Poetry Fridays: Ted Kooser

Posted on by Dodge

Martin Farawell, Poetry Director

Ted Kooser’s poems are often praised for their clarity and accessibility. His poem “Pearl” might appear at first to be direct and plain speaking. But by the time he reads those closing lines, the listener has been drawn into the realm of the mysterious and inexplicable.

One of the major movements in poetry over the last century was toward a return to common speech. If we listen carefully to how people talk to one another, as Kooser obviously does, we notice they are often most reticent when they have the most to say. This is a familiar personality trait among the Midwestern communities where Kooser has lived much of his life. It is only natural that the silences that pervade the speech of these people should appear in his poems.

But Kooser is not simply transcribing a conversation. Poems get much of their power from what is left unsaid. Kooser accomplishes this compression of language by crafting the features of common speech to his purpose. The results sound so natural to our ear it is easy to forget they were created by an artist.

Kooser’s introduction to “Pearl” does much to help us forget. He tells us the exact date of his mother’s death, and that the poem he’s about to read is an account of his bringing the news to his mother’s last surviving first cousin. In the poem itself, he says through the door when he arrives at Pearl’s house, “It’s Ted. It’s Vera’s boy.” So it is easy to believe this is a true story being told directly and simply.

But notice how closely the description of Pearl first coming to the door is echoed in the description of “the others” at the end of the poem. How much of what we are told occurs are we meant to believe as literally true? And what about the final line of the poem?

Robert Frost used the Biblical term “Dark Sayings” to describe the poems he admired. These are poems that do not appear difficult by drawing attention to a surface complexity, but which appear deceptively direct at first and reveal their deeper layers with each reading. He would find much to admire in Kooser.

“Pearl” appears in Ted Kooser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Delights & Shadows. Visit the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival Poet Pages for a biography of Ted Kooser.

Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Maxine Kumin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, C. D. Wright and others.

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