ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
We've been spending time on this program getting to know the country's poet laureate, Ted Kooser. He lives in Garland, Nebraska. And much of the time as poet laureate he's on the road. He doesn't much like flying, so he puts a lot of miles on his green Dodge Intrepid. He'll travel all over to talk to librarians, school children, medical personnel, many others about poetry.
Mr. TED KOOSER (U.S. Poet Laureate): This poem is very nicely controlled, too, the shape of it and everything. The phrasing and the pacing of it I think is very nicely done.
BLOCK: I caught up with Ted Kooser in Kansas City, at the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. He was leading a workshop for about 20 of Hallmark's greeting card writers. In their jobs, they may create sympathy cards or compose verse summing up the key to a happy marriage.
On this day, they got to talk about the craft of writing with none less than the U.S. poet laureate, who offered gentle but pointed critique. Kooser had some words of caution about metaphor.
Mr. KOOSER: I have graduate students who will show me a poem, and they will point to some place in the middle and they'll say, well, don't you think I ought to put a metaphor here? Like you could buy one at Circuit City and just plug it in or something.
BLOCK: Kooser had given the Hallmarks writers a poetry assignment before he came, take to dissimilar things and try to bring them into some kind of association. One of the poems was about Las Vegas.
Unidentified Man #1: 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 dreamlike ease and false face to beckon lost souls seeking answers to life's deepest questions --
BLOCK: Ted Kooser asked the other writers for their thoughts, and Barbara Lopes began. She has been a Hallmark writer for almost 40 years.
Ms. BARBARA LOPES (Hallmark Cards): I would go through the poem and take another look at all the adjectives and phrases that are possibly a little more expected than you'd like, broken promises, bright lights, false face, lost souls, deepest questions are things that we've heard. And I think there would be ways of tuning that a bit.
Mr. KOOSER: You don't need to necessarily get rid of all of those modifiers, but you need to adjust them, vary them, so instead of as snow falls on the glittering city of broken promises, you say, as snow falls on the city glittering with broken promises, or anything like that, that you can vary that slightly, so that we don't have that da-da, da-da, da-da, adjective-noun throughout.
BLOCK: Another Hallmark writer's poem was inspired by a spider web.
Unidentified Woman: And as if to check for symmetry, I whipped around to find a second milky web bowing and swaying to the morning sky --
GORDON: Now, this poem was written entirely in lowercase, and that's what Ted Kooser zoomed in on.
Mr. KOOSER: Down in the third stanza, second line, when you got to that lowercase I what did you do, just accepted that?
Unidentified Man #2: It caught me. I mean, I, then I had to go to the beginning of the poem and just, oh, yeah, she's using lowercase all the way through. I mean, I hadn't even noticed that until I hit that I.
Mr. KOOSER: Any time that your attention comes back up to the surface, there's, a little bit of destruction happens in the experience of the poem. So if I'm reading along and I see that lowercase I, the first thing I think is, was that a typo? So I'm right back up on the surface studying that. And then I say, well, no, it looks like since she does it again, I can get back into the poem that way. But there's a little bit of damage to the sort of dream of the poem when that happens.
BLOCK: A week after the workshop, Ted Kooser came to Washington to spend some time at the Library of Congress, where the poet laureate is given an office. The walls lined of photos of past poets laureate, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks. We talked there about his most recent book. It's a book of practical advice for beginning poets called THE POETRY HOME REPAIR MANUAL.
Let's talk first about the title. I know that you like to work with your hands, and it's a very practical name to give --
Mr. KOOSER: Well, actually, I thought the title would be fun to use because it kind of takes the mystique out of everything, you know. There are lots of books on writing, and oftentimes they are rather highbrow sounding. And I thought if we talk about this like it was a toolkit, it will convey that although I take this work seriously, that it doesn't need to be looked at as some very highbrow thing.
I am saying basic things like, after all, in my opinion, poetry is communication. It is something that we use to communicate with one another, and we have to think about that. And poems that don't communicate are -- what is the purpose in that? Now, that's sort of dangerous ground, in a way, because there are writers in this country who don't subscribe to that at all, and who say, I'm going to write however I want to write however I want to write and the audience be damned.
BLOCK: You start out right off the bat with this in THE POETRY HOME REPAIR MANUAL. You say, you'll never be able to make a living writing poems. Let's just get that out of the way.
Mr. KOOSER: That's right. A poem in the best magazine in the country is worth about $5.00 a line, if they pay at all. Most literary magazines don't pay anything. They send you two copies, one for you and one for your mother. I had a poem in the Atlantic Monthly several years ago, a five line poem. They paid $5.00 a line, you know, $25 bucks, right now that's sort of a sack of groceries. And that may only happen once a year.
But, you know, if poetry were worth a lot of money, it would spoil it in many ways. It would become driven by that, I think. And as it is, since it's worth nothing, it can be purer, I think, in a way.
BLOCK: You talk a lot in your workshops, in your writing about being mindful of the reader, something that's obviously very important to you. And let me just ask you about something you write in THE POETRY HOME REPAIR MANUAL. You said this, lots of people approach unfamiliar poems with a hollow feeling in their gut. We've become accustomed to being confronted by poems that confuse, baffle, embarrass and intimidate us. And for a lot of people, reading poetry is a dreadful experience. That is an experience full of dread.
Mr. KOOSER: Part of that is because for years, many of us were taught in schools that poems were like calculus problems, that we had to find the one solution to the poem. The teacher in the back of her book had the one answer, and if we didn't get that, we failed. So happens is that you get through school, and you come across a poem in some magazine, and you say, I don't have to do that anymore. I passed that course.
I'm not going to engage myself in trying to puzzle through this poem. And that's one of the really big barriers that we have to break down in getting more people to read poetry. We have to make our poetry more welcoming, I think.
BLOCK: Do you have people responding to you that way, at readings maybe when you go around? Do you have people thanking you for that?
Mr. KOOSER: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I'd say, invariably, at every reading, someone will say something like that to me. Some man will come shambling up from the back of the room and say, you know, my wife dragged me to this thing tonight. I didn't want to come at all, but I enjoyed it. And I think maybe I can give poetry a chance. That sort of thing, which is just exactly what I want to happen, you know.
BLOCK: That's got to be a good feeling.
Mr. KOOSER: It is a wonderful feeling, yeah. If one person says that at the end of the reading, I get one little notch in the back of my little book, one more person has signed on, you know.
BLOCK: Ted Kooser, the U.S. poet laureate, at his office at the Library of Congress. You can read some of his advice from THE POETRY HOME REPAIR MANUAL and some poems written by the Hallmark writers are our website, NPR.org.