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Poet Ted Kooser

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When native Iowan turned Nebraskan Ted Kooser was named U.S. poet laureate in 2004, he was the first poet laureate named from the country’s Great Plains.

His poetry was described as modest, straightforward, stubborn, elegiac — and beautiful.

Now, Ted Kooser has written a big little book of elegy to the time and place and people who made him — who made a whole world of farm and field, gas station and pinochle game. A kind of love letter to the country’s heartland and his family’s place in it.

This hour, On Point: Ted Kooser, and a poet’s evocation of the past.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Guest:

Ted Kooser joins us from Lincoln, Nebraska. A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former U.S. poet laureate, he’s a professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His new memoir is “Lights on a Ground of Darkness.” You can read an excerpt here (pdf). And you can read selections of his poems herehere, and here.

See Kooser read from his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “Delights & Shadows” at the University of California-Santa Barbara in 2005:

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  • Joan Barberich

    Hi Tom,

    This interview is wonderful so far. What is the title of the poem Ted read about his mother? Where can I find a copy online?

    With much gratitude,

    Joan

  • Joyce Morin

    This hour is so inspiring. I lost my mom this past winter and it has been winter in my heart since. I have been doing genealogical research of my roots and know that I will have to write their stories. Now I’m sure I need to write my own love story with my loving now passed on family. Thank you.

  • Heather Bellanca

    My friends the Orlyks gave me a great gift – in the form of a book of Kooser’s poetry. I’m one of those people who don’t take time for poetry. But I’ve devoured his. Because it is so accessible and has a way of touching the heart. I love the twists from earthbound reality into flights of beautiful metaphor. I don’t think it’s so much about region as about describing being human in a melodious way. Thanks, Ted!

  • Sharyn

    Hello Tom,

    What a delight to have the opportunity to hear Mr. Kooser on your show.
    I had the great honor of hearing Mr. Kooser speak at the Unversity of Hawaii at Manoa. And today, in a rare, quiet, moment I have been able to listen to him again.
    The beauty of his poerty is that it translates to any language, any family in the world. I think of my Australian grandmother and her gentle ways, taken long before I could truly appreciate her. Mr. Kooser, thank you for your new and pure work.
    Sincerely,
    Sharyn Inzunza
    Virginia Beach

  • http://www.holleywatts.com Holley Watts

    I wrote a retrospective about my (still) best friend’s family I call “Confetti.”

    “Confetti, those tiny colorful pieces that celebrate our parade with bits of memory, love and laughter. I’ve known Tandy my whole life and, by extension, her parents, Mama and Papa V, if you consider that life starts in first grade…

    and bits of memory like their New Milford, Connecticut cottage on the lake where memories of Backgammon rules, woolen blankets on summer nights, knotty pine walls and books and stories invited laughter. And there was always laughter, especially Mama V’s hearty laugh and Papa V’s chuckle….

    My daughter’s memories of North Carolina included Grampa V’s finger-paper trick, ‘Go away, Jack, Go away, Jill. Come back, Jack. Come back, Jill…’ She recalled sitting on the kitchen floor with Gramma V and going out to collect giant pine cones,the best found at Mama V’s sister’s whose cherished pound cake recipe I kept filed under “D.” When reorganizing my recipe box years later Heather asked, why it wasn’t under “P” for Pound or “C” for Cake? Because her name was Dede. I’ve used the pine cones more than those recipes since. They’re easier to find.

    Mama V was a constant in my visits over the years. Quietly, she’d either tuck a tiny gift or a note into my suitcase on which she’d written, Your Mama V loves you.
    I hung the last one she gave me so I see it every day, a guardian angel ornament with colorful beads and a note that said simply, I love you, Mama V.”

    This was four pages long. Lots of memories. Thanks for letting me share.

    Holley Watts,
    Poet, Fund-raiser, Vietnam Vet (wrote a book & co-wrote an award-winning documentary about my Red Cross experience there)
    540-248-3677

  • Robert B. Pierce

    The following poem is handwritten in a gift-style book of Chinese and Japanese poetry that I bought at a used book store:

    “I’m going back.
    I’m going back.
    The loneliest road
    I’ve traveled
    is in the past.
    It’s in the past.”

    From the handwriting it is obvious that the writer was drunk. I googled the phrases and found no indication that it had been published as a poem or song lyric.

