Selecting a Reader
First, I would have her be beautiful,
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.
Show tunes about the perfect lover are staples in musical theater and are usually followed by the entrance of the flesh and blood version who bears little relation to the ideal. Tevye’s daughters ask the matchmaker for rich men and get poor ones; Marian the librarian’s white knight is a plain and modest man but her chosen mate is the phony showman Harold Hill; Annie dreams of quiet middle-class parents who sit at home playing piano and paying bills, but she ends up with Daddy Warbucks, a tuxedo-clad bear of a man whose creepy name suggests the source of his immense wealth.
So it is with Ted Kooser’s “Selecting a Reader.” Imagine a Broadway show about a plain-speaking poet seeking an audience. (Stranger shows have found success. Mormon missionaries seeking converts in Uganda doesn’t sound as promising as it’s proved to be.) The poet sings of his dream reader, and then out from another set heavy with dry ice mist, she steps, beautiful and slender, an Audrey Hepburn sort of gal. Maybe she and the bookseller sing a duet about her poetic needs and what type of poems she’s searching for. She picks up Kooser’s book, and while she reads, dances a Jules Feiffer-ish ballet. And as the Kooser character watches, sighing with resignation and gearing up for his own soliloquy to follow, she puts the book back. She sings a little ditty about impulse control and building a savings account and disappears in the haze of his dream. His fantasy reader has chosen not to read him at all.
How the show would end, I don’t know. Maybe with the poet’s death from starvation and neglect and a chorus-line salute to the closing of Borders bookstore.
Even though the poet’s dream reader rejects him, the show is a comedy nonetheless, because the fantasy builds and ends with humor. Meh, says the Ideal Reader, Don’t need poems. And her rejection of poetry is a key part of his imagining, her second most important quality after her beauty, which is primary. Why should it matter what his Ideal Reader looks like? Because in Kooser’s randy hands, selecting a reader is very like selecting a mate. His relationship with her is at once erotic. She’s lonely, her hair is damp from her shower (he’s already imagined her naked), and she approaches his poem carefully, as with a new lover. She thumbs over his poems, not through them. The unexpected preposition emphasizes the physicality of her presence, the stroke of her touch. Kooser contrasts the beauty and cleanliness of her body with the dirty raincoat that houses it. And to complete the picture of a poet’s soft porn star, she wears glasses. (Sarah Palin is hardly the first woman to discover that many men lust after women in glasses.)
It’s no surprise a red-blooded American poet like Kooser would choose a sexy reader as his ideal audience, but why does he choose a reader who won’t buy his books? Maybe because poets get tired of being read only by other poets and dreamers and lonely teenagers and the select few adults who count high school English as a peak experience. Kooser wants to be read by practical people, people living in the everyday world where dry cleaning bills have to be weighed against the cost of an indulgent purchase of poetry.
In an interview with Guernica Magazine, Kooser discusses the different audiences for poetry, and it’s clear which one he writes for:
Every poet gets to choose what kind of community he or she serves with the poems, and it’s true that there is a community for very difficult, challenging poetry. It’s a community that’s established itself over the last 80 years, that was originally, in effect, really started by Eliot and Pound. They believed that poetry ought to contain learning, that it ought to rise upon all the learning that went before. But there’s always been the other strain; there’s always been what I would call the William Carlos Williams strain, in which poems of simplicity and clarity are valued by a different community. I was talking to Galway Kinnell one day, and he said that there was an audience for poetry up until about 1920 and then, from that point on, the poets and the critics drifted.
Kooser is something of an ambassador for getting poetry in the hands of “regular” readers. He writes a free column for newspapers (American Life in Poetry), and started a publishing company, Wildflower Press (no longer operating) to circulate contemporary poets. He strikes me as a lovely man whose ambition is not to enrich his life with literary success but for literature to enrich other people: “I write for other people,” Kooser says, “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.”
Ted Kooser comes from and lives in the ordinary, un-rarified world of the Great Plains. He was born in 1939 in Iowa and has lived most of his life in Nebraska. He began his career as a high school teacher but worked most of his career as a vice president at a life insurance company. Here’s a wonderful fact about Kooser: he flunked out of a graduate writing program (I’m not sure how you do that) which didn’t prevent him from becoming the Poet Laureate from 2004-06. His work is deemed “accessible,” and therefore has received less critical attention than it deserves.
But even “accessible” poets have difficulty gaining an audience, and that’s why Kooser seems so amused to select his reader. He’s in on the joke of a poet being picky about who reads his poems when so few people read poetry at all. But “Selecting a Reader” is more than a little joke. I read the poem as a dignified refusal to whine about lack of readership, a negation of the notion that beggars can’t be choosers,.
I placed his poem next to his book in the very small poetry section of an independent bookstore. With so few poets represented on the shelf (Chaucer, Homer, and the all-stars Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, and Rumi), it was a lovely surprise to find a volume of Kooser’s. I bought it of course, imagining for a moment that I was Audrey Hepburn, just in from the rain at the end of Breakfast at Tiffanys, touching his poems and feeling selected.