Meet Ted Kooser, the U. S. Poet Laureate
By Norm Winick
Poet Laureate of the United States Ted Kooser spoke to a packed hall at the Burlington Golf Club Saturday evening. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Kooser, a visiting professor at the University of Nebraska, lives in the country near Garland, Nebr., not too far from Lincoln. He is the first Poet Laureate from the great plains.
He read a selection of his poems, many of which celebrate everyday people and events with metaphors and humor. They are generally very short because, he says, “I like to keep my poems to one thought or story and I don’t like writing long works – and I especially don’t like reading long ones.”
Kooser received his loudest applause when he explained that the Poet Laureate is named by the Library of Congress and has nothing to do with the administration in Washington or with politics. The job comes with a $35,000 annual stipend funded by private foundations and contributions. He is expected to promote poetry across the nation. He does so with a weekly newspaper column and readings in diverse locations.
While his love has always been poetry, Kooser worked in the insurance industry for 35 years, doubting he could ever make a living writing poetry. He woke up early every day and wrote for several hours before work. He still writes early every morning for a few hours. 2005 was a very productive year for him, winning the Pulitzer Prize for his collection “Delights & Shadows” and being named Poet Laureate. Both came as total surprises.
“I was just sitting at home one day when a call came from Washington, from a man at the Library Congress. He asked, ‘are you Ted Kooser?’ I said, ‘yes.’ He asked, ‘the poet?’ I said, “I like to think so.’ He asked, ‘would you be interested in serving as Poet Laureate?’ I was floored. He offered to call back the next day for an answer. I went to the garage to take a drive and think about this. While backing out of the garage, I hit the door frame and knocked the driver’s side rear view mirror off the car. Being poet laureate already had become an expensive proposition.”
“I was checking my email up in the attic of my house one day and there was an urgent message from the public relations department at the University of Nebraska. It read, ‘we need a statement from you in response to winning the Pulitzer Prize.’ That was the first I had heard of it. I didn’t know if it was a joke or not and I went outside to sit in a pile of leaves to ponder and up walks a photographer from the Omaha World-Herald. I guess it was real.”
“The Pulitzers are announced by Columbia University and they are very steeped in tradition. They notify the winners by Western Union Telegraph. There hasn’t been a telegraph office in Garland, Nebr. since World War II. I never did receive their notification.”
In a conversation after his reading, Kooser related his respect for Carl Sandburg. “We both are not part of the East coast poetry establishment and write about everyday things we see or experience.” “Sandburg, indirectly, had a big influence on my deciding to stick with poetry. I was riding the train once, many years ago, from Nebraska to Chicago. As we approached Galesburg, the conductor announced, ‘next stop, Galesburg, birthplace of poet Carl Sandburg.’ I realized right then that there might be something to this poetry business.”
The Urine Specimen
In the clinic, a sun-bleached shell of stone
on the shore of the city, you enter
the last small chamber, a little closet
chastened with pearl, cool,
and over the chilly well of the toilet
you trickle your precious sum in a cup.
It’s as simple as that. But the heat
of this gold your body’s melted and poured out
into a form begins to enthrall you,
warming your hand with your flesh’s fevers
in a terrible way. It’s like holding
an organ — spleen or fatty pancreas,
white, and glistening,
a lobe from your foamy brain still steaming
with worry. You know that just outside
a nurse is waiting to cool it into a gel
and slice it onto a microscope slide
for the doctor, who in it will read your future,
wringing his hands. You lift the chalice and toast
the long life of your friend there in the mirror,
who wanly smiles, but does not drink to you.