Hallmark Writers Get Advice from Poet Laureate

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser, at his home in Nebraska. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR

Ted Kooser, the nation's poet laureate, has been traveling around the country talking to librarians, school children and other groups about poetry. One of his stops was in Kansas City, Mo., where he led a workshop with some of Hallmark's greeting card writers.

On This Page

Scroll down to read excerpts from Kooser's Poetry Home Repair Manual; poems from his collection, Delights & Shadows; and samples of the Hallmark writers' poetry.

In their jobs, they may create sympathy cards or compose verse summing up the key to a happy marriage. But on this day, they got to talk about the craft of writing with Kooser, who offered gentle but pointed critique.

And back at his office at the Library of Congress in Washington, Kooser discusses his most recent book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, which offers practical advice for beginning poets.

Excerpts: 'The Poetry Home Repair Manual'

'The Poetry Home Repair Manual' by Ted Kooser
University of Nebraska Press

Can You Read Your Poem Through Your Poem?

When my sister and I were small children, perhaps five and eight years old, our parents took us to the Wisconsin Dells, a popular tourist attraction just a few hours' drive from my grandparents' home in northeastern Iowa. These picturesque rock palisades on the Wisconsin River are a smaller, flooded version of Colorado Springs' spectacular Garden of the Gods.

I remember very little of that trip, but we can be almost certain it was one of our family's daylong outings with a predictable lunch of cold meat, mayonnaise, and Wonder Bread sandwiches. I have forgotten most of that day, and have long since lost whatever souvenirs I wheedled my dear parents into buying, trinkets that would have been paid for slowly and painfully, coin by coin, from a purse that my mother always held tightly in both hands. I probably went home with one of those little souvenir Indian tomahawks in my lap, one with a black rubber blade painted aluminum and a few brightly dyed chicken feathers tied around the handle. Or perhaps it was an Indian drum made of pieces of inner tube stretched by shoelaces over a cardboard cylinder.

But I do vividly remember going for a ride in an excursion boat that had a clear glass bottom. It floated with grace and ease and a throbbing gurgle across water brightly dappled with summer sunlight. Beneath the glass floor I could see fish swimming, catfish and carp and gar, and rocks eroded into imaginative shapes, and soda bottles that people on earlier cruises had dropped over the side.

I remember being completely absorbed by this underwater world until a large woman sitting nearby leaned over too far and her white-rimmed cat's-eye sunglasses slid off the end of her nose and fell with a clatter onto the glass. That sudden interference on the surface of the dreamy world beneath me brought my attention back to the glass floor, back to the ordinary world of being a little boy, hot and impatient and cross. The moment had been spoiled.

Enjoying a well-written poem can be like going for a ride in a glass-bottomed boat. The poet deftly and confidently pilots the language, taking the reader across sometimes deep, sometimes cold, often colorful waters. The reader peers down through the clear floor of the poem, down through the page upon which words have been printed with type and ink, a page now magically gone transparent, into a fascinating realm revealed by the poem. The reader's experience in this world beneath the page is much like a dream, trancelike and timeless. His or her attention swims playfully among the waving grasses and mossy rocks of the poem, until something — a pair of sunglasses maybe — suddenly clatters down upon the surface and spoils the moment. You don't want that to happen.

You'll find all sorts of dropped sunglasses on the surface of poem. For example, here are just a couple I often come upon:

The ampersand — & — was invented by typesetters to enable them to make their lines of lead type a little shorter in length, so as to fit the horizontal restraints of narrow columns, and poets do sometimes use them for that reason, to shorten a line enough that it needn't be broken and dropped to the next line. But I never come upon an ampersand in a poem that doesn't hang me up for just an instant while I wonder why the poet decided to use it. There is really nothing wrong with the word "and," and it doesn't attract any attention, but every ampersand requires a reader to think about it, if only for a second. I'm sure plenty of readers are so accustomed to ampersands that they don't even notice them, and I'm probably a crank on this, but the use of any graphic symbol in place of a word is just a little risky.

Another stylistic trend in contemporary poetry is to drop articles, perhaps in an attempt to heighten the energy of the language. A poet might do something like this:

CB radio blares, man shouts,
dog growls...

There are times when writing like this can be effective, and times when a reader is brought up short, wondering why on earth a poet would choose to "talk" that way, to sound like a robot. The standard use of articles avoids this stylistic affectation and calls no attention away from the poem and to the poet's choices.

A CB radio blares, man shouts,
a dog growls...

And so on. In your poetry reading you'll find all sorts of little things dropped on the glass.

