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Ted Kooser's Heartland Poetry

Ted Kooser (NPR)

When former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser’s mother was dying, he wanted to show her how much he had loved the life they had shared.

So he did what a poet does. He wrote, from his Nebraska perch, about a life growing up in Iowa — the fields, people, family, pinocle games.

It’s an evocation, and a kind of love letter to the center of the country and his family’s place in it. He’s encouraging us all to write our own American family histories.

-Tom Ashbrook

**NOTE: This show was first broadcast Sept. 17, 2009.

Guest:

Ted Kooser, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former U.S. poet laureate. His memoir is “Lights on a Ground of Darkness.” You can read an excerpt here (pdf).

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  • cory

    Let the holiday rebroadcasts BEGIN!!!

    Happy Thanksgiving, all.

    Leftfield, Wisconsin

  • Beverly

    I would give just about anything to find out about our family.

    My parents are no longer alive. When they WERE alive, they were very closed-lipped about their childhoods; both were victims of extreme poverty.

    Much to my dismay, my parents took their many fascinating storiies with them, to their graves. They were extremely reluctant to speak of childhood.

    So much has already been lost; please find out about your ancestors; & document their stories, before it’s too late. You owe it to yourself, your children, & mankind.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    My parents are/were like yours, Beverly. There were a few sort of canonical stories that all seven children were treated to. Make that apocryphal, i.e., in retrospect probably made up, embroidered at the very least. It seems generations back, the family had tried to create family history as work-of-art, not fact. Here is one. On Nantucket, a wagon in the night is coming back to town center, and the driver behind the horses (an ancestor) is shouting out with loud and musical resonance: “The lost children are FOUND, and I’m BRINGing them INTO the TOWN.” It anchors my sense of heritage all right, but what does it mean? Is it even true? I believe a dog was part of it.
    I believe the fact one family member would have another “version” could be part of the tight-lippedness. Also I believe, as I grow older, that plenty of actualities were shielded not only from children for generations but from the adults. So if one starts to inquire, one might stumble over inconsistencies that suddenly reveal too much.
    Over the summer my sister and I, enjoying a lunch here with my mother, heard her hedge: “I don’t remember too well; I could be mistaken.” I prodded. I asked about her father whose mother had died way out on the unsettled prairieland somewhere circa 1880, died in childbirth of his baby sister Emily. Her dying words left her in his charge, the father being iff-ish. That might have been the father who was visited in upper New York State, with Sears Robuck catalogue for outhouse toilet paper and no heat. But Emily at one point was rescued from a burning building when her door was locked, rescued by the brother or the father; I am now forgetting. When there are a few uncertainties and a few inconsistencies, it gets harder (for me) to remember, because one has to remember all the caveats. But I did take on that riveting image, plus the question why did Aunt Emily lock her door? Anyway, mother thinks Emily had a difficult childhood, being passed around from one custodial relation to another.
    What about her brother, my grandfather, the 5-year-old left in charge of Emily? Was he not passed around as well? Oh, my mother doesn’t have anything to say about that.
    One thing I’m sure of: if I had a tape-recorder, we might not have heard anything at all.

  • Baylor Johnson

    Last summer I spent 6 weeks traveling with my daughter around the western states of the U.S. She was 18, the same age I was when I first went west as a migrant laborer 45 years ago. Part of what I wanted from the trip was to revisit people and places I first knew back then, and to introduce her to this important part of my past. As we traveled, and still, I kept wondering why I wanted this. Why did I want to revisit these places? Why was it important to show them to her? Why do I want to retell my stories from that time? In other words, why do we want to preserve our past int he way Ted Kooser is doing in his new book? What does Ted say about this?

  • Mary Halpin Carter

    Dear Tom,
    I listened to today’s show as I drove from Gloucester to New Hampshire after visiting with my wonderful mother-in-law and her family. My children are 10, 13 and 15. I am only on your website now so that I can get the name of Ted’s book and order it for her for Christmas before I forget!

