MELISSA BLOCK, host:
A couple of months ago on this program we visited with the United States poet laureate, Ted Kooser, at his home in Garland, Nebraska. The poet laureate is chosen by the librarian of Congress, and Kooser's now in his second year as poet laureate. It's a fancy title for an unassuming man who often writes about the quiet pleasures of life in small-town America. Well, we've asked Ted Kooser to join us again as the year ends and to read for us a bit.
And, Ted, it's good to be talking with you again.
Mr. TED KOOSER (US Poet Laureate): Thank you very much. Nice to be talking to you.
BLOCK: We asked you, when we were thinking about talking with you, to think about reading something for us that spoke to the end of the year, something about winter. And you've come up with the very end of a book of essays you wrote called "Local Wonders." Why don't you tell us a bit about what you've chosen?
Mr. KOOSER: Yes, this is the very last passage, and in a way it's a sort of sermon, I think. I've used it in various ways, read it at commencement exercises and so on. And it does welcome the new year, and I thought maybe it might be appropriate.
BLOCK: When you were writing the end of this essay, you were thinking a bit, I suppose, about your own mortality. You'd gone through an illness, a bout with cancer.
Mr. KOOSER: Oh, that's right, yeah, yeah. And it--and, you know, this little essay ends with this affirmation of, you know, everyone turning and lifting their glasses. And that's really the way you feel when you come through something like that; that the world is waiting for you and welcoming you back and that sort of thing.
BLOCK: Well, could you read for us a bit? This is the end of your chapter on winter, which ends the book "Local Wonders."
Mr. KOOSER: (Reading) Life is a long walk forward through the crowded cars of a passenger train, the bright world racing past beyond the windows, people on either side of the aisle, strangers whose stories we never learn, dear friends whose names we long remember and passing acquaintances whose names and faces we take in like a breath and soon breathe away. There's a windy, perilous passage between each car and the next, and we steady ourselves and push across the iron couplers clenched beneath our feet. Because we are fearful and unsteady crossing through wind and noise, we more keenly feel the train rock under our legs, feel the steel rails give just a little under the weight, as if the rails were tightly stretched wire and there were nothing but air beneath them.
So many cars, so many passages. For you, there may be the dangerous passage of puberty, the wind hot and wild in your hair, followed by marriage, during which for a while you walk lightly under an infinite blue sky, then the rushing warm air of the birth of your first child. And then so soon, it seems, a door slams shut behind you, and you find yourself out in the cold where you learn that the first of your parents has died. But the next car is warm and bright, and you take a deep breath and unbutton your coat and wipe your glasses. People on either side, so generous with their friendship, turn up their faces to you, and you warm your hands in theirs. Some of them stand and grip your shoulders in their strong fingers, and you gladly accept their embraces, though you may not know them well. How young you feel in their arms.
And so it goes, car after car, passage to passage. As you make your way forward, the roadbed seems to grow more irregular under the wheels as you walk along. `Poor workmanship,' you think, and to steady yourself, you put your hands on people's shoulders. So much of the world, colorful as flying leaves, clatters past beyond the windows while you try to be attentive to those you move among, maybe stopping to help someone up from their seat, maybe pausing to tell a stranger about something you saw in one of the cars through which you passed. Was it just yesterday or the day before? Could it have been a week ago, a month ago, perhaps a year?
The locomotive is up ahead somewhere, and you hope to have a minute's talk with the engineer, just a minute to ask a few questions of him. You're pretty sure he'll be wearing a striped cap and have his red bandana around his neck, badges of his authority, and he'll have his elbow crooked on the sill of the open window. How impassively he will be gazing at the passing world, as if he's seen it all before. He knows just where the tracks will take us as they narrow and narrow and narrow ahead to the point where they seem to join.
But there are still so many cars ahead, and the next and the next and the next clatter to clatter to clatter. And we close the door against the wind and find a new year, a club car brightly lit, fresh flowers in vases on the tables, green meadows beyond the windows and lots of people who together--stranger, acquaintance and friend--turn toward you and, smiling broadly, lift their glasses.
BLOCK: Well, Ted, happy new year, and I'm lifting my glass to you.
Mr. KOOSER: Thank you, Melissa. It was very nice to talk with you again. Happy new year.
BLOCK: Ted Kooser with thoughts for the new year from his book of essays "Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps." We'll have more conversations with him about writing and reading poetry in 2006. Meantime, you can find more of Ted Kooser's cold-weather writing at our Web site, npr.org.
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