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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Number 32: Ted Kooser "Abandoned Farmhouse"

Abandoned Farmhouse

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm--a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

-- Ted Kooser

Hap Notes: Garsh, if you want to see what I call the "Literary Critics Tarantella" you can read critical works on the poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winning, former U.S. Poet Laureate (2004) Ted Kooser (born 1939). Why? Well, Kooser is not a puzzlebox, like many poets are. He's not a high-wire writing act balanced on a razor blade as he stands on his vocabularic head. He writes with a plain speaking Midwestern lexicon. He writes what he observes. He lets what he observed tell you the deep stuff. His poetry will hurt you but not with the grand flourish of a brandished rapier but with the natural burns and woes of everyday life- the "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" as Shakespeare put it, with a bit of a flourish. This is flummoxing to some critics.

In "Abandoned Farmhouse" he gives us an inventory list of what is left. I'm sure your head put together stories and thoughts about what happened there and what kind of child played with toys that mimicked his rural life and what kind of suppers they had from the "sealed jars." Kooser gives you a lot of freedom to look around and make your own story (or not- you don't have to make up anything- nobody's forcing you to do anything.)

When I worked at the University of Minnesota at a scientific laboratory and the Journal of Biochemistry came out, all the scientists would pore through the work in the magazine looking for extraordinary work. When they read of a remarkable experiment; one that had a well-honed logical method and was crystal in its clarity and seemed to capture some unspoken thing nobody thought to write about; they would call it "elegant." Kooser's descriptive powers are elegant.

Kooser's poetry can be read in his books from beginning to end like an atlas and inventory of human life. Unlike most books of poetry, his books beg you to read all of them at once. The energy you get from the whole book will leave you speechless with the wonders of each day of life (well, maybe not you but me, anyway.)

Kooser was born in Ames, Iowa, grew up there and got his degree at Iowa State. He worked for years at the Lincoln Benefit Life Company in Nebraska. That's right, he and Wallace Stevens are the poets of the insurance business, both having full careers in insurance while they wrote. One can hardly accuse the insurance business of having a 'style' of poetry since Kooser's and Stevens' work are significantly different. But it IS a weird thing, no doubt, the insurance business being one that puts you in mind of the "man in the grey flannel suit."

Kooser is kind of like Frost without the icy bitter wit. His life in the Midwest certainly gets tempered by its quotidian domesticity- being a Midwesterner myself, I know the people, the area, the gritty common sense of the place ( I don't have much of it but I'm familiar).

I know I said that Kooser is not a puzzle box but let me amend that a bit to say, he's not a puzzle box any more than life is- which, I believe, is one of the steps of the Literary Critics Tarantella (oh yes, I can do that dance, too.)

Just as a quirky side note- this poem often reminds me of the life of Robert Frost- I don't know that it was Kooser's intention but it rings true for me. Oh, by the way, he studied writing poetry under Karl Shapiro at the University of Nebraska. (We've read him already- remember "Manhole Covers"? Another fella who made the critics dance the tarantella. And yes, I rhymed it on purpose.)

Here's a great Kooser quote that pretty much says (like his work does) it all: “I write for other people with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention.”

You can fine more Kooser here:

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