The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets. University of Nebraska Press; 2005; 163 pages; $19.95.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: "Kooser's Poetry Home Repair Manual is marked by impeccable clarity and focus of dedication and the absolute integrity that characterize Kooser's other works; I should also add the important qualities of generous and lively good humor and gentle, thoughtful persuasion. During more than 40 years of teaching college students, I examined hundreds of books designed to help young writers and readers, and I am pleased to report that this book is by far the best of them all." -- George Garrett, the Poet Laureate of Virginia
Recently appointed as the new U.S. Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser has been writing and publishing poetry for more than 40 years. In the pages of The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Kooser brings those decades of experience to bear. Here are tools and insights, the instructions (and warnings against instructions) that poets -- aspiring or practicing -- can use to hone their craft, perhaps into art. Using examples from his own rich literary oeuvre and from the work of a number of successful contemporary poets, the author schools us in the critical relationship between poet and reader, which is fundamental to what Kooser believes is poetry's ultimate purpose: to reach other people and touch their hearts.
Much more than a guidebook to writing and revising poems, this manual has all the comforts and merits of a long and enlightening conversation with a wise and patient old friend -- a friend who is willing to share everything he's learned about the art he's spent a lifetime learning to execute so well.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: This is not a book explaining sonnets, pantoums, and villanelles. Fixed forms are not to be ignored; rather Kooser recommends self-education in these because "working in a form, you may be forced to say things in a fresh way." He urges you to "write from your soul no matter what form you choose because that's what really matters."
Kooser stresses daily reading of poetry, as well as the discipline of taking a close look, noticing even the smallest event, training yourself to pay attention, to listen to language, to think about every word in the poem as you revise. Another practical tool: read your drafts aloud to yourself. He gives examples when he says, "Shake off generalization." He identifies "spare parts" and shows ways to prune background story and unnecessary details. When it comes to poems, "Too many extras, too much froufrou and falderal, can cost you a reader."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Born in 1939 in Ames, Iowa, and reared and educated in our nation's Middle West, Ted Kooser is the 13th and most recent Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Kooser worked for 35 years for Lincoln Benefit Life, an insurance company in Nebraska. He retired in 1999 at 60. He serves as visiting professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently Braided Creek, and Delights & ShadowsHis prose book, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (American Lives), won numerous awards, including the Barnes and Noble Discover Award for nonfiction finalist, and is available in a Bison Books edition. In the past week, Mr. Kooser was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Delights & Shadows, published by Copper Canyon Press. He lives in Garland, Nebraska, with his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, editor of the Lincoln Journal Star.
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR:
The interview with Mr. Kooser was conducted by e-mail and via telephone. Mr. Kooser makes clear in his book that he wants to write poems that do not confuse the reader. I had read an interview with him in which he said, "Most of us would prefer to look at cartoons in a magazine than read a poem." Kooser went on to note the "common complaint that poetry is hard to decipher or full of elusive, hidden meanings. In the real world, if you come across a poem, who says, 'Study it'? If it doesn't do anything for you, you just move on."
I'd read, all through winter, the often seemingly impenetrable poems of Wallace Stevens. So I asked, "Why is Wallace Stevens difficult to read, and why, for 30 years or so, have I continued to go back to him? I must be getting some water, I tell myself, or I wouldn't keep going back to the well. Or, perhaps I'm only a fool who mistakes thirst for satisfaction. But he's very challenging for me. I do not feel that he, as you suggest to would-be poets, imagines (or projects for himself) an audience, a reader. I don't feel he even likes the likes of me."
Mr. Kooser responded, "I, too, find Stevens challenging, and there are times when a challenging poem seems just right. Hard to say what kind of audience he had in mind, but perhaps it was someone who simply mirrored his own pleasures in language and image.
"There are those who really love digging at difficult poems. I have a sister-in-law who is like that. She was a bright student when she was in school and I suppose finds rewards in ferreting out answers. I never much liked that sort of thing, being an average student who was mostly interested in what I was going to do after school. Yet I do enjoy the sense of play I pick up from Stevens, who seems to have been having a very good time."
"I'm puzzled, yes," I said. "But my puzzlement is not satisfied by the 'ferreting out answers.' I think I am trying to figure out what it is, as Stevens writes, to sing beyond 'the genius of the sea.' And what (and why) is a 'body wholly body, fluttering / Its empty sleeves'? And what in the devil has Stevens done to make me care?"
I added, "Your immediate forebear in the laureateship, Louise Gluck, writes about Stevens that his 'meditative poems are not addressed outward; they are allowed to be overheard. That is the nature of meditation: the speaker and the listener are one. But to overhear is to experience exclusion; reading Stevens, I felt myself superfluous, part of some marginal throng.... The difficulty to the reader is a function of the poem's mode, its privacy: to be allowed to follow is not to be asked along.'