Splitting an Order by Ted Kooser

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One of the poems that stays with me the most from Splitting an Order, Ted Kooser’s first new collection in ten years, is “Those Summer Evenings,” his take on Robert Hayden’s classic and much-anthologized “Those Winter Sundays.” In his characteristically laconic but nonetheless musical voice, Kooser allows the poem to unspool as a single sentence, beginning like this:

My father would, with a little squeak
and a shudder in the water pipes,
turn on the garden hose, and sprinkle
the honeysuckle bushes clipped
to window height . . .

His father sprayed the bushes, he goes on to say, so the night breeze might “brush across the honeysuckle,/sweet and wet, and keep us cool.” And the fact that the bushes were “clipped/to window height” suggests how much forethought went into this small act. “Those Summer Evenings” is not a flashy poem, seeking only, as it does, to capture a fleeting moment of kindness offered by a father to his children without any of the regret or grief that often suffuses poems about family. “At Arby’s, at Noon,” another of my favorites, is unassuming as well, yet it is also one of the riskiest poems in the collection, not only because its setting is a roast beef restaurant chain (perhaps a first for poetry), but also because Kooser speaks in a difficult-to-pull-off collective voice (“Some of us were arriving, hungry, impatient . . . “). This welcoming perspective, however, allows us to accompany the speaker as the poem unfolds (again as a single sentence) and feel that we are there with him as the “pretty young woman, blind” kisses a badly scarred man and startles the lunch crowd into sudden attention:

. . . and though their kiss was brief
and askew and awkwardly pursed
we all received it with a kind of
wonder and kept it on our lips
through the afternoon.

Why these poems, and the collection as a whole, should have such a profound effect on me as a reader and writer, I cannot entirely say—but they do. I am drawn to Kooser’s poems, in part, because they are radically and unapologetically sincere. In a digital age in which hardly a day goes by that I do not feel inundated with information and horrific news from around the world (epidemics of disease, outbreaks of war, displaced and terrified children pouring across our border), Kooser dares to look around and pay attention to the smaller, ordinary things, people and everyday experiences we often neglect to elevate and appreciate. He knows that only redeeming moments like these can lift us out of distraction and worry for the state of the world, and help us awaken to our lives again.

In a recent piece for The New York Times, “Wipe that Smirk off Your Poem,” Pulitzer Prize- winner Tracy K. Smith identifies “something that has gotten into a heap of contemporary poetry and deadened it, making it about as interesting and relevant to others as a dog yipping at its own shadow: Irony.” She asks the same question that must plague readers brave enough to try to read some of the poetry being published these days: “Why are there so many people who think poems are like pretty little locks to be teased open?” A version of that question runs through my own mind whenever I crack open another new book of inscrutable poems, or come upon a journal whose pages are populated only with poetry whose main preoccupation, it seems, is convincing me of the hipness, trendiness or difficulty of its author. If poets want to be read (and I assume we do), shouldn’t more of us, as Kooser has been doing for fifty years, leave the doors unlocked, even if that means feeling more vulnerable, even if that means being labeled a “sincere” or “boring” poet? Surely some readers prefer their poems with smirk and swagger, and I do not mean to suggest that there is only one “right” kind of poem or “right” kind of reader. But if, as Smith posits, irony is the poison currently infecting our poetry, and likewise preventing us from genuine connection with each other, then the work of Ted Kooser is surely one of the antidotes.

I have been a fan of Kooser’s since coming across Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems (1980) and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Delights & Shadows (2004). I am also a regular reader of his nationally syndicated newspaper column, American Life in Poetry, a project put into place during his term as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004-2006 so that shorter, accessible poems might find their way to mainstream readers again. But Splitting an Order, perhaps even more than his other books, functions as a kind of manual for seeing more clearly and moving away from the “pull” of cultural irony. Readers will find intact Kooser’s trademark accessibility and his affection for finding the transcendent in the most common or seemingly mundane of experiences, whether watching “an old man cutting a sandwich in half” for his wife, or being visited in the morning by “a tiny moth clipped from the edge/of the night before.” These are poems, as Tracy K. Smith puts it, that “examine the vulnerability at the core of human experience” because Kooser speaks in a voice that is unarmored, unalloyed by intellectual wordplay, and recognizably human.

