- The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser by Mary K. Stillwell
By Mary K. Stillwell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013. 336 pp. Photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $24.95 cloth.
A literary biography faces two problems right away. First, a writer’s life is not the equal of his or her writing. Second, when dealing with a serious figure, there are frequently other, earlier biographies, so why a new one? That depends. Only in the first decade of the twenty-frst century did Ted Kooser start getting something like the attention a major American poet deserves (a 2005 Pulitzer Prize and two terms as US Poet Laureate). One senses that acclaim would have come sooner if he weren’t from the Great Plains, because his lyrics are absolutely the equal of, say, Seamus Heaney’s or Kay Ryan’s.
I hope that Mary K. Stillwell’s perceptive, richly sourced Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser, [End Page 116] the first full biography, further boosts his profile. For Kooser is also a painter, an anthologist, an illustrator, an editor, a publisher, a postcard collector, and, like Wallace Stevens, an insurance-firm executive with a seemingly staid life. However, it is clear that even if Kooser had lived a more bohemian existence, Stillwell would emphasize his actual work. She conducts granular, dutiful, sensible readings, sometimes to the point of making fairly obvious remarks. (One encounters the observations that poetry is devoted to “informing and enriching human life” and that Kooser’s lyrics sometimes foreground “life’s pain and sorrow.” The book’s jacket cover—which features a tilted, amateurish photo of the poet and a dog—is not good.)
But these are minor irritations. Stillwell’s work is generally lucid and collegial, locating Kooser within a broad narrative of American poetry. She explores his debt to William Carlos Williams’s prosody, to Frost’s and Emerson’s theories of metaphor, to the flexibility of the sonnet, to Robert Browning’s (and Frost’s) dramatic monologues, to movies and Modernism and the surreal. In doing so she assembles a coherent overview of what matters thematically in Kooser’s work, which is regionally oriented without being narrowly regionalist: the ecology, landscape, and brilliant weather of the Plains; domestic, local, and regional infrastructures as well as their decay; jobs, marriage, illness (like the cancer that Kooser has survived); and the habits, high points, and losses of American lives. His work does not call for theoretically intensive explication.
As Dana Gioia has long insisted, Kooser is a genuinely democratic poet, because he wants readers to quickly grasp what his lyrics are getting at and take real pleasure in his language. His poems offer heightened attention to the world, not gratuitous textual difficulty. The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser underscores this. Every university library—every decent library of any sort—should own a copy.
UC Santa Barbara