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Ask the Feed: Agony Aunt Recommends a Book by Ted Kooser

August 17, 2010

Over the weekend, a Poetry Feed regular emailed:

In high school as we briefly studied poetry (since there was a chapter tucked into our “Language Arts” textbook), I came away fascinated, frustrated, and intrigued. Fascinated and intrigued because I loved the words…frustrated because poetry seemed to have rules and I was afraid to break them!  The fear of breaking rules or “not writing right” overshadowed the freedom to enjoy poetry or express myself in writing. Is there a simple book you’d recommend to help someone like me?

Wants to Enjoy Poetry Without Making it My “Major”!

Dear Wants to Enjoy,

Why, yes!  Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets is terrific.  It’s not a textbook, so it doesn’t have that jar-of-paste scent of classroom authority.  And Kooser is one of the most avuncular poets alive, so you’ll begin to relax and believe him when he writes things like: Well, there are no shoulds and should nots in writing poetry.  You can do whatever you feel like doing, pants on or pants off.  Part of the joy of writing, or of practicing any art, comes from the freedom to choose.

And in the space afforded by that freedom, you’ll start to hear the wisdom of a poet who understands that some choices are more effective than others and who can help you understand why.  As in this, about choosing the very best word:

This is from Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual (U of Nebraska Press, 2005).  I hope lots of you and click to buy it or head out to your public library where it’s free.  It’s a thoroughly hospitable book.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. John Piper permalink
    August 17, 2010 3:58 pm

    Kooser’s POETRY HOME REPAIR MANUAL was hard to put down in 2005. I finished it on a 747 between L.A. and Minneapolis, stirred by almost every page. It set me to reading two of his books of collected poems. I don’t regret any of that effort.

    Here are a few tastes why:

    The grand subjects: “Let the grand subjects emerge from carefully observed particulars.” 95

    A poem slice: “. . . He’s got his baseball cap on / backward as up he crawls, out of the froth / of a hangover and onto the sand of the future, / and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library.”

    Excellence: “The poet who makes only one really fine poem during his life gives far more to the world than the poet who publishes twenty books of mediocre verse.” 148

    On form: “THe energies of prose are generally less tightly controlled than those of poetry. Poems employ various devices like line endings and rhythm to heighten their effects. Sometimes a poem seems to heat up with energy just because it has been restrained by its form. A horse may be beautiful running at top speed, but a horse appears to be even more powerful when it has been reigned in and is wild-eyed and snorting and pawing the air with its hooves.” 149

    On the value of reading slowly: “If as a young person you learned to read without sounding out the words in your head, to take the symbol of the word directly into your mind as a meaning, you are at a slight disadvantage as a poet, but you can counter that by reading your drafts aloud to yourself, which will immediately make you aware of the sound and rhythms you’ve put into your work.” 42

    More on the worth of writing within the walls of form: “Sometimes you are forced by those walls to fall back and say things in a fresh new way.” 44

    Shaking off generalizations: “Take a close look at just six things each day. What seems like a simple discipline turns out to be quite difficult because, by habit, most of us go through life without paying much attention to anything.” 93

    My prayer that Koozer will live long enough for this: “Growing older cured the acne of my adolescent atheism, thinned the hair of my middle -aged skepticism, and left me as a doddering geezer with a firm belief that there is indeed a mysterious order to the universe. If I should live another twenty years, I may one day discover I believe in a god who holds a keen interest in Ted Kooser’s personal welfare, though it seems pretty unlikely.” 140 This God inspired a Book that is something like two-thirds poetry.

  2. August 17, 2010 9:18 pm

    Thank you for that recommendation and for the hospitable excerpts!


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