Ted Kooser interview with John Hoppenthaler
Ted, I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to ask a few questions of you.
In the recent introduction to a poem by Jack Cooper in your "American Life in Poetry" feature, you write, "All too often, poets shun simple, direct and earthy words like "tea" in favor of others that sound more sophisticated, like Earl Grey or Lapsang Souchong. But fancy words put experience at a greater distance.” Diction is such an important part of poetic craft and touches on so many aspects of a poem’s evocative power. For example, when a poet chooses Earl Grey over tea, the choice might have to do with the poem’s aural texture: perhaps Earl Grey creates a near rhyme with the phrase “food tray” embedded within the previous line.
When you write, “fancy words put experience at a greater distance,” however, I’m guessing that you are speaking to what, in a composition class, we would call “audience concerns.” That is, the question of “who am I writing this for” comes up, and that is a central question, I think, in American poetry these past few decades: as contemporary period styles have taken their cues from the models offered by various theoretical camps, as young poets do what they have always done—rebel against that which came before—have these poets created a greater chasm than ever between poets and the largest possible body of potential readers poetry might have? That “greater distance,” in some cases, seems even an intentional goal of certain experimental writers. And what does this mean for poetry in our historical moment? I might note, of course, that Robert Frost maintained his steadfastness to formal and linguistically direct poetry even as Modernism exploded all around him.
Good question! Audience concerns are indeed what I’m addressing. “American Life in Poetry” was conceived as a means of showing average newspaper readers that contemporary poetry is within the reach of their reading skills. So when I say something general about our poetry in those introductions, I’m addressing that broad base of “general” readers, not literary professionals. And I think that the reason our column has three and a half million readers worldwide has a good deal to do with my choices of poems that those average readers can appreciate. Anybody can write a poem that nobody can understand, and lots of writers have done that, but it can be very difficult to write a poem that several million people can understand and be moved by.
Modernism was, in general, a movement of exclusion, and hundreds of thousands of Americans who’d been reading the accessible poetry of the 19th century got left behind in the 20th by the exclusivity and elitism of the Moderns. You don’t have to read too much of Pound and Eliot to sense how many readers are being intentionally excluded. My teacher and mentor Karl Shapiro once said to me, “The Waste Land, Ted, was the first poem ever to require footnotes.” I once heard a noted American poet tell her audience that it was the responsibility of the readers to educate themselves to a level at which they could understand her poetry. And how do we feel about that?
As a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and having served as the Poet Laureate of the United States, your work will be examined well into the future—both by critics and by students of poetry. Is your legacy something you think about, something that concerns you? Modesty may prevent you from saying much about this, but is there some one thing or two that you hope will be said of your contributions to the poetry of our time by those poetry fans in the decades to come?
I’ve always hoped that I’d write a few poems that would endure, that is, be read now and then in fifty or even a hundred years. I won’t live to know whether that wish will come true. It’s nice to have devoted readers today, but a very big part of a living poet’s audience is mostly interested in the living poet, how he performs as a public person, living among them. Once a poet is dead the public persona begins to fall away and the poems are forced to carry all the water. That’s why they need to be written to hold up in print, without the poet there to read them. Too much emphasis on performance and not enough on the quality of the writing.
Like so many of your poems, the pieces in this month’s Congeries come out of ordinary moments; the narrators in these poems find themselves engaged with memory as it is conjured from close attention to ordinary objects and acts. In “An Antique Teacup,” the speaker is occupied in the task of going through boxes stored in the attic of memory and personal history. In “Backpack,” the speaker—sitting in a coffee shop—notices the many backpacks on the floor, and these become a metaphor for receptacles of memory as “slowly they fill up, again and again.” I’m reminded of a quote by Guy de Maupassant: “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.”
What part has memory and the quotidian played in your poems through the years, and do you see these things—as you approach eighty years on this planet—becoming more significant in your work?
Over the sixty years I’ve been trying to write poems it now seems my work has been in calling attention to the ordinary world, and with luck showing my readers that the world that’s right under their noses, which may have seemed boring a moment before, may be not so boring and ordinary after all.
Years ago I wrote a poem about field mice moving their nests out of the way of a plow in the planting season, and a woman who read the poem somewhere sent me a note to say that she’d never again be able to pass a plowed field in the spring without thinking of those mice, and I said to myself, “That’s my job!”
In the same vein, I was immediately taken with your poem “Parents.” My dad died early, at 57 (I’m now 56!), and my mom is playing out the string in a nursing home, the victim of a terrible stroke and dementia, non-verbal and unavailable to me as a parent. It was the word choice here—“dust rag and Pledge”—and the fact that husband and wife are both engaged in the domestic chore of keeping the house presentable—a metaphor itself—that really pulled me in. And, of course, it’s a ghost poem. I found myself suddenly among the ghosts of my own life. Your work has the power to allow a reader—via the poems’ details and specificity—immediate access to that which, in our own lives, seems akin to what you are writing about and we are suddenly into something like our own poem even as we complete the reading of yours. I think part of that is how inviting your poems are, and maybe part of it has to do with the things we spoke of a minute ago—plain diction and attention to life’s ordinary—and therefore easily transferrable—moments. How much of this is innate and how much is craft?
