One of the truisms of American poetry is that some of the most original poetry written in the 20th Century was written by non-professional poets. That is, poets who had their primary careers in fields other than writing or teaching writing. Unencumbered by more traditional poetic relationships and poetic responsibilities, poets like Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams were free to push poetry in more original directions.
People who spend a great deal of time together soon begin to think and talk the same. Students follow teachers and follow one another. Soon all are thinking, voting, and writing similarly. Originality is narrowed because experiences, expectations, and perspectives are narrowed – distilled ever down to ones that all in the group can ultimately live with.
The poet or artist working alone is a slightly more free from the webs of socially polite conformity that constrain originality or the sub-conscious group thought/speak that limits language direction. The poet working alone is free to follow any direction of their own making as far as it goes. Even, unfortunately, if it is the absolutely wrong direction. For that reason, the poet working alone may reach either greater heights or greater depths of creativity than any class-trained / writing-group poet.
Poet Ted Kooser, like Wallace Stevens spent most of his working life in the insurance business. His poetry is deceptively simple. The language and images spring from his rural Midwestern sensibility: farm houses and farm fields, yard sales, and towns that still proudly fly a flag and gather Friday nights for high school football games.
“Flying By Night” is one of dozens of great little poems that Kooser has written. In it we see what makes Kooser a great poet: simple words and images coming together to make something beautiful, multi-dimensional, and unforgetable.
Flying at Night
Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.