Around this time of year, for more than 20 years, women around the country have checked their mail and found a postcard bearing a red heart in the corner and a poem: a valentine from Ted Kooser, who was U.S. poet laureate from 2004 to 2006.
Now, he has collected those poems in a book called Valentines.
Kooser says a friend who sent handmade valentines out each year inspired the project. The first poem in the book, "Pocket Poem" from 1986, is the first one he sent out — to about 50 women.
The poems range from the clearly romantic gestures of "Pocket Poem" to more obliquely "romantic" poems such as "A New Potato."
Over the years at public appearances, Kooser would request women add their names and addresses to his list, which grew to number 2,700 in 2007. He spent almost $1,000 in postage and printing that year. That's when he decided he would "rein it in" and stop writing and sending Valentine's Day poems, at least for now.
Kooser notes that his wife, Kathleen, was very patient with his project, adding that he has "special valentines" for her.
Valentine's Day is a great holiday for the poet, Kooser says.
"It's not tied up with anything other than expressions of sentiment," he says.
In a Light Late-Winter Wind
Ted Kooser Reads 'In a Light Late-Winter Wind'
In a light late-winter wind the oak trees are scattering valentines over the snow—dark red like the deep-running, veinous blood of the married, returning again and again to the steady heart.
This leaf is yours, friend, picked from the heart-shaped hoofprint of a deer. She stood here under the apple tree during the night, kicking up sweetness, her great eyes watching the sleeping house.
The Celery Heart
Ted Kooser Reads 'The Celery Heart'
CELERY HEARTS: 98 CENTS —Placard at Hinky Dinky
Surely it misses those long fly balls of light its leaves once leapt to catch, or longs to run its roots out into the salty darkness.
What once looked like a Roman fountain is now a ruin of fallen columns bedded on ice. Its only consolations are,
at regular intervals, the hiss of mist, and at times the warm and reassuring squeeze of passing hand. But better this, by far,
than to be the sullen heart of artichoke, stripped of its knives and heavy armor and mummified for eons in a jar of brine.
Ted Kooser Reads 'Pocket Poem'
If this comes creased and creased again and soiled as if I'd opened it a thousand times to see if what I'd written here was right, it's all because I looked too long for you to put in your pocket. Midnight says the little gifts of loneliness come wrapped by nervous fingers. What I wanted this to say was that I want to be so close that when you find it, it is warm from me.
A New Potato
Ted Kooser Reads 'A New Potato'
This is just one of the leathery eggs the scuffed-up, dirty turtle of the moon buried early in spring, her eyes like stars fixed on the future, and, inside its red skin, whiteness, like all of the moons to come, and marvelous, buttered with light.
A Map of the World
Ted Kooser Reads 'A Map of the World'
One of the ancient maps of the world is heart-shaped, carefully drawn and once washed with bright colors, though the colors have faded as you might expect feelings to fade from a fragile old heart, the brown map of a life. But feeling is indelible, and longing infinite, a starburst compass pointing in all the directions two lovers might go, a fresh breeze swelling their sails, the future uncharted, still far from the edge where the sea pours into the stars.
The Hog-Nosed Snake
Ted Kooser Reads 'The Hog-Nosed Snake'
The hog-nosed snake, when playing dead, Lets its tongue loll out of its ugly head.
It lies on its back as stiff as a stick; If you flip it over it'll flip back quick.
If I seem dead when you awake, Just flip me once, like the hog-nosed snake.
If You Feel Sorry
Ted Kooser Reads 'If You Feel Sorry'
If you feel sorry for yourself this Valentine's Day, think of the dozens of little paper poppies left in the box when the last of the candy is gone, how they must feel, dried out and brown in their sad old heart-shaped box, without so much as a single finger to scrabble around in their crinkled petals, not even one pimpled nose to root and snort through their delicate pot pourri. So before you make too much of being neglected, I want you to think how they feel.
Poems excerpted from Valentines by Ted Kooser, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright (c) 2008 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press (800) 755-1105 and on the Web at www.nebraskapress.unl.edu.