Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

For Ted

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

For Ted

Article excerpt

The first time I walked into Ted Kooser's office in Andrews Hall at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I was nervous. I had been accepted into the graduate program, but still felt a need to impress. Sitting back comfortably in blue jeans and a sweater, Ted smiled warmly and put me at ease. He made me feel valued with the questions he asked--not about coursework or career goals or the latest published books, but about my family, my hometown. We discussed growing up in Iowa--something we had in common--and our earliest experiences with poetry. I laughed at the image Ted painted of himself: a lanky teen toting around a couple of thick volumes--to attract girls. He described his imagined audience as someone like his mother: smart, practical, but not literary. That sounded like my own mother who had recently showed one of my poems to her work friends and reported back. Ted and I celebrated the excitement of hearing readers' reactions to our poems. He told me a woman had written him about reading a poem of his with an image of a freshly plowed field, and now each time she saw one, she thought of his poem. That, Ted said, was a good enough reason to send poems out--to offer new ways of looking at the world, to "lift life."

Ted's method of teaching is the tutorial. Working one-on-one with students allows him to tailor his guidance. In the couple of years he's tutored me, his voice has become my mind's background music when I sit down to write. I can dick off many of Ted's writing maxims from memory: go beyond anecdote, write clearly, control diction to limit what associations a reader brings in, no "heave-ho" in a poem's final lines, etc. And now I have The Poetry Home Repair Manual for those "rules" I haven't memorized. Even though I may disagree with or find reasons to break his rules in order to serve an individual poem--another piece of Ted's advice--these values keep me grounded. So does his advice to new writers: don't be overwhelmed by accumulating publications and networking; be loyal to writing and the love of composing.

Ted's sense of what poetry should do--"reach other people and touch their hearts'--resonates with students and draws readers. I observed this in February when, despite a heavy snow storm, long-time admirers and new readers filled an auditorium in Lincoln to hear Ted read. Thirteen-year-old boys laughed at "The Urine Sample." Entire families sighed collectively after "Mother." Everyone chuckled when he transformed everyday objects--spiral notebook, coffee cup, tattoo, woolen shawl--into stories. …

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