Ted Kooser Shares the Poetry of Valentine's Day

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Ted Kooser's latest book is a collection of Valentine's Day poems called, aptly, Valentines. University of Nebraska-Lincoln hide caption

itoggle caption University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser's latest book is a collection of Valentine's Day poems called, aptly, Valentines.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Cover of 'Valentines'

The collection includes poems dating back to 1986. hide caption

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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

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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

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—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.

Pocket Poem

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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