Ted Kooser: The Predicament of Popular Poetry

Excerpted from “The Anonymity of the Regional Poet,” in Can Poetry Matter?

Ordinary thoughts and feelings are not necessarily shallow, any more than subtle or unusual ones are necessarily profound.

–Edwin Muir

Can Poetry Matter?
Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture, by Dana Gioia

Ted Kooser is a popular poet. This is not to say that he commands a mass public. No contemporary poet does—at least in America. Kooser is popular in that unlike most of his peers he writes naturally for a nonliterary public. His style is accomplished but extremely simple—his diction drawn from common speech, his syntax conversational. His subjects are chosen from the everyday world of the Great Plains, and his sensibility, though more subtle and articulate, is that of the average Midwesterner. Kooser never makes an allusion that an intelligent but unbookish reader will not immediately grasp. There is to my knowledge no poet of equal stature who writes so convincingly in a manner the average American can understand and appreciate.

Finishing one poem, the reader instinctively wants to proceed to another. But to describe Kooser merely as a poet who writes plainly about the ordinary world is misleading insofar as it makes his work sound dull. For here, too, the comparison with poplar art holds true. Kooser is uncommonly entertaining. His poems are usually short and perfectly paced, his subjects relevant and engaging. Finishing one poem, the reader instinctively wants to proceed to another. It has been Kooser’s particular genius to develop a genuine poetic style that accommodates the average reading and portrays a vision that provides unexpected moments of illumination from the seemingly threadbare details of everyday life.

If Kooser’s work is visionary, however, it is on a decidedly human scale. He offers no blinding flashes of inspiration, no mystic moments of transcendence. He creates no private mythologies or fantasy worlds. Instead he provides small but genuine insights into the world of everyday experience. His work strikes the difficult balance between profundity and accessibility, just as his style manages to be personal without being idiosyncratic. It is simple without becoming shallow, striking without going to extremes. He has achieved the most difficult kind of originality. He has transformed the common idiom and experience into fresh and distinctive poetry.

But what does an instinctively popular poet do in contemporary America, where serious poetry is no longer a popular art? The public whose values and sensibility he celebrates is unaware of his existence. Indeed, even if they were aware of his poetry, they would feel no need to approach it. Cut off from his proper audience, this poet feels little sympathy with the specialized minority readership that now sustains poetry either as a highly sophisticated verbal game or secular religion. His sensibility shows little similarity to theirs except for the common interest in poetry. And so the popular poet usually leads a marginal existence in literary life. His fellow poets look on him as an anomaly or an anachronism. Reviewers find him eminently unnewsworthy. Publishers see little prestige attached to printing his work. Critics, who have been trained to celebrate complexity, consider him an amiable simpleton.

It is not surprising then that Kooser’s work has not received sustained attention from academic critics. In an age when serious critics have begun to look on themselves as either creative personalities hardly less important than the authors they discuss or at the very least as great interpretive artists—the Van Cliburns of poetry—without whose skilled touch literature would remain as mute as an unopened score, there is little in Kooser’s work that would summon forth a great performance. There are no problems to solve, no ambiguities to unravel, no dizzying bravado passages to master for the dexterous critic eager to earn an extra curtain call.

What can a critic meaningfully add to the attentive reader’s appreciation of this poem, for instance, which is one of Kooser’s more complex pieces:

The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise

The blind always come as such a surprise,
suddenly filling an elevator
with a great white porcupine of canes,
or coming down upon us in a noisy crowd
like the eye of a hurricane.
The dashboards of cars stopped at crosswalks
and the shoes of commuters on trains
are covered with sentences
struck down in mid-flight by the canes of the blind.
Each of them changes our lives,
tapping across the bright circles of our ambitions
like cracks traversing the favorite china.

One can enumerate its small beauties—the opening image of a blind person (or persons) entering an elevator to the slight alarm of other passengers, the unexpectedly surreal equation of a porcupine’s quills and the white-tipped canes, the sharp observations of how “normal” people pause uncomfortably when they notice the blind or disabled, the rhetorical trick of referring to the blind collectively, which gives them a mysterious, sexless, ageless composite identity, or the haunting final simile. But aside from cataloguing these moments, there is little a critic can provide that the average reader cannot, because the difficulties this poem provokes are experiential rather than textual. It poses none of the verbal problems critical methodologies have been so skillfully designed to unravel. Rather it quietly raises certain moral and psychological issues that the professional critic by training is not prepared to engage or resolve.