    Mine may be the only copy of a wistful evocation of the past, whose author is unknown.

  • Axie Breen

    Reminds me of a poem I wrote about growing up in Illinois:

    Decoration Day

    In my kitchen far from home ground
    pink and white chrysanthemums bunched in a vase
    remind me of

    Decoration Day
    at the end of May
    when my mother and my aunt would clip
    nearly all
    the crisp dark green stalks of the pinies
    full fragrant and spotted with black ants
    and cut the juicy stems of yellow crepe irises
    and purple velvet ones,
    arrange them thickly in glass jars,
    and in coffee cans wrapped with aluminum foil.

    I don’t remember ever bringing in
    a big bouquet for the table;
    these fat, heady, rough bundles
    were tokens for the dead.

    The cans ride on the floor of the car, water sloshing,
    to the cemetery.
    There we drive slowly
    over crunching gravel
    to the familiar stops, the stones with our name.
    They clip the weeds,
    assess the size of the bushes
    and the legibility of the lettering.
    The vases of wrinkled silver are
    placed carefully, nestled against the wind.
    We step back to see it looks right.
    And we remember.
    They are solemn, thoughtful.
    Their memories reach back further
    and deeper than mine,
    for each grave, a lifetime of memory.
    Flowers for their mothers, whom I loved,
    for their fathers, whom I never knew,
    for brothers gone,
    a tiny bouquet of sorrow for
    the baby who died 25 years before.

    I was a child then, running off to explore,
    careful not to step on any graves.

    -Axie Breen, 1996

  • http://www.davidkaloupek.com David Kaloupek

    Ted & Tom:

    Great show today. What a pleasure. My paternal grandfather owned a service station, car repair and blacksmith shop in Elberon, Iowa (pop 150). I saw and touched those hands and can smell the oil and Mom’s home cooking. My grandfather was a cigar and Red Man man.

    I graduated from high school in 1957; live in Waltham, MA and will visit my 96 year old Mother in Elberon later this month. Mother Bessie lost her Cedar Rapids home last June via the flooded Cedar River.

    Your writings brought me back to Elberon, Vining and the Iowa countryside. I will secure “a love letter” before I return and do readings with Mother. Her eye sight is about five percent on the left eye. Her memory is at ninety-five percent.

    Thanks for the good and great memories.

    David Kaloupek
    Class of ’57
    Keystone, Iowa

  • David Caufield

    Dear Tom and Mr. Kooser:

    I lost my Mom, Peg Caufield on September 29, 2009 who was just one day short from celebrating her 60th anniversary with husband, Ed Caufield.

    Just as her death, complicated by progressive dementia strained us all as it approached, family and friends were uplifted as we celebrated her life as a wife, mother, grandmother, educator & humanitarian.

    Amongst the funeral attendees was my best friend who had been inspired to write a poem at his mother’s passing. My Mom was Christian and his Mom was Jewish. They were great friends and enriched one another’s lives as well as the lives of one another’s children.

    Fitingly I read the same scripture from Proverbs, “A Woman of Valor” at my Mom’s funeral in tribute as he read at his mother’s funeral.

    At a post funeral “life celebration” dinner my friend read his poem entitled, “Requiem for a Mother” as follows:

    By Erv Dworkin

    Words are futile fabrications, teardrops in a sea.
    To phrase the fervent feelings that dwell inside of me
    For emotions speak in voices more subtle and sublime,
    In movements more mellifluous than any pantomime

    No mortal masterpieces of antiseptic art,
    Nor literary platitudes can properly impart
    The beauty of the bittersweet abiding in the heart

    Love, and truth, and beauty are often trimmed in pain,
    Just as heaven’s azure dome is darkened by the rain
    But waves of life in water flow, in tears and tide and dew,
    And from the earth new life will burst, from mist a rainbow’s hue

    So let us laugh and let us love, and let us also cry,
    And heed the music in our hearts, and never wonder why.

    Thanks to Mr. Kooser and to you for your wonderful show.

  • Judy Meloy

    Thank you both, in an age of instant and not always deep communication, for touching the human heart within us all.
    I’m grateful – and will keep writing.
    Judy

  • Mekeel McBride

    Found this program on the radio by mistake while driving to work. Almost immediately, I had unexpected tears streaming down my face. Both Mr. Kooser and Mr. Ashbrook were so articulate, moving, honest in ways that opened me up. I felt filled with light and am so grateful. Unfortunately, I arrived at work so had to turn off the radio. And missed the second half. But the first half will sustain me for days. Thank you so much for the beautiful program.

