From sheep to shopper

poem is resting atop an upright rug
A Jacquard Shawl
by Ted Kooser
A pattern of curly acanthus leaves,
and woven into one corner
in blue block letters half an inch tall:
As it is with jacquards,
the design reverses to gray on blue
when you turn it over,
and the words run backward
into the past. The rest of the story
lies somewhere between one side
and the other, woven into
the plane where the colors reverse:
the circling dogs, the terrified sheep,
the meadow stippled with blood,
and the weaver by lamplight
feeding what wool she was able to save
into the faintly bleating, barking loom.
These rugs aren’t shawls and they sure aren’t jacquard, but they are blue and they are woven (though surely not by hand), so here landed Ted Kooser’s poem.
When I read this poem I find myself rubbing my fingers together as if a shawl were between them, as if by feeling the shawl I connect myself with a history, as if by connecting myself with a history I connect myself to other living beings, the sheep, the dogs, the weaver. I love this poem, I’ve loved it for a long time, and I hope the rug shopper who finds it loves it too.
Ted Kooser is a favorite here at Poem Elf. Here’s a short bio from a previous post:

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.



  1. Trish Rawlings

    Hi Maggie–

    I love this poem! Such a beautiful work! Thanks for this!

    It’s especially moving to me . . .

    As a child I loved playing in our woods. Our ten acres were fenced in just so our sheep could go wherever they wanted to go. It was always a surprise when the five of us kids, playing there, came upon the sheep. You expect to see sheep in wide-open fields, dotting the hillside like raisins in pudding, not ambling along the edge of a stream, tall trees bending in the wind above them . . .

    But occasionally wild dogs would run down one and my father would come with the bad news, or us kids on the way up the hill to get the bus in the morning would see a clump of white. We knew what it was right away.

    Why do dogs chase sheep? I’ve never known. Should I look that up?

    Maybe I don’t want to know.

      1. Trish Rawlings

        No, the couple I saw that were killed by wild dogs weren’t mauled or eaten or anything. Just run to death. Shock perhaps. . .

  2. Tom

    Thank you, Poem Elf, for this recent releasing of the stored poems. I’m enjoying each one as they come. I liked this poem, and the accompanying photo very much, It recalled a vacation my wife and I had, walking in the Cotswolds. We often ate our lunch in rolling meadows full of sheep. While this level of familiarity banished any thoughts I had about sheep being soft and cuddly, it also increased my appreciation for the real sentient creatures wandering about un-selfconsiously contributing so much to our lives. And now Kooser achieved that same effect without my ever leaving my desk.

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