Paradoxically, the simpler poetry is, the more difficult it becomes for a critic to discuss intelligently. Trained to explicate, the critic often loses the ability to evaluate literature outside the critical act. A work is good only in proportion to the richness and complexity of interpretations it provokes. Finding little to challenge in Kooser’s poetry, the enterprising critics tempted to dismiss it. Surely poetry so simple must lack depth. While admitting to a certain superficial fascination, the critic qualifies his admiration by exploring the author’s limitations, which in itself becomes a compelling critical activity. While defining a poet’s limitations is a legitimate critical pursuit, limitations in themselves are not necessarily shortcomings. Even the greatest authors have blind spots; Milton had little gift for comedy; Wordsworth a relatively narrow technical range. To find a limitation does not necessarily invalidate an author’s achievement. Criticism should make meaningful distinctions, not apply irrelevant standards.

Kooser does have significant limitations as a poet. Looking across all his mature work, one sees a narrow range of technical means, an avoidance of stylistic or thematic complexity, little interest in ideas, and an unwillingness to work in longer forms. In his weaker poems one also notices a tendency to sentimentalize his subjects and too strong a need to be liked by his readers, which expresses itself in a self-deprecatory attitude toward himself and his poetry. In short, Kooser’s major limitation is a deep-set conservatism that keeps him working in areas he knows he can master to please his audience.

Significantly, however, Kooser’s limitations derive directly from his strengths. His narrow technical range reflects his insistence on perfecting the forms he uses. If Kooser has concentrated on few types of poems, he has made each of these forms unmistakably his own. If he has avoided longer forms, what member of his generation has written so many unforgettable short poems? If he has not cultivated complexity in his work, he has also developed a highly charged kind of simplicity. What his poems lack in intellectuality they make up for in concrete detail. If he occasionally lapses into sentimentality, it is because he invests his poems with real emotion. Even Kooser’s self-deprecatory manner betrays a consistent concern for the communal role of the poet. He will not strike superior poses to bully or impress his audience.

Limitations, however, are not necessarily weaknesses. Having catalogued Kooser’s conspicuous limitations, one cannot help noticing that they are more often sins of omission than commission. Discussing them may be an interesting critical exercise, but it is useful only insofar as it sharpens one’s understanding of Kooser’s particular strengths. It may seem obvious to say, but it is surprising how often some otherwise intelligent critics forget, that a writer is better judged by how successfully he works with the material he includes than by what he omits. Kooser’s achievement is the consummate skill with which he handles the self- imposed limits of the short imagistic poem, the universal significance he projects from his local subject matter.

If Kooser’s particular achievements as a poet don’t fit comfortably into current critical standards, how then is one to judge the extent of the achievement? Here I would submit four simple criteria. After reading carefully through Kooser’s work, one should consider the following questions. First, there is the question of quality. Has the author written any perfect poems, not just good poems but perfect ones—on whatever subject, in whatever style, of whatever length—which use the resources of the language so definitively that one cannot change a single phrase without diminishing the poem’s effect? And if there are perfect poems, how many? Second, there is the question of originality. Are the author’s best poems different from those of any preceding poet? Can one hear a distinctive personality or sensibility behind them that is either saying something new about the world or speaking in such an original way that it makes one see familiar parts of the world as if for the first time? Third, there is a question of scope. How many things can an author do well in his poetry? How many styles or subjects, moods or voices can he master? Fourth, and finally, there is the question of integrity. Do the author’s poems hold together to provide a unique and truthful vision of the world, or do they remain isolated moments of illumination?

There are other criteria one might use, but, at the very least, this test helps distinguish a superb poet from one who is merely good. And it is a test that highlights some important ways in which Kooser surpasses some of his more highly praised contemporaries. Kooser has written more perfect poems than any other poet of his generation. In a quiet way, he is also one of its most original poets. His technical and intellectual interest may be narrow (indeed, in terms of limited techniques, he shares a common fault of his generation), but his work shows an impressive emotional range always handled in a distinctively personal way. Finally, his work does coalesce into an impressive whole. Read individually, his poems sparkle with insight. Read together, they provide a broad and believable portrait of contemporary America.

From Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture.
Printed 1992; 2002, Graywolf Press.