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Delights and Shadows

by Ted Kooser

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Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser
Ted Kooser is the current U.S. Poet Laureate, joining the politically inclusive ranks of Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove and his predecessor, Louise Gluck. "The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulses of Americans," it says on the Library’s website. If Kooser’s Delights and Shadows, which recently won a Pulitzer Prize, has caught the national electricity, it very effectively conducts it into the ground.

A good place for poetry to be. As Robert Frost reminds us: "We were the land's before she was ours." These are poems that walk down the middle of country roads, telling you how life was on the plains of Nebraska when Kooser was a kid, during World War II, and how it is now: not much different. Kooser takes as his theme those aspects of grounded experience that are abiding, sublime and meaningful.

He is fully in the tradition of American plainspeak poetry begun by Whitman and Thoreau and brought into a suburban context by William Carlos Williams, who wrote a major book of poems about life in Patterson, New Jersey. (Thoreau never went abroad. "I have traveled widely in Concord, Massachusetts," he said.)
This homespun genre, so different from the cosmopolitan strain of American poetry inhabited by W.S. Auden, James Merrill and John Ashbery, gives eternity "a local habitation and a name." Believing that Walden Pond or Patterson's Contagious Hospital provide as much opportunity for transcendence as the Sistine Chapel or the antiquities of Boro Badur, the down-home American poets gaze at their local environments like tourists encountering them for the first time, showing their readers how to shake off expectations, biases and automatic dismissals that blind us to what we see.

Many critics, educated to expect great literature to be seasoned with foreign phrases, references to Greek gods and other proofs of the poet’s cultured status, are aghast at Kooser’s unfancy straight talk, as in the following poem:

"Pegboard"

It has been carefully painted
with the outlines of tools
to show us which belongs where,
auger and drawknife,
claw hammer and crosscut saw,
like the outlines of hands on the walls
of ancient caves in France,
painted with soot mixed with spit
ten thousand years ago
in the faltering firelight of time,
hands borrowed to work on the world
and never returned.
He has been called a corn-fed yokel, and a prairie sentementalist who stands for American provincialism. One critic (William Logan) even complained that Kooser writes about his corner grocery store instead of the "baristas" at Starbucks! Is it our cultural inferiority complex that feeds our hunger for such pretensions?

Can a poet not write plainly about his or her hometown without being accused of lacking artistic ambition? Must we all be James Merrills and Jorie Grahams mooning over Tuscan landscapes to show how sophisticated we are? Truth is, most Americans have not visited the Uffizi Gallery, driven along the Amalfi coast or rowed a punt down the Cam. Our experience, by and large, is not so different from Kooser’s. What is so corn-fed about this, for example:

"A Happy Birthday"

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could have easily switched on the lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.
Kooser’s poetry is radiant with the poet’s reverence for life with all its melancholy and joyfulness. The experiences he writes about are common enough to imbue his poems with nearly universal meaning. Is there something wrong with poetry that reminds us of the beauty to be found in ordinary American life?

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