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Classic review: Valentines

Why Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Ted Kooser sends thousands of Valentines every February.

By Elizabeth Lund / May 16, 2010

Valentines By Ted Kooser University of Nebraska Press 47 pp. $14.95

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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Feb. 12, 2008.] For most of the year, Ted Kooser is known as a Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate of the United States. But in February he is a mass-mail Casanova.

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Kooser’s wife, Kathleen, knows about his extracurricular valentines, which he began sending via postcard in 1986. There were 50 recipients – female friends – that year, but as Kooser’s fame and audience grew, more and more fans asked to join his mailing list. By 2007, the number had swollen to 2,600. That’s a lot of stamps to buy, which is why Kooser isn’t mailing a poem this year.

Instead, he’s offering Valentines, which brings together his 21 missives, along with one for 2008, written for his wife.

The writing in this book is classic Kooser: simple images, down-to-earth language, insight, and uncommonly good sense, all of which combine to produce memorable, resonant endings. Amour is the subject of some of these poems, but in most cases Kooser writes with love – for a barn owl, an ironing board, or flowers in a dumpster. Love isn’t just a feeling, it’s the way this poet views the world.

Such is the case with “A New Potato,” a six-line gem in which Kooser transforms and illuminates a common tuber:

This is just one of the leathery eggs

the scuffed-up, dirty turtle of the moon

buried early in spring, her eyes like stars

fixed on the future, and, inside its red skin,

whiteness, like all of the moons to come,

and marvelous, buttered with light.

“A New Potato” is one of the strongest poems in “Valentines.” But for those who want something more romantic, try “Pocket Poem,” “Splitting an Order,” or “This Paper Boat,” which ends with: “the thought that you are holding it/ a moment is enough for me.”

Every poem in the book is paired with a black-and-white illustration by Robert Hanna. The artwork, like the verse, is inviting, warm, and unpretentious. Before you buy “Valentines” for someone, though, remember what the author’s note says of these poems: “I suppose some of them have a little literary merit, but, really, they were written with pleasure and meant for the reader’s fun.”

In other words, don’t think of “Valentines” as expensive red roses. This is a box of mixed chocolates, some of which are completely satisfying, while others boast just a sweet center.

A few do have a bit of zest, which comes from self-deprecation. “Oh, Mariachi Me” opens with Kooser confessing that “All my life I have wanted nothing so much/ as the love of women. For them I have fashioned/ the myth of myself, the singing troubadour/ with the flashing eyes.” The myth succeeds, to some extent, but it can’t prevent the march of time and the loss of something crucial.

The final poem, “The Hog-Nosed Snake,” is the driest of the collection. In it, Kooser compares himself to a reptile playing dead. That image seems a bit out of place, given the grace and polish of the preceding poem. But where Kooser’s perspective is grounded in the everyday, a familiar, enduring love may be worth more to him than pretty pictures.

Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.

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