For all his down-home vocabulary and imagery of the Plains states, Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate for 2005, is a great communicator. In his own poetry he renders his subjects sensually while projecting an engaging poetic presence. In The Poetry Home Repair Manual he shares his writerly wisdom; any poet, beginner or professional, will come away from reading it with some useful reminder of how to make his or her poems better.
For a starter, he urges poets to remember that someone is always on the receiving end of their poems. "I favor poems that keep the obstacles between you and that person to a minimum," he writes.
This formal position separates him from poetic schools that employ vagueness, language experiments, classical allusions or versified philosophy. Kooser is not interested in poems cranked out of fog machines or those that set themselves up as IQ tests. He recommends imagery that is palpable, hearable, smellable, seeable: real people with their warts and idiosyncracies, specific landscapes, tools, animals, weather. Human feelings.
Kooser happens to have intimate knowledge of the melancholy, hardscrabble life on the plains of Nebraska and he takes that as his subject, presenting examples of a dozen of his own poems as vivid lessons in how to spin gold from flax. Every beginning writer has been told to write what he or she knows; Kooser goes into detail showing how contemporary poets from Mary Oliver and Kim Addonizio to B.H. Fairchild and A.R.Ammons use the materials of their daily lives in their work. You may not live on the family farm like he does; your material may be considerably different from his, but he will show you how to shape it and make it compelling.
True, he wanders around the world of poetry like a farmer inspecting his acreage, gathering dead branches, weeding the cornrows. In recommending that writers get a lot of practice, he quotes the formula for success he learned from a horseshoe-pitching champ: "Son, you got to pitch a hundred shoes a day."
But Kooser is no rube. He is sophisticated about verse forms, poetic attitude, and the poetry biz. In the chapter titled "First Impressions," you will learn how to load exposition into your title, so your readers are well into your poem by the first line. In "Writing About Feelings," he shows how poor word choices can weaken your writing or alienate your readers (Do you really want to quote from the Icelandic Kalevala?). He recommends using ordinary speech to help readers identify with the poem's subject, but notes that compressed language separates poetry from prose, and making words do double-duty (an old person's last "fall") contributes to poetry's multi-layered quality.
He can be peevish. Verb tenses chosen to conform with the latest fashion set him on a mini-tirade: "Somehow poets have gotten the idea that to write in the present tense is really cool, though most of our experience is in the past," he complains. And if you are a poet with a tendency to sometimes fly too high, Kooser's chapter titled "Fine-Tuning Metaphors" in which he advises toning down figures of speech so you do not "take as your subject somebody's misfortune and make of it a literary event," will be a great corrective.
As for the po-biz, Kooser is outspoken as to what he sees as infelicities in current poetry publishing. He lands with both feet on "literary journals chock full of poems that are little more than anecdotes made to look like poems
tricked out in lines of verse. It's not unusual to find a volume of poems that consists of
fifty or sixty minute narratives." He also gets in a few jabs at poetry readings, which he says mainly serve to amuse the audience like stand-up comedy: "Bob Newhart could make it big on the university poetry circuit today."