pieces of information left behind in seemingly hasty eviction; the personification of these objects paints this picture.

What is the sadness that the poet refers to in keeping quiet? ›

The poet refers to the 'sadness' of failing to understand oneself in the monotonous existence of everyday life. He also finds it sad that humanity is moving towards its own ruins, owing to its unprecedented actions. He regrets that the rush to out-maneuver others has made one forget the values of humanity.

Who are the famous midwestern poets? ›

A number of Native American poets who have lived or are now living in the Midwest whose work has been published and appreciated widely include Jim Barnes, Adrian Louis, Louise Eldritch, Ray Young Bear, Roberta Hill Whitman, and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn.

Where is Robert Southey born? ›

Born: Aug. 12, 1774, Bristol, Gloucestershire, Eng. The son of a linen draper, Southey spent much of his childhood at Bath in the care of his aunt, Elizabeth Tyler.

Who wrote Home is the Hunter Home from the Hill? ›

Home from the Hill is a phrase from Robert Louis Stevenson's poem (and epitaph), Requiem, the last two lines of which read: Home is the sailor, home from sea, And the hunter home from the hill.

Who wrote the peace of wild things? ›

"The Peace of Wild Things" is a poem by American poet, novelist, essayist, farmer, and environmentalist Wendell Berry. It was first published in Openings: Poems (1968), one of Berry's early collections of poetry, and was reprinted in 1985 in Berry's Collected Poems, 1957-1982.


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