    Today’s show was elegant and simple and full of both truth and mystery. I agree with Ted’s message of recording and handing on family pasts. Coincidentally, I was walking in Gloucester with my 13 year old daughter, Polly, and I told her the story I have learned about my mother-in-law’s family coming to America. Her ancester was a single, widowed mother, Isabel Babson, and she came from England in the 1600′s with her young son. A midwife, she was run out of Danvers for witchcraft and so settled in Gloucester where she made a life in women’s health. Here’s why it is really important that I tell the story to my daughter – it reminds her that like many immigrants, Isabel was unwelcome and misunderstood, but her family thrived in the long run. Polly needs to hear that story regularly so that she knows that she is a brave woman from a line of brave women.
    Stories help our younger generations to develop identity.
    Happy Thanksgiving.
    Best,
    Mary Halpin Carter

  • Pancake in Charlotte eating Mrs. Pauls at a fish camp

    Considering my family’s position and wealth it is impossible to think that they did not own slaves before the Civil War. My grandfather (a 20th century doctor and politician) and my great uncle (a land speculator, industrialist and developer in the same county) actually had the clout to expunge all county records that might have confirmed or indicated being masters or traders of human beings. During Reconstruction a particular Negro associate of the family (Adam) became the titular custodian of several thousands of our acres, and then the land passed conveniently back to us once the upstarts and carpetbaggers were deposed. From that point forward Adam lists as a sharecropper in the census. The deed register is very murky and seems to be a 1950s reconstruction supervised by my great uncle. Anyway, title insurance might be a problem if the homeplace were not in a trust. So much is legend (fairy tales) and so much expunged that I can only say I have little in common with my ancestors. Uncle Goober named a prairie of rare plant species after Adam, but his grave is under I-85. Most oral history is paved with lies. Formal history is hardly more dependable.

    I saw a film with Mia today, “Inside Job”; and it was plain to me how the powerful will be able to redact and deny what is obvious to us now about the betrayal of the American public in the Meltdown. Hank Paulsen and Tim Geithner and Larry Summers will be saving small businesses and family farms after we are long dead. An Icelandic rune of the 23rd Century may sing of gallant and generous Bernie Madoff. If Taylor Swift can be bought into stardom anything is possible. (Bristol dances like a polar bear.)

  • http://none C. Cadwell

    I just heard the tail end of the wonderful visit with Ted Kuzer on NPR. He mentioned that he was sorry that The Christian Science Monitor is gone. Please know that it is not gone – it is online 24/7 and publishes its weekly edition every week. Just go to http://www.csmonitor.com. Folks can still submit articles such as one caller mentioned he had done.

  • simon yisrael feuerman

    Tom,

    You are a prince of the airwaves.

    I felt I had to write to you particularly after today’s show, (the midwestern poet Kooser) to give thanks to you not only for the great shows and topics, but for the princely, imaginative, sincerely gentlemanly way in which you conduct yourself. Your erudition, scholarship and human manner, serve wisdom to me and so many others on a dish of love.

    To me and to my family you are the embodiment of an America with deep roots in the hard and soft clay of freedom and decency

    My deepest thanks to you and to Onpoint.

  • http://notyet Charles A. Bowsher

    But for the near theft of a beloved bird-dog I might never have been. My grandmother and her family (the Clarke’s) moved from Lexington,KY to Enid,OK in 1910 or so for my great grandmothers health. Her brother (great-uncle Gus) then in his 20′s went with them. He was new in town and was homesick for Kentucky and his favorite hunting partners. He noticed a good looking bird dog laying in front of this store and decided he would “borrow” it to go hunting with that weekend. He tried to coax the dog to follow him to the livery stable where he planned on tying it up until the weekend. The dog refused to be coaxed. Suddenly there was this shrill whistle in the distance and the dog took off like greased lightning. Uncle Gus followed the dog who made a bee-line for his actual owner. Gus went up to the man and introduced himself and told of his unsuccessful attempt at “borrowing” the man’s dog. Charles Oliver Wood invited Gus to go hunting with him that weekend. They became fast friends and enjoyed a 60 year business partnership in a highly successful and respected Construction company here in Central KY. Charles married my grandmother (Gus’s sister) and they enjoyed 63 years of wedded bliss. But for a bird-dog, I might never have been….

