Retired insurance man puts a premium on verse
Meet the new poet laureate of the United States
Ted Kooser isn't embarrassed to say that the poems he wrote in grade school were decidedly ordinary: "I love my dog/ his padded paws/ at Christmas he's my/ Santa Claus." He doesn't try to hide the fact that as a teenager "my impulse toward poetry had a lot to do with girls." Mr. Kooser, a retired insurance executive, even admits to knocking the side-view mirror off his car after being named poet laureate of the United States in August. He was so excited, he says in a phone interview, that he didn't pay attention as he backed out of his driveway in Garland, Neb.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Some poets might not mention those stories, cultivating instead a more worldly image. But for Kooser, the first US laureate from the Plains States, ordinary moments are the impetus for art. His poems are like flashlights illuminating small dramas: a father watching his son get married; a tattoo that has faded; a brown recluse spider walking inside the bathtub. The setting may be rural America, but the scene is universal. That resonance, along with his clear, graceful style, have earned him numerous awards, including two NEA fellowships and a Pushcart Prize. Yet what really makes Kooser a "thoroughly American laureate" - as predecessor Billy Collins has called him - is not just his approach but the way his perspective seems to mirror that of "average" Americans.
"Most of us would prefer to look at cartoons in a magazine than read a poem," says Kooser, noting the common complaint that poetry is hard to decipher or full of elusive, hidden meanings. "In the real world, if you come across a poem, who says, 'Study it'? If it doesn't do anything for you, you just move on."
Kooser wants readers to linger, of course, which is why he works so hard to make his poems clear - sometimes going through 40 or 50 drafts. One of his best critics, he says, is his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, editor of the Lincoln Journal Star.
A few years ago at Lincoln Benefit Life, he showed poems to his secretary. If she didn't understand them, he'd revise. "I never want to be thought of as pandering to a broad audience," he says, "but you can tweak a poem just slightly and broaden the audience very much. If you have a literary allusion, you limit the audience. Every choice requires a cost-benefit analysis."
Kooser has done several "risk analyses" regarding his career choices, too, each of which pushed him toward a literary life, albeit in a circuitous way.
The first came during his undergraduate years at Iowa State, where he majored in architecture until his junior year. That's when the math and the physics "killed me," he says. He switched into classes that would allow him to teach high school English.
After a year of teaching high school, he began a master of arts program at the University of Nebraska, but again there was an unexpected detour. The problem: He was so focused on his studies with poet Karl Shapiro that he let his other classes slide. The solution: he began working in the insurance industry, a career that lasted 35 years.
Such decisions might sound more practical than poetic. But in his life, as in his work, the extraordinary stems from the ordinary. "I liked the money and the benefits. I liked the structure, too," he says of the corporate world. He began writing at 4:30 or 5 a.m. each day, a habit he still continues, often with dogs Alice and Howard by his side.