I like very much what you said, John, “…we are suddenly into something like our own poem even as we complete the reading of yours.” That’s exactly what I hope will happen. I want to be your poet, that is, to write poems that mean something to you. What they’ve meant to me doesn’t interest me much.
Craft, for me, is a tool of revision. I think very little about it while I am writing a first or second draft. In those early hours I am just trying to get all the parts onto the table. Arranging them and discarding the unnecessary pieces comes later.
I’ve never seen you as a political poet. Your poems—so grounded in your Nebraska landscape—rarely display anger. You’ve often mentioned—in interviews—that yours was a happy childhood, so perhaps some of this can be chalked up to that. Or perhaps it is in itself a political statement for your poems to steer clear of such things and attend instead to matters that are more timeless. In a 2004 New York Times interview with Deborah Solomon, she asks, “what enrages you?” and you answer—evasively?—“Hitting my thumb with a hammer or dropping a cement block on my foot.” For better or worse, readers have traditionally looked to their poets for guidance and a clearer understanding of the confusion that so often surrounds us. Poets as diverse as Whitman, Yeats, and Claudia Rankine have addressed political situations specifically. No one can deny that we are in a politically fraught, roiling historical moment in America. From your unique perspective in the heartland of poetry, as one who has seen so much come and go, I will ask again Solomon’s question—as it may now pertain to politics—to see if you might be less reticent today: what enrages you?
What enrages me? Well, at this moment, it’s not rage (a rare emotion for me) but a terrible sadness that millions of Americans have elected, in desperate hope, a man whose promises aren’t going to come true.
I hope you don’t mind me relating a bit of our email back and forth concerning the publication of these poems. When you agreed to send me poems for the Congeries, you wrote, “ I've done almost no previous on line publication but perhaps it's time I got with it, eh?” Might I ask you why you’ve decided to take the leap?
I still prefer paper and ink, John, but I like to convince myself that in my seventies I can still be a part of what’s going on in the world.
An Antique Teacup
The crumpled old newspapers opened reluctantly:
why go over those troubles again? And the cup
that they’d cradled was cold as a handful of snow
after years in that unheated attic. What seemed
weightless had once held a whole neighborhood,
forgotten one sip at a time, not even leaving the stain
of the gossip. Or perhaps it had grown ever lighter
by the weight of each hand that had set it down
empty, each time more empty than the time before,
marked by the inimitable chime of a fine china cup
placed back in its saucer, the same note as the bell
in an elevator as it slowly ascends floor to floor,
carrying a few fading voices up into the darkness
and absence at the top of the shaft.
Mine was a Crosley, the size of a box
of saltines, with a bone-white Bakelite case
that I had removed so as to peer down
into the miniature city inside,
skyscrapers of vacuum tubes with every light
on every floor left burning, and the voices
of everyone else in the world, all talking
at once, some of them singing—Bing Crosby,
Kate Smith, Doris Day—and me far above,
tipping the wings of my blue and white Cessna
as I buzzed through my hot attic room, after dark,
the light out above me and the city below.
On the floor by a chair in a coffee house,
this one settles and sighs, female I think,
by the flow of its softness, but more tulip
than woman, one of those gray-blue varieties,
its top unzipped and partly open, the pistil
and stamen showing only a little, two shining
pink metal crochet hooks rising out of a wad
of pink yarn. And now I see more of them,
beside other chairs, pushed under the tables,
each of them lopped from its stem, some red,
a few yellow, the petals zipped shut but for
three or four that gape open, the soft rain
of small talk beginning to fill them. And like
tulips they lean as they fill, and tip out
whatever they’ve gathered, maybe an apple,
a bottle of water, a splash of notebooks
that spreads over the floor, and the talkers,
still talking, lean down to straighten them,
and slowly they fill up, again and again.
My dead parents try to keep out of my way.
When I enter a room they have already left it,
gone off to find something that ought to be done
elsewhere in the house, my dad rolling the Hoover,
my mother with dust rag and Pledge. At times
I’ve heard their old slippers, pattering away
down the hall, or seen for only an instant
what might be the hem of her skirt as it swept
through a door. I leave all the cleaning supplies
where they’re easy to find, and they seem to last
forever. “You don’t need to go!” I call out
through the echoing rooms, but they’ve never
turned back. They leave the floors shining
behind them, and remember to turn off the lights.
Kooser Photo Credit: Matt Valentine