A year ago, when Nebraska poet Ted Kooser gave a poetry reading in a public forum, about 25 people showed up to hear the retired insurance executive. But recently, 375 people packed into the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s 275-seat auditorium for the same reason. The difference? Now they were coming to hear the musings of the U.S. poet laureate, the first Great Plains poet named by the Library of Congress.
Kooser, 65, is the 13th U.S. poet laureate, following in the footsteps of notable writers such as Robert Penn Warren and Robert Frost. The Librarian of Congress, James Billington, consulted with former poets laureate and poetry critics before selecting Kooser, whom he calls "a major poetic voice for rural and small-town America."
Overnight, Kooser, who lives with his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, on 62 acres near Garland, Neb. (pop. 247), catapulted from relative obscurity to the spotlight of national recognition. These days, quiet time walking with his dogs and writing in his brightly patterned armchair is rare.
Instead, the "Midwestern Robert Frost," who sees metaphors in a man tying a tie before work and describes a home medical dictionary as "not so much a dictionary as it is an atlas for the old," is standing in airport lines more often. He’s been so busy with his new duties as a national goodwill ambassador for poetry that he’s had to temporarily give up teaching poetry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Not that he’s complaining. When the call came in August 2004 telling him that he had been selected as poet laureate for the customary nine-month appointment, which is accompanied by a $35,000 stipend, Kooser was almost speechless. He had to call back the next day, after he had regained his composure, to get the details on the position. But he is thrilled to have the forum to share his love for poetry with a wider audience.
The residents of Garland are honored that one of their own was recognized. "We thought it was wonderful," says Postmaster Iris Carr, 61, "and well deserved, too." Carr is mentioned in one of Kooser’s 11 books, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps. He has been coming to her post office three times a week for more than 20 years, but lately, she notes, he’s been getting more mail.
Born in Ames, Iowa (pop. 50,731), Kooser penned his first poem at age 16. He earned English degrees from Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska. But for three decades, he toiled in the insurance business in Lincoln, rising by 5 a.m. each day to write before work. His secretary and fellow car-poolers would review his latest creations. He retired from Lincoln Benefit Life in 1999 after battling throat cancer.
He is characterized as a poet who writes about ordinary things. "Poetry has gotten a terrible reputation for being too difficult. It doesn’t have to be that way. It can be very accessible," Kooser says. "Paying attention is extremely important. If you look at anything closely enough, you begin to see what is remarkable about it. If you can find within the familiar the strange, you never have to leave home."
Kooser does not mean to imply that he is always paying attention. "I’m like everyone else," he says. "I get preoccupied. I have to discipline myself."
Discipline is a big part of his writing. His poems appear to have effortlessly fallen from his pen onto paper, but he revises each one 40 or 50 times before it sees print. In a "really good year," he writes 10 poems he deems worth keeping and publishing, though he writes for about two hours most mornings. An eight-line poem may involve as many as 700 creative decisions.
The poet laureate has few duties other than organizing and delivering public readings, but Kooser has a project in mind—a column on poetry appreciation that would be available to newspapers. Kooser hopes to help people be more aware: "We’re too bombarded by the past and the future. Very seldom are we right in the moment. That’s where we have to be."