Work and Rework and Rework

You can learn to love tinkering with drafts of poems till a warm hand from somewhere above you reaches down, unscrews the top of your head, and drops in a solution that blows your ears off. Sure, there are plenty of days when nothing good happens, days when every word you write seems silly and shallow, when your revisions seem to be dragging your poems in the wrong direction. But you need to be there writing and waiting, as a hunter might say, for that hour when at last the ducks come flying in. To say it more simply, in the words of a painter friend, you just need to "show up for work."

A couple of years ago, I happened to be talking to a man about pitching horseshoes. He told me his uncle had been a three-state horseshoe champion for several years running. He said he once asked his uncle how he'd gotten so good at the game, and the uncle said, "Son, you got to pitch a hundred shoes a day." That's the kind of advice beginning writers should listen to: Keep pitching them horseshoes. We poets serve an art, just as a champion horseshoe pitcher serves his game.

Relax and Wait

You've written your poem. The first step in spotting its flaws is a simple one. Set aside what you've written and let it cool off for a while, the longer the better. Take a look at it after twenty-four hours if you must, tinker with it a little. Does there seem to be an awkward rhythm in one of the lines? Are there places that could use more specific detail? And so on. Then set it aside again for as long as you can stand to. Like a petri dish, the longer you leave a poem by itself the more stinky fungus will surface. As Edward Weeks said, "When the ideas begin to run smoothly they can so easily run away with us, leaving behind pages which in a colder mood seem full of extravagance." Extravagance, certainly, but just plain stupidity, too.

If you can manage to do it, leave your poem alone till it begins to look as if somebody else might have written it. Then you can see it for what it is, a creation independent of you, out on its own. A poem must be equipped to thrive by itself in a largely indifferent world. Yon can't be there with it, like its parent, offering explanations, saying to a confused reader, "Yes, but here's what I meant!" A poem has to do all of its own explaining.

What's the hurry? The truth is, nobody's waiting for you to press your poetry into their hands. Nobody knows you're writing it, nobody's hungry for it, nobody's dying to get at it. Not a living soul has big expectations for the success of your poem other than you. Of course, you want it to be wonderful-pure genius, beautiful, heartbreaking, memorable and by coincidence that's just the kind of writing your audience would like to be reading. So let time show you some of the things you've done wrong before you show your poem to somebody and are embarrassed by a problem, or two or three problems, that you just couldn't see in the exhilaration of just having written it.

And don't stop writing while you're waiting for one poem to mature. Most of us are tempted to wait for approval before moving on. We want our mothers to praise our mud pies before we make any more. But if you're going to get better at writing, you have to write a lot. You have to press on. Isak Dinesen said, "Write a little every day, without hope, without despair." When you finish a draft, or get stuck, put it out of your sight in a drawer. After a month or so, you can take out that poem and the others with it and start looking through them, beginning with the oldest. You'll be amazed at the way in which the passage of time has helped you come up with solutions to problems you had during those early drafts. You'll also be surprised at how awkward some of it may seem.

Don't worry that the process of revision seems slow. The writer's tools were developed early — paper, pen, and ink; a watchful eye; an open heart — and good writing is still the patient handiwork of those simple tools. A poet who makes only one really fine poem during his life gives far more to the world than the poet who publishes twenty books of mediocre verse. The Industrial Revolution did not reach imaginative writing until recently, and today black clouds of soot belch from the smokestacks over the creative writing schools. Poems get manufactured and piled on the loading docks where many of them rot for lack of transport. Wouldn't we all be better off if there wasn't such an emphasis on productivity?

At a party, I once heard a woman say that it was "criminal" that Harper Lee had written only the one novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. What peculiar expectations we've developed for our writers! "Criminal?" We ought to be thankful Lee used her time to write her book as perfectly as she could, that she didn't rush a lot of half-finished books into print.

So just relax. There's plenty of time to do your writing well and, if you're lucky, to make a poem or two that might make a difference.

Reprinted from The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, published by University of Nebraska Press, 2005, and used here by permission of Ted Kooser.

Excerpts: Poems from 'Delights & Shadows'

 

Poems by Hallmark Writers

 

Angela Ensminger

spinning

 

By Angela Ensminger

 

about half an hour before sunrise

when the sky was pink-fingered,

about halfway through my first cup of coffee,

something caught my eye

on the far edge of the patio

that wasn't there the day before.

 

rising, falling, arching

with each whiff of wind

in autumn's early hour

perfect, silken strands supported the weight

of a large round spider,

dark and compact

compared to the impossibly fine weaving

all around it.

 

and as if to check for symmetry

i whipped around to find a second milky web

bowing and swaying to the morning sky,

wobbly circles spun smaller and smaller

until there in the middle, a second spider rested,

delicate and long, its web imperfectly patched

with thick white, like caulk.

