The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets

The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets. University of Nebraska Press; 2005; 163 pages; $19.95.

FROM THE DUST JACKET: "Kooser's Poetry Home Repair Manual is marked by impeccable clarity and focus of dedication and the absolute integrity that characterize Kooser's other works; I should also add the important qualities of generous and lively good humor and gentle, thoughtful persuasion. During more than 40 years of teaching college students, I examined hundreds of books designed to help young writers and readers, and I am pleased to report that this book is by far the best of them all." -- George Garrett, the Poet Laureate of Virginia

Recently appointed as the new U.S. Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser has been writing and publishing poetry for more than 40 years. In the pages of The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Kooser brings those decades of experience to bear. Here are tools and insights, the instructions (and warnings against instructions) that poets -- aspiring or practicing -- can use to hone their craft, perhaps into art. Using examples from his own rich literary oeuvre and from the work of a number of successful contemporary poets, the author schools us in the critical relationship between poet and reader, which is fundamental to what Kooser believes is poetry's ultimate purpose: to reach other people and touch their hearts.

Much more than a guidebook to writing and revising poems, this manual has all the comforts and merits of a long and enlightening conversation with a wise and patient old friend -- a friend who is willing to share everything he's learned about the art he's spent a lifetime learning to execute so well.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

From Publishers Weekly: This is not a book explaining sonnets, pantoums, and villanelles. Fixed forms are not to be ignored; rather Kooser recommends self-education in these because "working in a form, you may be forced to say things in a fresh way." He urges you to "write from your soul no matter what form you choose because that's what really matters."

Kooser stresses daily reading of poetry, as well as the discipline of taking a close look, noticing even the smallest event, training yourself to pay attention, to listen to language, to think about every word in the poem as you revise. Another practical tool: read your drafts aloud to yourself. He gives examples when he says, "Shake off generalization." He identifies "spare parts" and shows ways to prune background story and unnecessary details. When it comes to poems, "Too many extras, too much froufrou and falderal, can cost you a reader."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Born in 1939 in Ames, Iowa, and reared and educated in our nation's Middle West, Ted Kooser is the 13th and most recent Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Kooser worked for 35 years for Lincoln Benefit Life, an insurance company in Nebraska. He retired in 1999 at 60. He serves as visiting professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently Braided Creek, and Delights & ShadowsHis prose book, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives), won numerous awards, including the Barnes and Noble Discover Award for nonfiction finalist, and is available in a Bison Books edition. In the past week, Mr. Kooser was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Delights & Shadows, published by Copper Canyon Press. He lives in Garland, Nebraska, with his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, editor of the Lincoln Journal Star.

AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR:

The interview with Mr. Kooser was conducted by e-mail and via telephone. Mr. Kooser makes clear in his book that he wants to write poems that do not confuse the reader. I had read an interview with him in which he said, "Most of us would prefer to look at cartoons in a magazine than read a poem." Kooser went on to note the "common complaint that poetry is hard to decipher or full of elusive, hidden meanings. In the real world, if you come across a poem, who says, 'Study it'? If it doesn't do anything for you, you just move on."

I'd read, all through winter, the often seemingly impenetrable poems of Wallace Stevens. So I asked, "Why is Wallace Stevens difficult to read, and why, for 30 years or so, have I continued to go back to him? I must be getting some water, I tell myself, or I wouldn't keep going back to the well. Or, perhaps I'm only a fool who mistakes thirst for satisfaction. But he's very challenging for me. I do not feel that he, as you suggest to would-be poets, imagines (or projects for himself) an audience, a reader. I don't feel he even likes the likes of me."

Mr. Kooser responded, "I, too, find Stevens challenging, and there are times when a challenging poem seems just right. Hard to say what kind of audience he had in mind, but perhaps it was someone who simply mirrored his own pleasures in language and image.

"There are those who really love digging at difficult poems. I have a sister-in-law who is like that. She was a bright student when she was in school and I suppose finds rewards in ferreting out answers. I never much liked that sort of thing, being an average student who was mostly interested in what I was going to do after school. Yet I do enjoy the sense of play I pick up from Stevens, who seems to have been having a very good time."

"I'm puzzled, yes," I said. "But my puzzlement is not satisfied by the 'ferreting out answers.' I think I am trying to figure out what it is, as Stevens writes, to sing beyond 'the genius of the sea.' And what (and why) is a 'body wholly body, fluttering / Its empty sleeves'? And what in the devil has Stevens done to make me care?"

I added, "Your immediate forebear in the laureateship, Louise Gluck, writes about Stevens that his 'meditative poems are not addressed outward; they are allowed to be overheard. That is the nature of meditation: the speaker and the listener are one. But to overhear is to experience exclusion; reading Stevens, I felt myself superfluous, part of some marginal throng.... The difficulty to the reader is a function of the poem's mode, its privacy: to be allowed to follow is not to be asked along.'

"I suspect that I want to violate Stevens's privacy. Like some maiden-lady gossip who watches the neighborhood from her rocking chair on her front porch, I want to know 'what's going on.' But I also know that when I read Stevens, I often feel in a presence of someone quite beyond myself. Do you," I asked Mr. Kooser, "feel when you're reading other people's poems that you're in the presence of another or Another?"

