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