A Conversation With Stanley Plumly by KR poetry editor David Baker
Ted Kooser is an American original, whose work in poetry is akin to the paintings of Grant Wood and the music of Aaron Copland. Kooser’s poetry is regional and realistic, as lean as Shaker furniture, and like Shaker furniture it is a poetry that values aesthetic beauty, formal economy, and practical use.
Ted Kooser was born in 1939, in Ames, Iowa, and received his college education at Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska. Until his retirement in 1999, he worked as an insurance man—a medical underwriter and eventually a public relations executive—in Lincoln, Nebraska. He now lives on an acreage near Garland, Nebraska, and teaches occasionally at the University of Nebraska. Though his early poetry appeared almost exclusively in small literary journals and was published by independent small-press book companies, he has more recently been recognized as one of America’s most important poets. From 2004-2006, he served as poet laureate of the United States, and his 2004 collection, Delights & Shadows, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Among Kooser’s many poetry collections are Official Entry Blank, University of Nebraska Press, 1969; A Local Habitation & A Name, Solo Press, 1974; Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980; The Blizzard Voices, Bieler Press, 1986 (reprinted by University of Nebraska Press, 2007); Weather Central, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994; and Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon Press, 2004. His three books of nonfiction are Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (2002), The Poetry Home Repair Manual (2005), both from University of Nebraska Press, and a collaborative work, Writing Brave and Free: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing, cowritten with Stephen Cox. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, he has been awarded the Society of Midland Authors Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Nebraska Book Award, and many others. Local Wonders was a finalist in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers competition, and an essay was included in Best American Essays, 2005.
Kooser’s work as poet laureate included his inauguration of the project “American Life in Poetry,” which he still maintains. For this free weekly column, Kooser selects a short lyric poem by a contemporary American poet and writes an introductory comment. The mission of the project, Kooser says, is to promote poetry and to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. Hundreds of newspapers participate in “American Life in Poetry” by printing this column every week. The column has about four million readers.
The present interview was begun at Denison University in March 2007 as a public conversation with Kooser, conducted by David Baker, poetry editor of The Kenyon Review, and Tim Hofmeister, professor of classics at Denison. The interview was completed in November 2007 through a series of e-mail exchanges.
David Baker: Ted, thanks so much for the chance to talk about your five poems in the new Kenyon Review and about your work as a poet and poet laureate of the United States. Tim and I will step in and out with questions for you. I’d like to start with “Success,” since it suggests issues relating to the public service of the laureate. Is it true that these five poems are the first you wrote and published since the laureateship?
Ted Kooser: Yes, that’s right. While I was poet laureate I had very little time for writing, and these five are among a few that I felt worth publishing.
DB: Let’s look at the poem here. This is “Success”:
I can feel the thick yellow fat of applause
building up in my arteries, friends,
yet I go on, a fool for adoration. Do I care
that when it sloughs off it is likely to go
straight to the brain? I am already showing
the first signs of poetic aphasia,
the words coming hard, the synapses
of metaphor no longer connecting.
But look at me, down on my knees
next to the podium, lapping the last drops,
then rolling in the stain like a dog,
getting the smell in my good tweed sport coat,
the grease on my suede elbow patches,
and for what? Well, for the women I walk past
the next morning, the ones in the terminal,
wheeling their luggage, looking so beautifully
earnest. All for the hope that they will
suddenly dilate their nostrils, squeeze
the hard carry-on handles, and rise to
the ripening odor of praise with which I have
basted myself, stinking to heaven.
This is one of my favorite new poems of yours. I like it in part because of features that I admire in all your best poems—intensity of observation matched with a casual idiom, self-effacement alongside your obvious delight in making, and maybe most, your genius for image and metaphor–metaphor sustained like a metaphysical poet achieving that high trope of conceit. Here, the conceit is of self-basting, celebrity as high cholesterol.
TK: I wrote it in fun, to answer all my friends, who kept asking what it was like to be thrust into celebrity. They knew I am an introvert, and that it would be difficult for me to be a public figure.
DB: For all the obvious good of the laureateship—both for us and for yourself—we can’t ignore the complaint in “Success.” I think about your larger body of poetry, where the typical Kooser hero or persona is alone, that single soul out in the vast universe of nature and of others. There’s a lone student carrying his heavy backpack through the hard wind, there’s a man in awe of a stormy landscape, on and on. The pressure on the protagonist of this poem is, of course, public service. He is ironic and reluctant. But he is also delighted by the “ripening odor of praise,” even though he knows it will be, so to speak, the death of him.