Part of Kooser’s genius is also his ability to describe an inanimate object so meticulously that it comes to life in the reader’s mind. When asked if paying attention to such things can help us better understand ourselves, Kooser said in a 2012 interview with Midwest Miscellany: “It does seem that objects are the conveyances for certain kinds of emotions. I’d venture that if I gave you a chipped cup and saucer that you had never seen before, and let you keep it around and think about it for a while, it would begin to reveal a little history to you.” Kooser’s views affirm those of the scientist George Washington Carver, famous for his work with peanuts, who once said, “Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough.” If unclouded attention to actual things is a kind of “love,” it makes sense that whatever Kooser chooses to observe, also gives up its “secrets” to both poet and reader. The long poem, “Estate Sale,” which serves as a kind of interlude in the collection, takes up the afterlife of cast-off, broken or forgotten objects. But “Zinc Lid” has the most to teach us about how to watch something with such patience and intention that it eventually transforms how we see it for the rest of our lives. After reading this poem, I will never look at a jar lid or wing nut with the same eyes again:

. . . Today on a bench
in a dark garage it’s upside down,
a miniature galvanized tub adrift
on time, and in it two survivors,
a bolt that once held everything
together, season in and season out,
and a wing nut resting its wings.

As Kooser constantly proves, an image described with precision and accuracy still has the power to alter how we relate to something most of us might think of as commonplace, not worthy of close attention. Take these lines from the poem, “A Morning in Early Spring,” for instance, which have forever changed the way I look at birds as they peck the ground:

A fat robin bobs her head,
hemming a cloth for her table,
pulling the thread of a worm,
then neatly biting it off.

Another example of this type of seeing is “Lantern,” in which what was once a farmer’s only source of light on cold mornings becomes, after its long abandonment in a barn, a nest for a pregnant mouse in which “to raise/her bald and mewling, pissy brood.” The poem could have stopped there, but as he often does, Kooser uses this object as an occasion to meditate on our own human transience. He tells us that this brood of mice will eventually

. . . disappear,
the way we all, one day, move on,
leaving a little sharp whiff
of ourselves in the dirty bedding.

This new collection leads readers more deeply into the natural world as well, as Kooser shows us an apple tree, a dead bat, a tree frog and a dead mouse as we could never have imagined them. But there is something more than simile and metaphor at work in his nature poems. They seem to function as what Robert Bly has called “poems of twofold consciousness,” which find in the environment a consciousness just as active and real as that of humans. As Kooser also said in the aforementioned interview: “I believe that everything around us—nature, each other, and so on—are all parts of one universal unity, and that we can glimpse that unity in many ways, one of them being a sense of union with nature.” This “unity” is apparent in “Opossum,” when that unremarkable animal begins to take on an undeniable agency of its own:

. . . It is those fingers that might
make a person fear you, for they seem
almost human, greedy and dangerous.
I think you may know this, because you
slowly turned toward me and lifted
one of your hands to show me how it could
grasp and squeeze a tiny piece of the light . . .

Many of these new pieces were published as a limited edition chapbook called Together in 2012, and togetherness (“unity”) is one of the main themes at work here. Kooser spends a good deal of the book seeking out moments of connection and acts of kindness between pairs of people (fathers and sons, husbands and wives, an elderly woman and her caregiver) as if to remind us what is often difficult to remember—that we are all participants in each other’s joys and moments of suffering. This is not a popular stance for contemporary American poetry, and no doubt some readers and critics will label these poems as “sentimental” or “saccharine.” But Kooser’s immense skills as both a seer and maker of images culled from what he finds in daily life rescue this book from any easy labels. It is enviable—brave, even—that a former U.S. Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize would choose to focus on such plain scenes, like the one described in “Two,” in which he meets a father and a son on the stairs of a parking garage:

. . . in the middle they were
holding hands, and when I neared,
they opened the simple gate
of their interwoven fingers
to let me pass, then reached out
for each other and continued on.

It is a palpable relief that Kooser writes not for other poets or academics, but for those of us who seek out poetry in order to find kinship with everything and everyone we encounter, “to reach out/for each other” as we move through our days.