Mr. Kooser answered, "Jane Hirshfield is a poet in whose work I feel the presence of Another, if I understand your term. I have been having a little correspondence with her lately."

In The Poetry Home Repair Manual Mr. Kooser urges poets to select a reader. Kooser has written a charming poem about just that:

Selecting a Reader

First, I would have her be beautiful,

and walking carefully up on my poetry

at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,

her hair still damp at the neck

from washing it. She should be wearing

a raincoat, an old one, dirty

from not having money enough for the cleaners.

She will take out her glasses, and there

in the bookstore, she will thumb

over my poems, then put the book back

up on its shelf. She will say to herself,

"For that kind of money, I can get

my raincoat cleaned." And she will.

(From Sure Signs, 1980; University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa.)

"How," I asked, "do you account for the proliferation of MFA programs and, with that proliferation, the increase in the number of young people who want to be poets? Or novelists?"

"It's a shame that we have so many young people thinking that they will be able to get jobs teaching creative writing, when there aren't that many openings, but I am all for people wanting to write and trying to write. I think we'd have a much more responsible citizenry if we were all thinking about what we were doing in the same way people do while trying to write."

"When I was in college," I said, "what my English teachers spoke of as 'personal' poems, poems that begin with 'I," were looked down upon as 'self-indulgent.' Now, books of poetry, often award-winning, are filled with poems that these teachers would have decried as 'self-indulgent' and 'personal.' What has brought this change?"

"As to self-indulgence, I think that has come about because our society supports a kind of narcissism. You can see it in TV commercials every night. I don't think it was always this way, though it's hard to remember advertising from the past. All the emphasis on looks, on bodybuilding, on health, etc. And the poets and other artists are trying to mirror the society."

"Do you make a habit of memorizing poems?"

"I can't remember my own poems, let alone memorize others'. Oh, I know parts of poems, but I am not good about memorization. It feels too much like work."

"As poet laureate, will you do as Ms. Gluck did (pretty much keep out of sight), or will you be an "activist" Hass or Pinsky laureate?"

"I will be one of the activist laureates. I admired what Hass and Pinsky and Collins were doing. My big project just now is a weekly newspaper column, distributed free to any paper that wants to use it. We ought to go live in a few weeks."

We talked then about writing and about how writing about someone could be like being with that person. Mr. Kooser said, "While my mother was dying about five years ago, I wrote a long, 35-page essay on her family, and I published it in a journal up in Minnesota called the Great River Review. Recently, the University of Nebraska Press published it in a limited edition of 1000 copies that the university is going to use as a gift to big donors."

"Nothing like a big donor."

"Well, a big donor is, I suppose, $25,000. I was glad they did it because it is a way of keeping all those people -- my ancestors -- alive a little longer."

"Also," I said, "the essay will keep alive the words that your ancestors used. One reason I've always liked Dick Hugo's poems is that his poems keep so much of the landscape of Montana and Washington State alive -- the two-lane country roads, the Indian reservations, the smoky taverns, the lakes and streams where Hugo fished for dollies."

"For The The Poetry Home Repair Manual to get the Dick Hugo poem I wanted, 'Letter to Kathy from Wisdom,' I had the most incredible grief from W.W. Norton. I began writing for permission in April, and at the end of August I got a note back saying that they would have responded earlier but they couldn't find their copy of the book. And I said, 'Well, would you like to borrow my copy of the book?' The poem is in that Thirteen Dreams book. And they said, 'Oh no, that wouldn't be necessary.'

"And then finally, I had to pull out all the stops. It was after I got appointed poet laureate I wrote to the president of Norton and I said, 'I've been waiting six months for your permissions department to come through with this thing,' and so right away, of course, they jumped on it. But it still cost me $600. I only had a $1000 advance on the whole book. So I went in the hole right after that."

Mr. Kooser recalled an interview for The New South Creek Reader that he did with the late Dick Hugo. "It was a self-interview, and we invented an interviewer and so he wrote the questions and the answers. I think he had a great time with that."

"Sad, but nobody much seems to read him anymore."

"That happens. I think part of it is that with poetry, so many readers attach the poets to their work that when the poet dies, the work is left out there floating. We have poets right now who are famous on the reading circuit, but my guess is that their work will not withstand time once they're gone."

"On a happier note, I like this poem of yours -- 'That Was I. '" (See page XX.)

"I'm pretty fond of that poem. I've been using that to close all my readings."

"The reader can imagine that the poem's narrator pities himself; instead he's praising the world. Yet you don't get away from death in the last two lines."

"That poem was extremely easy to write. Oftentimes, I have to work really hard on poems, and I revise them forever. But that poem, although it went through some revisions, it really came out pretty whole and so much so I sent it to the Georgia Review, and when they accepted it out of the five I sent, I was startled. Thinking, 'I didn't have to work that hard on that one.'"

"I find it more difficult to be read to if I haven't read a poem. Do you?"

"I do, yes."

"Sometimes when people are reading, I feel blindsided by the words."