How did you manage such public life, so many appearances? You have spent a lifetime in a kind of quiet anonymity in Nebraska. Was this a shock to your system? Or did the honor override the shock?
TK: I guess you might say that the honor overrode the shock. I was at first terrified, but I decided that if the Library of Congress was willing to take a chance on a poet from the Great Plains, I’d better do the best job I could. So I threw myself into it and pressed forward. In the twenty months while I was in the post I made around two hundred appearances and did a hundred interviews. I talked to little groups and big ones, local book clubs, and Rotary and Kiwanis groups, and, of course, to lots of schools, both secondary and college. That activity continues, and I’ve made another fifty appearances, I’d guess.
Tim Hofmeister: The laureateship gave you a unique opportunity to look at poetry across the country. I know we want to talk more about this in a minute. But first I want to ask a little more about your work as laureate. In fact, what is the nature of the laureateship? Are there official responsibilities and obligations?
TK: The actual obligations are few. The laureate is asked to give a public reading at the opening of each term, in October, and a lecture at the close of the season, in May. In between the laureate has the privilege of giving away two Witter Bynner Fellowships of ten thousand dollars to promising poets. It’s optional, but you can also bring poets to read at the Library of Congress, where they’re recorded for posterity. Again, I took on a whole lot in addition to these basics. One of the most pleasurable things I did was to invite the singer-songwriter John Prine to the Library talk about writing songs. I interviewed him on stage in the Coolidge Auditorium, and he was the first folksinger who had been there since Woody Guthrie in the 1930s. You can see that interview on the Library’s Web site.
By the way, the laureateship is in no way connected with the presidency, the executive branch, or even with Congress. Congress appropriates no money for it. It is a privately endowed program at the Library of Congress. I suppose that if the laureate were summoned to the White House and asked to write a poem for the President, somebody might want to do that. Not this guy. I did have one similar opportunity. I had an e-mail one day from a group of Cheney supporters asking if I would be willing to write a poem for Dick Cheney’s birthday. And I responded that I would not be available on that occasion. And then after I hit the SEND button, I realized that there was no date in the invitation at all.
TH: Did you realize you could’ve had some fun forwarding that e-mail?
TK: I guess it didn’t occur to me to do that. I wanted it out of the house as quickly as possible. But the thing is, actually, even if it had happened to be a politician I respected a great deal, I couldn’t write a poem like that. Occasional poems simply do not work, and I don’t like writing poems on request. I have written a few things for people’s weddings and they’re OK for that one moment, but as works of art, they just don’t hold up.
DB: But that is one of the features of the British poet laureate, isn’t it? They are obliged to do poems on command and for occasions. That may be—I looked this up—why we no longer remember the work of Laurence Eusden, Colley Cibber, Henry James Pye, and some of the other less famous laureates from Britain.
TK: And they do it for, I think, a small keg, or butt, of sherry. Yes, well, we’d all agree that the laureates in America have it a lot better.
TH: I’d like to ask what you felt you’ve learned about the state of poetry from being poet laureate.
TK: I became convinced fairly early that there is an enormous audience available to us as writers if we want to approach them, to bring them back. These are people who had poetry ruined for them in the public schools by teachers who said, “The following poem has a meaning that I want you to dig out. I have it written down in the back of my Teacher’s Guide.” And so we fell upon poems as if they were walnuts we had to crack —rather than seeing poems as pleasurable experiences that we can take into our lives and use however we wish. A poem does not have to have a meaning!
I don’t want to disparage all English teachers because lots of them do wonderful jobs with this kind of thing and really should be sainted. Everywhere I went when I gave a reading—and my work, for those of you who don’t know it, is that I really work hard to make it available to kind of a broad, general audience—anyway, everywhere I went, someone would come up after the reading, some guy in the back, with his thumbs in his belt, and say, “My wife dragged me to this thing and you couldn’t have gotten me to go to a poetry reading for anything, but I want you to know I had a good time and I’m going to give this poetry stuff a chance.” Modernism, the poetry of the twentieth century, beginning at about World War I, did its best to exclude a lot of readers by its difficulty, its elitism.
TH: I know you’ve said that there are different kinds of poetry in the United States. Don’t you think that’s a healthy thing in the United States?
