Ted Kooser, like Wallace Stevens, made his real money as a vice-president of an insurance company. Rather than spending his days, as most poets do now, teaching writing to MFA students, Kooser spent his working a real job. The fact that Kooser, like Stevens before him, has been able to create some of the most unique poetry of our time tells us something significant about poetry, and about writing… something that universities and tenured poetry teachers do not want us to know. Pay no attention to that man writing alone on his own behind the curtain.
Poetry depends on community… but not the kind of community that MFA programs provide or writer’s groups. Poetry depends on a living community: a community of dead poets, living words, and future readers.
Kooser became a poet by reading and writing poetry, by interacting and wrestling with poems and words, some of his own but mostly the poems and words of dead poets. Poets do not work alone in vacuums, they work always within the context of those who came before… especially the giants like Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Blake, Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats. Once internalized, the words of great poets become living words shaping language and ear, the very way we breathe.
When the poet sits down to write then, he or she does not sit alone… even in an empty room. There is a crowd at his shoulder (those who have gone before) and there is another crowd in front of him ( future readers). The poet always has a reader in mind. Language needs relationship, because words find their meaning only in relationship to an other. Without a reader, a poet could eschew word-meaning altogether because sensibility-meaning would not matter. A community of shared meaning is inherent in the poet-reader relationship.
Kooser and Stevens (and Blake and Dickinson…) remind us why the most unique poetry seems to be written by “poetic hermits”: because only the poet writing alone knows poetic solitude. Apart from contemporary groups and teachers and fellow students, the poetic hermit truly has a chance to wrestle with the poets who have come before, to internalize the words and poems of the great poets and be transformed by them, and to envision a new kind of reader for the new kind of poetry they are struggling to create.
In “Selecting a Reader,” Kooser, who has always seemed to me, the most humble poet since Hopkins, touches upon the relationship between reader and poet in a unique way. The poet, alas needs the reader… but does the reader or the world really need the poet or his or her work?
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
“For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned.” And she will.