Ted Kooser has been called a “regionalist,” no doubt because the images, objects and people of his native Great Plains find their way into almost every one of his poems. What Dana Gioia once said of Kooser’s work in his now seminal book of essays, Can Poetry Matter?, remains unfortunately true: “To many critics such regionalism still equals provincialism, especially when the region in question is the Middle West . . . Regionalism is ultimately a political term, a dismissive label applied to literature produced in and concerned with areas outside the dominant cultural and economic centers of a society. Classifying a work as ‘regional’ implies that it cannot be judged by ‘national’ standards.” Those who have mistakenly called Kooser a “regionalist” have sought to reject his poems out of hand, not only because they do not take place on the East or West Coasts (the locales of many of our “dominant cultural and economic centers”), but also because he presents no puzzles in his poems for critics to solve. Because the average reader can understand most of the references in a Kooser poem, she or he does not need the help of a professor or critic to decipher it. In our current literary climate, to be called a “regionalist” should be considered a compliment, since part of the act of writing and reading is surely to imagine ourselves into the lives of the people we meet, the things we touch and the places we inhabit. A poet’s task, if nothing else, is to act out of empathy, and if a poet is paying close attention to her or his world, how can it not find its way into the work?

After reading through Splitting an Order and re-reading some of Kooser’s past collections, including Flying at Night (2005), Weather Central (1994), and One World at a Time (1985), I could not help but notice several striking similarities between Seamus Heaney’s County Derry in Northern Ireland and Ted Kooser’s Nebraska. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995 for what the committee called “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” In Kooser’s previous works (including the prose books, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps and the recently published, The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book), he brings “the living past” to vivid life with his descriptions of cast-off tools, objects and ways of being that will soon vanish altogether from the American landscape. Gioia rightly identified Kooser’s “grand overriding theme” as “the gradual disappearance of American rural culture,” and I link that theme to Heaney’s constant drive to capture the disappearing rituals of rural life in Ireland. It mystifies me that when critics discuss which American writer might next win the Nobel Prize, Ted Kooser’s name is seldom mentioned, in spite of the fact that he has sought, perhaps more than any other living poet, to “exalt everyday miracles” in American life while writing with unparalleled “ethical depth.”

Ted KooserThough talk like this would surely embarrass a humble writer like Kooser, there are undeniable connections between these two masters. “A Person of Limited Palette,” one of the last poems in Splitting an Order, put me in mind of one of Heaney’s most famous pieces, “Postscript.” In Kooser’s poem, he claims rather playfully that he would have been happy to live out his last years in a cottage, painting scenes of the nearby sea, to have been “a pleasant old man/who ‘paints passably well, in a traditional/manner.’ ” Yet Kooser also seems to be acknowledging here how some of his more jaded critics might indeed see him as that “local artist” whose work, with its “earth tones and predictable blues,” is good enough, but remains overly “traditional.” The poem culminates in a quiet invitation to readers as the speaker comes to terms with where he has chosen to live and practice his particular art, no matter what other plans he might have had for his life:

. . . If you should come looking
for me, you’ll find me here, in Nebraska,
thirty miles south of the broad Platte River,
under the flyway of dreams.

Heaney’s “Postscript” begins in a similar tone:

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other. . .

Heaney then goes on to describe the sea and flocks of swans, urging his readers not to try to capture the scene. He ends the poem like this:

You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Over the course of their long and distinguished careers, both of these poets have sought to “catch the heart off guard and blow it open” in their poems, and they succeed more than any other contemporary poets I know who are writing in English. They speak to an actual audience, and endeavor to touch the daily lives of and be of use to those who read their work. Heaney and Kooser may also be called masters because the cadences and syntax of their unadorned English are so clearly their own. It does not take a trained ear to hear the many long, lonesome “O” sounds that populate Kooser’s poems (some of his favorite words are “cold,” “old,” and “only”), and the mark of any writer seeking a wider audience is that he creates an idiosyncratic yet accessible language inextricably tied to the landscape he describes and inhabits.

In Local Wonders (2004), Kooser’s lyrical memoir of life on the Great Plains, he offers readers advice for finding inspiration without straying too far from the places we know best:

If you can awaken
inside the familiar
and discover it new
you need never
leave home.

The long-anticipated Splitting an Order proves that Ted Kooser has been putting this kind of “awakening” into practice for a lifetime, and this collection is a culmination of 75 years’ worth of honest discoveries and “everyday miracles.” His radically sincere and clear poems are inoculations against inattention and the seductive pull of distraction that can keep us from intimate connection with one another. Of course, a single collection of poems cannot fully expunge the poison of irony from our country’s sometimes-“deadened” poetry, but we desperately need more poets like Kooser, who are not afraid to throw off the pretenses of literary armor and enshrine the ordinary world just as it is.

James Crews’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Times Literary Supplement, Ploughshares, and other journals. His manuscript, The Book of What Stays, won the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. James lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. More from this author →