TK: Absolutely. I was saying somewhat facetiously that people will, from time to time, ask a question about the “state of American poetry.” You can’t really talk about it that way because you have these various groups doing things. You have the cowboy poets who are perfectly happy doing what they are doing. They have this big meeting in Nevada every year and they have a wonderful time. You have rap poets who have a big following; you have the hip-hop. You know, all these various groups. All of them are thriving within their groups, and they really don’t have too much interest in each other.
Shortly after I was named poet laureate I thought, “I’m going to go to the National Cowboy Poetry thing in Elko, Nevada. That ought to be fun.” So I called up the Western Folklife Association that runs it and said I was just appointed poet laureate of the United States and I’d like to come to the Elko thing. And the response was, “So what!” They don’t care about the poet laureate of the United States; they’ve got their own thing going. All those groups are there, and they are thriving. The only group that thinks everyone should be writing like them is we Literary Poets.
DB: Let me ask something related to that. We’re talking about school. We’re all working in schools. And now you’re talking about what happens to poetry in schools. Here are two passages I want to read for your response. This is from Jerry Thompson in the Yale Review: “Nabokov wrote that ‘Art consists of specific details and not the general ideas Americans are taught from high school to look for in works of art.’ He’s unquestionably right; the difference between art and commonplace expression is in the last five percent of rigor.” And this is Paul Kane: “Since virtually all literary themes can be reduced to commonplaces, there is clearly something other than cognitive content that attracts us.”
I’m interested in what that other thing is. We get good at asking our students to find the theme of this or that poem. We take a beautiful poem and reduce it to its theme. You know: Nature is awful, nature is beautiful, we are all silly people doomed by fate or culture. . . .” So what is it that we’re missing in the treatment of poetry in school? What is that “thing” that makes the poem more than its testable content?
TK: I think we respond to poems the same way we respond to works in a gallery. We walk through a gallery; we may not be crazy about abstract expressionism, but we turn the corner in a gallery and there is an abstract expressionist painting, and there’s something that just happens to us, and this is an individual, a private response. There are poems that will immediately move us, emotionally move us. And we don’t need to know exactly why that happens. I mean we can, upon analysis, figure it out: What is it about that painting that makes it so thrilling, but we have to use language to do that, and our response to a painting is not in language but in the viscera, in the heart.
Allan Grossman has a beautiful poem called “Two Waters.” It’s one of my favorites. On this farm he’s talking about, there are two kinds of water: the water that drained into the cistern from melting snow and falling rain and then the well water, which is of a different character. I think the reason that I love that poem so much is because that’s the way it was at my grandparents’ home. They had a cistern and a well. It’s beautifully written, but it also seems to be written for me. I bring my own experience to the poem. I don’t know whether that’s a decent answer.
DB: It’s a fine answer. Your illustration about understanding poetry uses the example of an art gallery. Does your own work as a painter affect your poetry? Are your paintings miniatures, too, like the poems?
TK: I do often paint very small paintings, five inches by seven, say, even smaller. I think a big part of making art of any kind is an attempt to secure order, and there can be a lot of pleasure in making something small and orderly.
TH: I’d like to get back to the issue of audience again, as well. I guess my question would be: How do we get more people to come out to poetry readings?
TK: Well, people will read and enjoy poetry and go to poetry readings as long as those experiences are pleasurable. We have to remember that pleasure is an important thing to human beings. We all want to have a pleasurable experience, but to go to a reading where you’re sitting in the audience for sixty minutes and someone is reading and not saying anything that you understand in any way is an altogether unpleasant experience. That has happened to a lot of people because of the difficulty and obscurity that evolved in the twentieth century.
In building readership for poetry we have to think of having fun with little children. I really do believe children will be lifelong readers of poetry if we will spend time showing them that it is fun when they are small. A lot of teachers are very good at that, and poets like Shel Silverstein and Dr. Suess can provide material. Their work shows that poetry can be fun.
But all too often what happens is that Ms. Smith in the eighth grade says that the meaning of this poem is not what you said it is; in fact, you get a D today because you didn’t get the meaning right. So everybody gets out of school and they see a poem in the New Yorker and they go “Ahh, I don’t have to do that anymore, I got a D in that.”
DB: I want to ask you more about this, the issue of availability. I am thinking about your own style and clarity, the simplicity of style in your poetry. I wonder whether you might agree with this little sentence of Edmund Burke. Burke says that “a clear idea is another name for a little idea.”
TK: No, I would not agree. It’s great fun not to agree with Edmund Burke.
