Ted Kooser and the Importance of the Unremarkable

October 18, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately, and not just because I’m supposed to be at an ending now myself, what with the revisions I finished during my stay at the little cabin in New Hampshire and my goal to send this manuscript out by the end of October. But instead of packing everything up, working on cloying cover letters to editors and agents in this past month, and dropping that stack of manila envelopes at the Post Office like I was dropping raffle tickets into a bucket at a church fair hoping to win the grand prize, I have instead become obsessed with my last chapter, worried that my book finishes like a lousy pop song with a cheap, slow fadeout, a sound engineer just turning the dials to zero because the band couldn’t come up with anything better. Who wants that?

My fixation on this last chapter is complicated by the fact that I’ve recently determined everything I thought my book was about—sex, boyfriends, best friends, and all we have to unlearn once we finally leave high school—was slightly off base. All of that is still there—the boys, the best friends, the awkward adolescent fumbling—and I still like what I’ve done so don’t get me wrong, the book’s great, you’ll love it, it’ll be the best twenty bucks you’ll spend. But I’ve had some revelations these past few weeks and while I won’t reveal the specifics—that would be like giving the ending away—I will tell you what brought me to this discovery.

Last week I went to see a former teacher of mine, Ted Kooser, give a poetry reading in Concord, New Hampshire where he’d come to accept the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon American Prize in Poetry. To say that Ted was my teacher is a bit of a stretch since all I really did was sit in on an introductory poetry class he used to teach once a year at the University of Nebraska (I went to school there for about ten years in an attempt to prove the theory that if you threaten never to leave school someone eventually hands you a degree or two if only to get you out the door). So after that class ended, I’d occasionally fax a poem I’d written to the insurance office where Ted worked and he’d write down suggestions and make corrections and fax it back to me at the office where I worked, and I’d do my best to incorporate his suggestions before filing it away in my notebook. And yes, I would love nothing better than to scan and post one of those faxes here on this blog, but after spending about two hours hunting through various boxes and notebooks in my house looking for something I know I’d never throw away, I remain empty handed. Sigh.

Anyhow, though I am not, nor have I ever been a poet, Ted was a generous reader just like he is a generous writer and he humored me during this experimental phase in my life.  Since that time I haven’t written a single poem, but Ted has written a lot, and he’s done a few other things as well like become the U.S. Poet Laureate, win the Barnes & Nobel Discovery Award, and win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Hooray Ted! In reading Ted’s award-winning books over the years and delighting in the fact that he was finally getting recognized, I also continued to learn from his writing—about focus, about revision, about cutting out the fluff—and I was excited to go see him in my home state of New Hampshire. A major plus for the night was that I attended the reading with my kids, Joe and Emily, my parents, and two of my favorite Nebraska alums, poets Liz Ahl and Sandy Yannone.

 

Me, Liz and Sandy, so so happy because we just had a mini-Nebraska reunion with Ted!

 

But back to the reading. Ted gave kind of a greatest hits performance as he read a range of poems he’d written over the past several decades, and, ever the teacher, he spoke in-between about what stories or images he drew from in order to create each composition. Ted has always been a wonderful storyteller, whether in front of an audience or just in conversation, but last week he seemed more contemplative to me—or perhaps just exhausted from the long trip to New Hampshire from Nebraska—and there was one point where he stopped for a few seconds in-between poems, deep in thought, before saying, “I think I’m an elegiac poet. I think that most of my poems are elegies. . . and when I write a poem about someone—my mother, my uncle—I lift them up, for a brief moment, into the light. You need to do that too—all of you. Whether you’re a writer or not you need to write something—anything—about your Uncle Ed or your mother or your brother, and then you need to put it in a drawer and leave it there for someone to find. Then when someone finds it and reads it, years later, for that brief moment that person has been lifted into the light, no matter how long they’ve been gone.”

So yes, the tears flowed after that, much to the embarrassment of Emily who had the misfortune of sitting next to me. And what’s so beautiful about this idea is that Ted doesn’t mean just writing about people who are long gone, but also about people who are still living, and he doesn’t mean just writing about the grand and life-changing things those people have done, but instead about the small and the everyday—going to a garage sale or taking the dog for a walk. That elegiac spirit is in every moment Ted writes about—his wife washing her hands at the kitchen sink, his father snoring through the night, his own moment on a park bench in a small Nebraska town. Ted’s poems are a testament to a life spent just paying attention to and appreciating the everyday, rather than waiting for something remarkable and earth-shattering to happen. His small poems about screech owls and abandoned farmhouses and his mother making oatmeal on a cold winter morning are a testament that the everyday is remarkable if only we could stop for a minute and take stock. 

So that’s where I am today. Obsessed with endings, both real and artificial—the ending of a book, the ending of a chapter, the ending of a marriage, the ending of a way of life that no longer can exist—but thanks in part to Ted, thanks in part to all of the people I went to Ted’s reading with as well as the friends I have who could only be there in spirit, I am reenergized with finding the remarkable in the everyday, as well as in a small, humble book I hope to drop off at the Post Office by the end of October.

For another ending, below is a clip of Ted reading one of his poems–he read this in Concord too, and it made me cry too (again, apologies to Emily).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NS3ztwm125Y

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2 Responses to “Ted Kooser and the Importance of the Unremarkable”

  1. sly said

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Maybe even better than the experience, and I was there! I had a truly auspicious day when I mailed out Maiden Voyage for the first time on October 30th, twice. I have another batch going out at the end of this month. I also think it’s powerful how you don’t mention the marriage until near the end of the article. It was so sublime and such a body blow to me as a reader. xo, sly

  2. Thanks. . . and I can’t wait to see you read from Maiden Voyage so I can blog about that too!

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