    The Clarkes were pure Irish and absolutely loved good-natured teasing and wittiness. The stories they told of the shenanigans they pulled on each other over the years were hilarious. Many were recorded in the 1970′s by a neighbor who then deposited them with the local universities archives.

    Uncle Gus always liked to thank my grandfather for marrying his “spinster” sister. She was anything but spinster. She was actually one of the prettiest, most popular and sought after young ladies in Enid at the time. My grandfather was a fascinating Dale Carnegie type person whose enthusiasm and manner sometimes got on my grandmother’s nerves. One day while hosting the ladies book club in her home he had come home and done something that left her grumbling audibly. One of the ladies said “Mary, why don’t you just divorce him?”. Without batting an eye my grandmother (a tiny women) said “Divorce him no, Kill him yes!” She was Catholic after-all.

    Anyway, todays program put me in mind of them all. I am always thankful they lived to be in their 90′s, and glad I remember so many of their stories.

  • http://onpointradio.org Mary Ellen

    I heard the rebroadcast of your interview with Ted Kooser on Thanksgiving morning and replayed it again today to write down some of Ted’s wonderful comments about the power of writing to preserve our memories. My husband died a few months ago, and he had on A disks (rather than in a manila folder in a drawer) several poems and short essays he’d written over the years. He had debated about publishing some for family and friends and then wondered whether anyone would be interested in his musings. So he never did it. I knew immediately, on hearing your interview with Ted, that I needed to do this. You inspired me so much that I wrote my introduction to his booklet today. Now I just need to find all the pieces and get them together. Thanks so much for that very emotional and inspirational program. I loved it!

  • Ann, Barrington, RI

    I’m away for Thanksgiving & borrowing a computer, so I haven’t had a chance to listen to what sounds like another splendid show! I also love the comments about people’s family stories, maybe especially those from “regular” posters!!!

    And SIMON, your comment about Tom and this show is beautifully expressed. You say everything I’d have liked to have said myself in gratefulness for this wonderful show and, YES!, about Tom’s great range, broad curiosity, warm, intelligent humanity! SIMON, thanks for writing it all so wonderfully!

    I had a revelation just the day before Thanksgiving that, from the comments, I think might be appropriate to tell about here. I’ve written many times before about finding my African-American ancestors, whose presence in our family tree I did not know about until I was about 55!! And, I’ve told you all that I’ve been trying to get PROOF of my Native American ancestors I’ve been looking for since I was in the Third Grade, yet how hard that is. Well, Tuesday, I found one more piece of information that hooked up with a scholar cousin’s info to let me finally say this: I can NOW place my very own family members, living in a “maroon”, an indian reservation on the East Coast where Native Americans welcomed run-away Black slaves and Free People of Color, and whichever Whites needed “sanctuary”!!! Some of us seem to have survived in spite of being labeled “spurious mix’t issue”, with various macinations to “run us out of town”, surviving enough for me to find my relatives more than 100 years after they lived! My cousin, Frances Bibbins Latimer, has studied the history of the African-Americans of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and without her amazing scholarship, I could not have finally placed my ancestors in their place, time, and historical context! Helen Rountree’s extraordinary work also helped me, and one of her books shows me a picture of exactly what the landscape of the maroon looks like in current times! Tom, shows you have had, as well as others on NPR and PBS, have also helped me be able to “see” what the lives of my ancestors (very few generations, actually!) were probably like!

    Happy Thanksgiving (2 days late) to Tom, your wonderful staff, and to all the listeners and posters! This is the first such holiday when I realized my family actually was among the Indians welcoming the Europeans to their world (as IF I ever doubted my grandmother’s stories!!!)

  • Marcy Mattison

    What a wonderful conversation between you and Mr. Kooser. I’ve enjoyed previous interviews with the (ex-) poet laureate, but as the readings and reminiscences unfolded, Tom, your broadcast voice became softer and more relaxed and it was a pleasure to hear. That midwestern/Iowa inflection and manner returned amid the images of iris, peonies, mothers remembered and the threads of past and present. Both the poetry and the man had an audible impact on you as host, and it speaks to the marvelous power of poetry.
    Thank you for a memorable and remarkable Thanksgiving broadcast!

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