DB: I thought that is what you might say. Let me trace the tendency toward simplicity back a little further. Your own style is a plain style or colloquial style, where the lyric poem is stripped down, image-driven and narrative-based. So I’m thinking of the American appeal to simplicity that runs all the way back to William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth. In referring to the need for simplicity in his own language, he says “as by the scriptures we are plainly told.” He extols the virtue of simplicity or plainness. This is embedded in our national character, even our politics and religion, and of course in one strain of our poetry.
TK: That Shaker song, “’Tis a gift to be simple,” might make a good thing to tack up over a writing desk. One of the most influential books for me as a writer is the Strunk and White Elements of Style. That book puts a lot of emphasis on the virtues of clarity and simplicity.
DB: Let me ask you to respond to one last quotation. This is Helen Vendler. And the question again is about style, your own. Vendler says that “a writer’s true vision lies in the implications of his or her style.” Now, as you think about what your style is or what you hope it is, do you see a connection between style and something larger, like vision?
TK: That’s very interesting. I’m not sure what Miss Vendler means, but I do think that style is an extension of personality. I am comfortable, as a person, with the style of my poems, if that makes any sense at all. I am saying poems out of my heart, and this feels harmonious with the person who I am. I tend to be someone who writes with a great deal of sentiment. I’m willing to take that risk at a time when people are suspicious of sentimental poetry. But I think that is what I need to do as a poet.
DB: Do you think your vision, then, is a social one? Or at least, do you think your style is crafted to be more available and public, rather than exclusive or academic?
TK: Yes, absolutely. Let me turn back to this problem we have with excluding audience. I’d like to be on record as saying that anybody can write a poem that nobody can understand. That’s really easy. On the other hand, it might be really hard to write a poem that everyone in a room found meaning in. I would fail at that, even though I would like to reach out to everyone in this room.
TH: I have a question that relates to these issues—of the poet’s ability to reach a broad audience, to speak or write in ways that are inclusive versus exclusive. “Availability” doesn’t necessarily equate to “ease.” Some of your poems that seem accessible are also challenging. I’m thinking of poems like “Praying Hands.” You write a lot about hands, but here the hands are a made object. They are akin to particular objects in other poems—broken-down rural churches, odd roadside shrines—with some religious connotation. I wondered why these objects keep coming back into the poetry. My first guess is that they have something to do with what David calls the midwestern social text; these objects are a part of the community and they need to be represented.
TK: I’m not a traditional believer in any manner of speaking, but I do go to church, I go to different churches. I like sitting with a group of people for about an hour who I imagine are thinking in the right direction. The denomination means nothing to me; it’s the idea of being in a community. People who are actually spending some time thinking about their spiritual life.
When I was younger, I was extremely intolerant of people who were devout believers. I have come to believe that nearly everyone is trying to live a good life, and this may be tremendously Pollyannaish of me to think this. There are a few evil people in the world and they cause a lot of trouble, but nearly everyone is trying to live a good life despite ignorance and poverty and the worst kind of circumstances.
Several years ago, I went to a wedding where the brother of the bride was a jailer in Texas, at the county facility that processes all the prisoners going to their executions at Huntsville. Now as you know—I hope you know—Texas executes maybe a hundred and fifty people a year, and Huntsville is where that happens. So these prisoners are coming to this county facility to be processed before they are sent on to death row. I said, “How many of these people are genuinely evil?” He said, “Ted, maybe one or two out of one hundred.” He said the rest of them have just made stupid choices.
We might make fun of somebody with a Praying Hands plaque on his wall. But I’m for kindness and tolerance toward all of those things; they’re part of what we have and who we are. The world is too short of kindness.
TH: You write quite a few poems about nature and seem to imply there is an order of things in nature. By contrast, in “The Red Wing Church,” there’s a sort of comedy going on. The church is all busted up, it’s disintegrating and you find the pews on everybody’s porches around town, and the cross is God knows where. On the other hand, in a passage from Local Wonders you carefully depict the Mennonite women, whose community is intact, and you invest them with a lot of respect. You begin by saying, “A person needn’t be fearful of sixty-five-year-old Mennonite women in white lace caps.” This implies, correctly, I think, that there is a lot of fear on the part of many people of other people who are like the Mennonite women.
TK: I know nothing about the Mennonite religion really. All I have to draw on is that when I go into the store and those women are behind the counter, I like the way they count out the change. They’re so careful not to cheat me of a penny. We really have a wonderful country full of lots of fascinating, beautiful people. I think we have a lot of stupidity in our leaders, but most of the people, I think, are pretty good people, doing as best they can.