  • Louise Lazare

    i am enjoying Ted Kooser–I want to reassure him that the Christian Science Monitor does exist –a weekly magazine and on-line. The Home Forum is still there–my favorite part. I miss the daily newspaper, however.

  • Nancy Anderson

    Dear Tom,
    Thanks for the great show this morning with Ted Kooser. I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in your audience. I can appreciate his love of the midwest because I was born and raised in Iowa and visit my elderly relatives almost every year. They come from Des Moines and Stratford, both very near to Ames. I judge that he and I are nearly the same age. I’m 69.

    During this last winter, encouraged by my 12 year old granddaughter to recount memories for her Elder report, Finally, after 64 years, I found the courage to start writing about how WW2 affected me. I was devastated on my father’s return from the war because I didn’t know hime. He spent over two years in German prison camp – enlisted in 1941, left for Europe in 1942, was captured in February 1943, and returned in May of 1945. As you and many of your call-in listeners related, I also found great healing in the writing.

    Now, I must order your book and enjoy it over and over.
    Thank you for your diligence in writing.

  • Patricia Freed-Thall

    I too really appreciated the poem Ted wrote for his mother. If it is possible to find a copy on line, please let me know . I’d love to share it with my friend who just lost both parents this year. Thank you.

  • Jim Mallmann

    Hello Tom,

    Radio does not get any better than your program with Ted Kooser. I have saved the program on my computer and I know I will never erase it. Ted Kooser’s letter to his mother is a powerful and wonderful example of what can be accomplished with words.

  • Joseph Boutin

    Dear Tom, I caught the last few minutes of your show today. I heard Ted’s voice and I knew immediately who it was. I first heard him recite one of his poems on All Things Considered, or maybe it was Morning Edition on NPR in 2004. He had recently been named Poet Laureate. His recital of a poem during the interview moved me deeply. I wrote him a note encouraging him to record his works. He was gracious in his response, but to my knowledge never did a recording to be sold.

    That is unfortunate. Poetry, I believe, is best when it is filtered through the listener’s ear. In his presentation at UCBS (YouTube video) he refers to the ideal reader. I think he and other Poets assume we-the listeners-want to read what they have to say when in fact we’d love to hear what they have to say. I hope he records his best works for us to enjoy. I bet his Mom would have loved listening to it.

  • Cara Cavo

    Mr. Kooser, I lost my beloved father four years ago and today, I tuned into the program just as you began to read the poem dedicated to your mom. Within the first three lines of your recitation, I felt as though you were reading something I would love to write to my dad — if only I were able to suppress the overwhelming grief I still feel at his passing. The eloquent simplicity and beauty of your words hit me at a very visceral level and I spent the remainder of the day recalling the most beautiful times of my life, times I spent with my dad studying and enjoying nature. He was a kind and patient teacher. Thank you for reminding me that somewhere beyond the grief the beautiful memories of those who brought joy to our lives remain. Sincerely, Cara Cavo

  • Cara Cavo

    Tom, Pardon my failure to add that I also wanted thank you so much for this program. Your interview with Mr. Kooser was outstanding.
    Cara Cavo

  • http://www.amylyleswilson.com amy lyles wilson

    Wow, and thank you.

  • Krista Knudson

    On Point is the best show on radio, bar none. But somehow today, you’ve managed to outdo yourself. An absolutely beautiful, poignant and touching reflection. Tom, I’m very sorry to hear of the recent passing of your mother. I’ll reach to a quote that one of your show’s guests offered: ‘Our memories cradle our grief and preserve our joy.’

    Thank you for such a wonderful hour. I am thrilled to have been introduced to Mr. Kooser and his work, and can’t wait to check out this book.

  • Parker Pascua

    this was a stunning interview. after travelling the planet as the dependent spouse of a diplomat husband, i returned to my small indian reservation in western new york. sitting at a 100-year-old table on an even older chair in a house built by my great-great-great grandfather before the civil war, i did beadweaving work in designs handed down by countless generations of grandmothers. this interview resonated, and i smiled as i thought what a fine thing it was to be eldest-of-generation born into a matriarchal, matrilochal and matrilineal society.

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