Ted Kooser was one of the first people I met when I came to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1969. We may even have taught night classes together my very first semester. Our practice was to meet the full class enrollment jointly, then divide up the students. Though employed at his insurance company even then, Ted was trying to stay connected to poetry. We worked this way for a number of years, Ted staying connected, Greg trying to earn extra money. I remember I used to worry always that somehow I would get the wrong students, or worse, that I was the wrong person to work with them. I knew very little, that was for sure, but tried to keep it from being too obvious. I remember how Ted, in comparison, always seemed poised and in control. Maybe I was hoping a little would rub off on me?
Within a short time I had laid my hands on Ted's first book, Official Entry Blank. I remember I loved the cover, my favorite orange and brown, but didn't know what the image was--I had never seen a Nebraska windmill before. Maybe a few years later it dawned on me what it is. I love this book. There are maybe a dozen poems in it I still read off and on in my classes. I can recall many of them right now, though I don't know where my copy of the book is--probably somebody stole it now that Ted's our U. S. Poet Laureate! I would not blame them if they have.
"Lament" (one of my favorites), "'Old Man at Supper," with the great stuff about banging his meld "down on the table like a threat, forget what's trump and fall asleep," and the poem about the old woman (ah, I remember the title, "The Corpse of An Old Woman") lying "on her rug since yesterday at supper time"--and how "the neighbor ladies say / she lets the lights burn night and day.'" "The postman bangs the boxlid to be heard / someone may stop this afternoon for tea." lf I thought about it a bit more here I could get all the lines, and all the rhymes. Ted's work in this book is like Frost's. Years later you will find yourself, as I am here--maybe in a tight spot?-recalling nearly the whole poem word for word.
And then that wonder, "The Closet Zoo," that magical adventure in metaphor, "'clothespin parrots" and "samsonite rhinoceros.'" "'Umbrella bats hang upside down to dry their wings" and the "the easy going broom giraffe," and ending with "It makes the sporteoat gibbons hoot / with wonder in the closet zoo." It's a poem Ted wrote for a friend's children, and one I will want to read to our grand-daughter Alex in a year or two.
And then the great "Abandoned Farmhouse," which I've read aloud maybe 50 times. It's anthologized quite a lot, as it should be. And then the poem I loved so much and was so amazed by I taught it for years in my beginning poetry writing classes, "Dodo." I know it by heart. It's short. And perfect. An amazing piece. I used to do it as part of a group of study poems which included the likes of Plath's "Morning Song," surely one of her masterpieces, and Maxine Kumin's magnificent poem "Creatures."
Also Ted's wonderful "Story Problem," which I hope every small town American will read, especially now that we have soldiers dying again overseas. Not long after reading it, our own story problem began in earnest when Barb and I and our children moved from Lincoln to the little town of Crete where Ted's train did just what he says trains do in small towns--it passed just down the hill from our house. Jackie and Mark used to go out and sit at the edge of the hill on the steep driveway, like Huck and Tom above the river, when they heard its whistle. That was over thirty years ago, and it seems like yesterday. And thinking of it now, I get that same amber feeling, that sepia tone which must have seeped out of Ted's poems, like the orange and brown the cover of the book is soaked in. Already, right at the beginning of his career, Ted was wise. Barb and I could well have read his book and seen the future, if we'd dared.