 

i wonder how they knew

as if on cue, that the spinning season had begun?

and i wonder, too, if they've got plans for winter

or at least a warm place

to wait out the coming cold.

 

Linda Morris

Las Vegas

 

By Linda Morris

 

As snow falls on the glittering city of broken promises,

bright lights bounce off the pristine flakes like lost

fireflies on a frozen lake. The city that truly never sleeps

opens its harlot arms of dream-like ease and false face

to beckon lost souls seeking answers to life's deepest questions,

"Will luck be a lady tonight? Or will it be the painted whore

who lives within the high-priced call girl's heart?"

Eyes aglow with wonder and "aah" barely shield the grief

laying deep within the purchased soul. Spin the wheel,

take a chance, do the deal, win, please, win and behind the

smiles, away from the cha-ching of another sucker lure,

homes tumble, hearts break, and people die. And the grief

of the manmade stage mingles with the sorrow of the façade

called life in this pain struck city under the guise of frolic.

For there are no survivors in this desert oasis of festering lies.

Good intentions line the road known as "The Strip", apropos

of all its elaborate pulley system keeps of its provocative promises.

And as night fades to day into night ad infinitum without any

idea that night has turned to day into night into life, it becomes

frighteningly clear that the shiny ring of the payoff of the slots,

the slap of the pegs hitting the plastic guide in the wheel of fortune,

the murmur of the audience as they await the show, the

orchestra wowing with the first crash of music to introduce

whatever drop dead, beyond belief performer will strut and

sweat upon the stage for the enjoyment of the liquor guzzling

masses, the roar of the crowd surrounding the winner blending

with the agonized moan of the loser as they watch their livelihood get

swept beneath a green felt table so much like the perfect

grass of a well-manicured cemetery – all sounds carry in them

a low grade laugh of malevolent satisfaction and glee. A

taunting, tempting shiver of ecstasy celebrating a grief so

deep no mortal can resist its pull. And the snow falls on the

glittering city as hell freezes over, glazed in hope, pain

and loss.

 

Sarah Mueller

Alzheimer's

 

By Sarah Mueller

 

In the burning

church-barn,

millions of tiny dust angels

fly in a shaft of light

and point to where

the choir used to sit.

Even the steer's hollow baritone

is gone now,

replaced by the

dry hum of heat.

Sparrow nests slip

from the broke-down rafters above,

flip-turned parachutes

falling with the shocking

gravity of light things.

They catch flame quickly,

offering their negative space

to downy feathers of smoke.

Pretty soon plumes,

plain as Pentecost,

tongue the mossy shingles,

paw the arched windows.

You can't remember

whether yours or another hand

set the sparks,

or why you are here now,

feeling the heat snap your cheeks,

letting the ashes make you cry.

 

Jim Howard

A Glass Of Water

 

By Jim Howard

 

God sends the wave

to kill us all,

that those of us only partly killed

can feel the luck of being partly spared,

and so reach out to those more deeply slain,

the boyish newlywed whose wife the sea returned

like a broken doll, the solemn wall of women

searching the horizon for boats they know are lost,

a mob of desperation under the helicopter's blast,

the mother wailing on her knees beside the baby boy

plumply rolled in sand, confection to delight God's teeth.

Oh, the thirst for fresh souls and suffering.

Send the wave, blow the top off the mountain,

whirl the winds together, bring down the lightning,

rain in deadly torrents, relentless, stalking sun,

inspire your zealots to ever-more magnificent violence,

let your name be spoken as invocation

and benediction to unspeakable horror. Yes,

set your many saving miracles in motion,

but murder hosts of us stupendously and by degree

so we who witness and die but a little

can feel the portion left —

how cool and clear this glass of water,

this gratuitous moment

and the next,

until the very last —

how full and sweet its awful blessedness.

 

Teresa Leggard

Double Dutch

 

by Teresa Leggard

 

smooth, balanced and clean

at first they fit together

so connected it was hard to tell

where one stopped and the other began

floating on air

swaying to perpetual song

stepping lively

rhythm lovely

this tango of nicks and scrapes was

still a beautiful dance

 

pick up the pace... who skipped a beat?

 

adjust the tempo

try to get it back, but

tripped by a stone

rhythm blown

tango turns

break dance

 

their go is over

who's next?

Reprinted with permission of the authors and Hallmark Cards.

Books Featured In This Story

The Poetry Home Repair Manual

Practical Advice For Beginning Poets

by Ted Kooser

Hardcover, 163 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Poetry Home Repair Manual
Subtitle
Practical Advice For Beginning Poets
Author
Ted Kooser

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Delights & Shadows

by Ted Kooser

Paperback, 87 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Delights & Shadows
Author
Ted Kooser

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.