Archive for July, 2011

poem is between Collins and Kooser

Selecting a Reader

Ted Kooser

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.”

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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.

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“Tomber amoureux. To fall in love. Does it occur suddenly or gradually? If gradually, when is the moment “already”? I would fall in love with a monkey made of rags. With a plywood squirrel. With a botanical atlas. With an oriole. With a ferret. With a marten in a picture. With the forest one sees to the right when riding in a cart to Jaszuny. With a poem by a little-known poet. With human beings whose names still move me. And always the object of love was enveloped in erotic fantasy or was submitted, as in Stendhal, to a “cristallisation,” so it is frightful to think of that object as it was, naked among the naked things, and of the fairy tales about it one invents. Yes, I was often in love with something or someone. Yet falling in love is not the same as being able to love. That is something different.

— Falling in Love, Czeslaw Milosz


I was urging my husband to try on a pair of suede saddle shoes when I made my most recent discovery about men: “adorable” is not a word they want to be associated with.  Perhaps the word calls up embarrassing memories of the last time they let their mothers dress them.


But there’s not a better label for a man carrying a poem in his wallet, so at the risk of offending the owner of the thumb in the picture above and all carriers of wallet poems, I say, is this adorable or what? Adorable that the poem means so much to this man that he carries it close to his person, and from the looks of it and the date the poem was first published in the New Yorker (2004), he has carried it around for years.


Here he is with his wife, my friend Lynn.  I won’t say the offensive word, but how can you not think it when you look at the two of them together, beaming after 24 years of marriage?


Lynn and Marc

I spoke with Marc at a book reading of another friend (you can link to her site here), and while we were discussing my poem-elfing habits (I swear I’m not such an insufferable bore that I brought it up), he lifted this delicate, creased paper from his wallet to show me.  What he was most taken with was the end:

Yet falling in love is not the same as being able to love.


I can see why the line deserves wallet space.  It’s almost an aphorism and could serve as a mirror, a compass or guideline. I can’t follow the whole of this prose poem—I’m lost on the frightfulness of the object as it was and what it means to submit to Stendhal’s crystallization–but I can trail close enough behind to arrive at Milosz’s destination:

falling in love is not the same as being able to love. That is something different.


After the feverish list of all the objects and people Milosz has fallen in love with in his life, the calm certainty of the final lines settles and focuses the whole piece.


Here’s an entertaining exercise: list everything you’ve ever fallen in love with, and notice that falling in love with people and falling in love with things are in the same category, as in Milosz’s list. The manmade silly love objects like a plywood squirrel, and the lovelier natural things like a forest seen from a cart, are on the same level as falling in love with a person.  Falling in love with either people or things happens passively. We’re struck by whimsy, charm or beauty, and we fall.  While I have never fallen in love with a ferret, just yesterday I met a beautiful young girl at a café and fell in love with her name:  Sophia Cinnamon (This could be a phonetic spelling, but I prefer it.) Nothing is required of me in my enjoyment of her name.  Sophia Cinnamon!  But being able to love is a quality that will require action.


The perspective that comes from separating falling in love from being able to love comes as a relief.  It’s a relief to let superficial feelings come and go. This perspective reminds me of conversations I’ve had with my teens about their moods and love dramas.  Don’t worry so much about it, I say.  Things pass.  It’s normal.  Milosz has a Zen-like, meditative sensibility that allows swooning feelings but doesn’t invest in them.


Milosz's brain power seems to have fried his eyebrows


Although Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) was born in Lithuania, he considered himself a Polish writer, Polish being the language his family spoke for centuries.  He grew up under Csarist rule, and later under Nazi occupation, during which time he worked for the resistance, and finally under Stalinist rule before becoming an American citizen.  Fellow Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney described Milosz as “among those members of humankind who have had the ambiguous privilege of knowing and standing more reality than the rest of us.”


Milosz is considered one of the great minds and poets of the 20th century.  Fluent in five languages, he translated the Old Testament, Shakespeare and Whitman into Polish, taught Slavic languages at Berkley, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. His face has been put on a Polish postage stamp.  He’s honored in a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and has a poem inscribed on a memorial to shipyard workers killed by Communists in Gdansk.


Most relevant to this poem, however, is the fact that he was married to his first wife for 42 years before she died.  He was married to his second wife for ten years before he was widowed again.

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