TH: A certain kind of poetic approach can challenge a reader with a vision of inclusion, and at a time when the country is divided in so many ways—Nascar Nation, New Yorker Nation, and so on. It’s as if we’ve reached a point where people want to say, thanks to social stratification or the legal system or whatever, we are finally immune from one another. A sad view, really, which I find your poems often subvert.
DB: These issues—of clarity, inclusion, public utility—must be related to your work with “American Life in Poetry.” Would you say something about that? How did your project get started? What have been your goals? And what do you see for the future of the project?
TK: My wife is in the newspaper business, and for years she and I had been talking about how one might get poetry back into the papers. There was a time when lots of newspapers printed poetry. It was her idea to let papers use the column free. She didn’t think that, on the lean budgets upon which newspapers now operate, many could pay even five dollars a week. We wanted it to be free. After I was made poet laureate I approached the Poetry Foundation. Without them it couldn’t have happened. They were behind the creation of the Web site, and they continue to maintain it. And they have given me enough money to pay for a halftime assistant editor and a graduate assistant. I get no money from them, but that’s fine. I am a volunteer. The column has been very successful, and at the time of this interview we have about four million readers. We have been published in around three hundred papers. I plan to keep the column going as long as I can, and, of course, as long as the Poetry Foundation continues to support it. What the column accomplishes is to show American newspaper readers that poetry is not something they need to fear, that there are poems that can be understood and appreciated.
DB: Let’s backtrack now—to before the laureateship and the Pulitzer. Once upon a time, you were an insurance man back home in Lincoln. How did your work in business affect the poetry?
TK: I believe that writers write for perceived communities, and that if you are a lifelong professor of English, it’s quite likely that you will write poems that your colleagues would like; that is, poems that will engage that community. I worked every day with people who didn’t read poetry, who hadn’t read it since they were in high school, and I wanted to write for them. I am not looking for an audience of literary professionals, though it’s nice when some of them like what I’m doing.
DB: And you retired, I think, around 2000?
TK: In mid-1998 I was diagnosed with a squamous cell tongue carcinoma that had spread into my neck. I never returned to work after that. I was able to retire at age sixty about six months later, after an extensive sick leave. I’m delighted to say that I am cured now. I’m well, but it was a bad thing to go through. And it was the end of my insurance career, but I have never missed it for a minute.
As I began to come out of that illness, the University of Nebraska asked me to do some more teaching. I had, from time to time, taught as an adjunct. So they brought me in as a visiting professor. Later I was made Presidential Professor and given a renewable contract. Anyway. the insurance career was over in 1999. I had been just doing what I do, writing poems and painting pictures and doing a little bit of teaching. Then this poet laureate thing came out of the blue, and I decided it was an opportunity to make some statements about poetry and talk to people in the world about American poetry. I took this on, and I worked pretty much seven days a week for two years. It was very important for me to show that someone from Nebraska could do that kind of work.
TH: That’s a pretty amazing commitment of time and energy. Are you still working so hard?
TK: Now that I am out of office, I feel a little bit more able to say “no” to things even though I am always honored when I am asked to come to some civic group or something or other like that. I still do a lot of that. But I’m trying to say “no” a little more because I need to get back to doing some writing and quiet down a little. I keep my calendar on a word processing document, and at the height of my activity, I had five pages of things to do, single-spaced. It’s down to about two and a half now. Over the next year or so, I hope to get back to where I can spend more time at home, where I write best, and I can do some painting. I’m still teaching. I teach once a year in the fall semester, just one class, and I’ll keep doing that. And then my newspaper column is something that doesn’t take up a great deal of time, but I do have to put regular time on that during the week.
DB: So now, what is a normal day like for you. What is your habit and what do you expect out of yourself?
TK: Well, all those years when I was at the insurance company I learned that if I was going to do any writing at all, I had to do it early in the morning. And I got up at 4:30 a.m. every day, and I would write until maybe 7:00. Then I would get in and out of the shower and get my suit and tie on and go off to the insurance company. And I have continued that all these years. You know, once you get used to getting up at 4:30 in the morning, that’s when you get up. My dogs are used to getting up at that time, and if I don’t get up, they’re usually bothering me to get up. So I get up every morning and I sit in the same chair every morning, with my coffee pot at hand, and write in a notebook. And I am a dismal failure as a writer twenty-eight days out of thirty. It’s just junk when I’m done, after my two or three hours at it. But I’ve learned that unless I’m sitting there with my notebook, on the day when the good one comes, I’m never going to get it at all. So I have to show up for work, which is one of the important things about doing this kind of work, or doing really any work.
