NDSU Magazine logo -Spring 2006

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Vol. 06, No. 2


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Laureate Ted Kooser

Laureate Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser is a poet and essayist, professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and a Pulitzer Prize winner. His writing is known for its clarity, precision and accessibility. He worked in the life insurance business, retiring in 1999 as a vice president. He spoke at North Dakota State University in March.

Selecting a Reader Ted Kooser

First, I would have her be beautiful, and walking carefully up on my poetry at the loneliest moment of an afternoon, her hair still damp at the neck from washing it. She should be wearing a raincoat, an old one, dirty from not having money enough for the cleaners. She will take out her glasses, and there in the bookstore, she will thumb over my poems, then put the book back up on its shelf. She will say to herself, "for that kind of money, I can get my raincoat cleaned." And she will.

From Sure Signs, 1980 - University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa.

I started out as an architecture major and sort of flunked out of architecture and stumbled into the English department. By then I was already interested in writing poems. My primary motivation in wanting to be a poet was girls.

I had no talent for business at all but I've often looked back on my business career -- and I've talked to a lot of students about this -- the reason I was able to ascend, eventually to a vice presidency of a pretty good sized insurance company, was because I could write complete sentences and paragraphs.

All this time I was trying to write. Every morning I would get up at 4:30 and I would write until 7 o'clock and then I'd grab some breakfast and put on a tie.

The fact that I am now Poet Laureate of the United States is really about the fact that I have been trying to be a writer pretty much every day for almost 50 years. I have worked at it.

I'm a person of relatively average intelligence I would guess.

I have a limited vocabulary, but poetry is a skill and I have been working on this skill all these years.

Poetry doesn't have to be impossibly difficult. There are people who are very deeply invested in difficult, challenging poetry. They don't much like what I'm doing but I happen to be in the seat right now.

I think we all could probably write poetry. I'm sure only a few of us are ever going to write great poetry. But it is an activity that everybody could be engaged in and we'd all be the better for it. What would be wrong with a world in which everyone was trying to write poems, considering how we spend our time watching reruns of Jeopardy? It's a way of clarifying your thoughts, a way of helping you think through things.

I happen to have been given a talent for metaphor and I have found that metaphor is a difficult thing to teach. But everyone else could have something else.

When I was just starting out I wrote with tremendous restraint, as far as emotional restraint. I would let out a little glimpse of feeling once in a while but the poems were very cool and very hard, and then in later years I have been much more comfortable with at least talking a little bit more about how I was feeling.

When I'm writing well I'm paying very close attention to what's going on around me.

If at the end of the year I have eight to ten poems that I think are worthy of publication, that's really a good year for me.

We have poets all over this country who have been carping for years and years about the fact that people won't buy books of poems. It needs to occur to them at some point that people will buy books of poems if we are writing books of poems that they want to buy. We have to write books that people really want to buy, more than they want to get their raincoat cleaned.

I use 9 x 12 spiral bound artists sketchbooks.

I don't know how this works, really. I wish I did know, because if I really knew how, I could get through that little door every day and there'd be a lot more poems.

As a poet you learn by reading other poetry. The more you read the better you're likely to get at it. I ask my graduate students to read 100 poems for every one they try to write.

A poem is a way of appreciating and celebrating life and the ordinary day-to-day world that in a way has a political content to it. It is a kind of low-level patriotism.

Writing well is hard. Writing with an audience in mind is harder. Giving it to the audience is harder still.

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.