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For New Poet Laureate Kooser, Home Is Where the Art Is

Nebraskan Ted Kooser, the new U.S. poet laureate, hates to fly. So when it came time to come to Washington, D.C., to open the Library of Congress’ literary season, which debuts tonight, he packed up a rental Chrysler and started driving.

Two and a half days, 1,200 miles and six states later, he and his wife arrived in the nation’s capital, his first trip back in roughly a decade.

It was a pristine fall day. Sun shining. A cool, crisp nip to the air. And the “fresh voice from the Plains,” as Librarian of Congress James Billington has dubbed him, was in fine spirits.

For Kooser, who plans to travel to appearances and meetings by car, this will be the year of the open road.

It is a fitting mode of transportation for the poetic pioneer. Kooser is, after all, the first poet laureate to hail from the Great Plains, and one of the few contemporary poets to have taken the region’s landscape and culture as his primary artistic template.

“He is the poet who has described unforgettably what it is now like to live on the Great Plains states at the moment in history when the farm culture is passing away,” said fellow poet and National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia, who suggested Kooser, along with other poets, for laureateship consideration by the Library.

“It’s like being home when you read,” his poetry said former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey (D), a friend and correspondent of Kooser’s.

Kooser is distinctly normal, Kerrey noted. “This is a guy that can raise chickens and do carpentry and take care of his land.”

The laconic Midwesterner’s verse is not written to please a university English department audience. Nor is Kooser interested in acting like a poet. He isn’t gossipy, or even wordy. “He’ll never say two words when one will do,” Gioia said.

Since the announcement of his appointment, Kooser, a former life insurance executive, who on this day sported wire-rim eyeglasses and a tweed jacket, has proven as accessible as his imagistic poetry is frequently described.

Unlike his predecessor, the famously media adverse Louise Gl ck, Kooser has embraced the public nature of his new role.

Already he’s matched wits with The Washington Post’s humor columnist Gene Weingarten in a poetry “duel,” and he more than held his own with a condescending New York Times Magazine journalist, who chided Kooser in a Q&A published last month for not being more familiar with the European poetry canon. (“Think of all the European poetry I could have read if we hadn’t spent all this time on this interview,” he told the reporter.)

But up until now, Kooser, who lives on a 62-acre farm just outside of Garland, Neb., has toiled in relative obscurity.

“You might see his name from reading a poem in the New Yorker [but] he never was a household name,” said Grace Cavalieri, who hosts and produces the radio program “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress.”

“He was not making the scene. He was never self aggrandizing,” she said.

Instead, most days he was writing from 4:30 to 7 a.m. (a habit he picked up when he was still working in insurance and continues to this day) scribbling his spare, evocative poems in a spiral-bound artist’s sketchbook. (Kooser also is an avid oil and acrylic painter.) If he wants to see how his poems look, he’ll type them up on his computer then paste the printed work in a notebook. This plodding consistency has produced “thousands” of poems to date, 500 or 600 of which have been published. He has 10 volumes of poetry to his credit, including “Delights & Shadows,” released this year.

As early as the fourth grade, Kooser had begun composing the occasional short, punchy verse. He laughs, recalling one of his earliest efforts:

I love my dog
His padded paws
At Christmas, he’s my
Santa Claus

Kooser didn’t get serious about the art form until high school, however.

“Part of it was girls. I didn’t have a whole lot else going for me. I was not much of an athlete, not very good looking. I got the idea that maybe poems would work.

“I think this is true of a lot of young male poets. … Sex has a lot to do with it.”

After graduating from Iowa State University in 1962, where he was in a writing group with now-Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Kooser taught English for a year before moving to Nebraska to start graduate school. A year into his studies at the University of Nebraska, he took a job with a life insurance company —taking night courses to complete his master’s degree, which he did in 1968.

“I had to find some way of supporting myself, and I knew I’d never be able to do that as a writer,” he said. “If you publish a poem in the very best magazine in the U.S. you only get enough money to buy half a sack of groceries.”

Kooser’s former day job — in 1999 he retired as vice president of Lincoln Benefit Life insurance company after a bout with tongue cancer — has led to frequent comparisons to the Connecticut poet Wallace Stevens, also an insurance executive. It’s an analogy Kooser is quick to dismiss “as people grabbing at straws.”

“Generally, I find him very difficult to read,” Kooser said of Wallace’s more esoteric poems.

“Kooser loves ordinary people and ordinary lives. There is not a dram of elitism” in his poetry, Gioia said.

Maybe that’s because he’s never lost sight of his audience: ordinary Americans. In all of those years he spent in insurance, he always made a point of showing his poems to his secretary. “She would say, ‘I don’t understand this,’ and I would work on it. I paid attention to her.”

For Kooser, a poem may begin with a combination of words “that doesn’t make much sense by itself,” or a comparison or association, but more than anything it is grounded in reality, something Kooser observed or read.

As an example he points to a rather unlikely source of inspiration — an article in a South Dakota natural resources district newsletter.

“In it they said … they put surplus or used Christmas trees in the lakes to make a habitat for fish. The lakes were dropping to the point that the Christmas trees were sticking out of the water, and when they lifted the trees up to move them into deeper water lots of little fish fell out of the branches. That’s the sort of thing that gets to me.”

Kooser’s poems are all about specificity. An elderly aunt dusting her house. Immigrants working at a corn plant. The soldiers in a Winslow Homer painting.

But the poems hit a “tuning fork, and make you recognize something you didn’t recognize,” Kerrey said.

Reading a Kooser poem is like peering through “a sparkling clear pane of glass,” said Cavalieri, who will tape an interview with Kooser for her show this week.

“It’s not like he’s writing philosophically from a distance on a concept, there’s a person, there’s a place, there’s a thing,” she said. “There’s always something recognizable and human at the center of his poems.”

Kooser’s one-year poet laureate consultant post comes with a $35,000 stipend. In addition to headlining readings in the fall and spring at the Library, the laureate is charged with selecting two new promising poets for the Library’s Witter Bynner Fellowships, as well as organizing readings of other poets at the Library, said Director of Scholarly Programs Prosser Gifford.

Since the early 1990s, most laureates have also promoted pet projects, beginning with Joseph Brodsky’s push to get anthologies of “good poetry” into more pedestrian locales such as supermarkets and airports. More recently, Billy Collins initiated an effort to incorporate poems into the daily life of public schools by having them read over public address systems or at assemblies.

Kooser hasn’t yet worked out the details of what his focus will be, but he said it will involve paying “a lot of attention” to English teachers and librarians. Already he’s scheduled to attend the National Council of Teachers of English’s annual convention in Indianapolis next month and the American Library Association’s mid-winter meeting in Boston. Among his other ideas is working to get poetry in local newspapers (his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, is the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star) and launching a Web site for poetry teachers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he is on leave from a visiting professorship.

When Kooser takes to the podium tonight for his inaugural appearance as poet laureate, he plans to draw from a wide arc of his work.

There will be poems about family members, about “people I’ve run into here and there: a poem about a man at a garage sale, a figure skater,” about objects he’s encountered.

At 65, this diminutive, plain-spoken man of American letters is just beginning to step into the national spotlight.

“There’s no point in any situation in life … in trying to be something you aren’t. I have to present myself and my poems as they are. There is nothing I can do at this point to make them better poems. I wrote them as best I could,” Kooser said. “I hope people will like them.”

Kooser will read a selection of his poems at 6:45 p.m. today at the Library of Congress’ James Madison Building’s Montpelier Room. On Saturday at 12:45 p.m., he will appear in the National Book Festival’s Poetry Pavilion on the Mall. Both events are free and open to the public.

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