"I have tried, a couple of times, when I was doing readings of shorter poems, to actually have the poems available, type it out, and hand it out. Although I think that that is in ways a fuller experience for the reader, it's disconcerting to stand there at the podium and see everybody looking down at their sheet of paper."

Mr. Kooser explained that the person in "That Was I" "actually is me, and I was in all three of those places. I am very dedicated to the idea that if I use an 'I' in the poem it is me; there is no fiction involved.

"I wrote an essay that Prairie Schooner published a number of years ago in which I got -- it was pretty controversial. It was called "Lying for the Sake of Making Poems," and it was about poets making up autobiographies just for the sake of being able to write.

"What had happened was that there were a number of instances that I'd run into one woman poet who had written a series of poems about being sexually abused by her father, which I found out was not true; she had simply fashioned it because she knew that child sexual abuse was a big issue. And yet they were all written in first person, and there was no indication that this was a fictional character. And it horrified me in that this woman's father is still living. I just was disgusted about it. That's an extreme case. But I do see other poets doing this sort of thing, and maybe it is the postmodern period and I ought to get used to it, but I can't.

"Another poet I know who's a very affluent poet, upper-class all the way, she has a poem in which she talked about her brother being in prison. Well, she neither has a brother nor one in prison, and there's no identifying that in the poem. I don't know. I find it really unsettling, but again I may be just old-fashioned."

I asked Mr. Kooser about the late Karl Shapiro (1913-2000), who had been Kooser's teacher when Kooser was in graduate school.

Mr. Kooser had told an earlier interviewer, about his time with Shapiro, "It was really good for me to be around a poet of his stature, just to see how a poet lived and conducted himself. He served in the Pacific in World War II and won the Pulitzer Prize for a book of poems based on that experience and later was the editor of Poetry magazine and a prominent literary figure for many years."

On the day that we talked Mr. Kooser added that Shapiro "was a fairly passive teacher. He wouldn't get all over your manuscripts with punctuation and that sort of thing, but he would give you a pretty good appraisal and point where things might be better. He introduced me to a whole lot of poetry. He had published The Bourgeois Poet when I was there, and I kind of got to watch him write it. And I'd befriended him early on after I got here, and I spent a lot of time with him socially.

"I was 25, 26 then. Karl published two autobiographical books, written in third person, and the first book is called The Younger Son and the second is called Reports of My Death. In one of those books, I think it's Reports of My Death, there's a photograph of me and my first wife and Karl and a couple of other friends of ours, sitting in a tavern."

Throughout The Poetry Home Repair Manual Mr. Kooser uses, as examples, poems by poets of whom I'd never heard, many from the Midwest. This caused me, I said, to wonder about regionalism and the often snobbish attitude toward 'regionalist' poets and poems."

"I think it's elitism and I find it terribly offensive. I have never liked elitism in the world. Let alone in writers. Who knows where it comes from, but, apparently, we just can't stand it if we don't have some sort of caste system in place. And people have to be better than other people and so on.

"One of the things that I've been thinking about a great deal since I took over this little job -- well, not little job; big job, actually -- is that we tend to talk about American poetry. I think we really shouldn't. I think we ought to talk about communities of poetry. Within American poetry we have the rap poets, the slam poets, the cowboy poets. None of those groups is a bit interested in what the other ones are doing. Each is thriving in its own way. Within the literary poets you have the language poets, and they could give a damn about anybody else, and then you have the Associated Writing Programs community in which everybody is writing. One of my friends in New York, who's not a poet, said, about that 'literary' community, 'It seems like a lot of college professors, writing for other college professors.' Which I thought was pretty right on.

"At any rate, those literary poets aren't interested in what the cowboy poets are doing, and the cowboy poets are not interested in what the literary poets are doing, and yet each of those communities thrives on its own momentum. I think it's a mistake to draw big generalizations about the health of American poetry.

"As for myself, I don't care whether I'm identified with Nebraska or not. One of the things that I find interesting is that people are always talking about me as being this representative of this region out here, but if you look at the single poems, one by one, you don't see that in them. The 'Tattoo' poem or 'Skater' poem [found in Delights & Shadows] could be anywhere."

I suggested that when people spoke of a poet as a "regionalist," they seemed also often to be speaking of the poet as conservative, not in politics but in prosody. Their poems, I said, jokingly, "are orderly and neat in appearance and perhaps seem simple and not written under the influence of John Ashbery."

Our newest laureate laughed. "Thank God, I haven't fallen into that."

I had read that Mr. Kooser each year sent out hundreds of valentines, most to women whom he never had met.

He explained. "It's now 19 years since I started this, and what happened was, I wrote a little valentine poem and I thought, 'I'll send it to women I know and the wives of my friends and so on.' I started doing that, and over the years it grew, and this year I sent out 460. A friend on Waldron Island, Washington, who has the Brooding Heron Press, is going to do a book next year of all 20 years. It's something that I have a lot of fun with. I don't send Christmas cards, so I send the annual valentine."

"Do you hand-address them?"

"Yes. Actually, this year I used labels. I've got them on the computer. I used labels because I didn't have the time to hand-address them. I hoped people would understand."

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