Here is a little anecdote. This happened just before Thanksgiving one year. I had broken an overhead door in one of the outbuildings on my farm, and I went to the lumber yard to find a part for it. Here was this older guy who knows where things are, and he’s sorting through all these boxes, and we started to talk about Thanksgiving coming. He said it was going to be a warm Thanksgiving and so he was going to pitch horseshoes after Thanksgiving dinner. I said something about horseshoe pitching and about the fact that I had an uncle with cerebral palsy who could barely walk but who could pitch horseshoes. He said, “Yeah, my uncle Ed was Tri-State Horseshoe Pitching Champion three years running, and I asked my uncle, ‘Uncle Ed, how did you get so good?’ And he said, “Son, you gotta pitch a hundred shoes a day.”
That’s what it takes to get good at anything. You’ve got to be in there pitching horseshoes every day. If at the end of the year I’ve written ten poems that I think are really effective, then it’s a really good year for me—six to ten.
DB: How do you know your good poems? How do they assert themselves or stand out from the other ones? In horseshoes, it’s clear. The thrower hears the ping and sees the shoe around the peg.
TK: Sometimes I don’t know. I have a sense of the quality of the work when it’s finished. Maybe it’s a ping. I want every part to snap into place at some point and become a whole. That poem “Success” is a good example. Or a poem David has written about, “Etudes,” which is as strong a poem as I’ve ever written. From the minute I wrote it I was delighted with it, with finishing it. I remember thinking, “Did I just write this thing?” I was astounded at the way it all came together. So you have the feeling every once in a while when it all comes together and it feels like more than itself somehow.
DB: On those two poems, can you say what it is that came together, or why a particular poem may seem like your best one?
TK: I think what happens is in that extended metaphor. The power is in having its parts, its vehicle and tenor, greatly separated and then moved into a relationship. In “Etude,” we have a bird, a blue heron, and we have a guy sitting in a blue suit at a desk. It’s a big stretch to make. And if you try a stretch like that with a metaphor, and you can’t hold it up, it will just sag and fall away. It happens that in that poem I was somehow able to make it work. I do believe that a lot of this material or connection comes forth by dictatio–something deep in me, something that I’m not really in control of. If I knew how to write a poem like that, I would do it every day. But I can’t. What happens in my favorite ones is that, toward the end of the poem, the metaphor makes a circle; it goes way out here, way at this guy at the desk, and it comes back at the point where I say “his pencil poised in the air like the beak of a bird.” Back we’ll go to the heron and then it’s all over. The figure is complete.
I have no idea how I wrote that, but I had to be sitting there for a long time to do it just so.
DB: We have talked a lot about plainness. But in some way, your best poems move beyond conventional definitions of the plain. I am thinking of what you have described just now, that sustained or pushed metaphor. Isn’t that a very fanciful figurative metaphysical conceit, where you take an image and push it into a metaphor and take the metaphor and push it into a pattern, and push the pattern as far as it will possibly go until it nearly breaks? That’s the way you were talking about the heron poem and that’s what I see in “Success” and, really, the other four poems in the new Kenyon Review. “Success” is not an imagist poem so much as a poem of conceit. “Two Men on an Errand” works that way, too. It develops an image—the men waiting at an auto repair shop—but pushes the whole image into metaphor and the metaphor into sustained conceit. There’s a “foam rubber sandal” which seems like a car tire, and the older man “steering with his cane,” and much more. This extends far beyond the simplicity of an isolate image. It seems to me, in some way, not plain at all. Is that a fair thing to say, or is that an insult?
TK: No, it isn’t plain in the common sense, and I thank you for describing it so clearly. I think one thing about working with metaphor this way is that you want both sides to work perfectly well together. It’s a matter of paring away the things that won’t work in the comparison and being sure that the only things in the comparison are ones that play on both sides. Often, most of my work goes into fine-tuning the central metaphor.
DB: You pare away? So perhaps you achieve a kind of plainness or economy even in the way you construct patterns of metaphor. No waste, even in elaboration.
TH: It almost seems as though the breaking point between a plain style and another kind of style is metaphor. But maybe you’re saying it’s more the way you manage the metaphor?
TK: I don’t know, Tim. I guess the plain style is there in that I’m going for simplicity and plainness and clarity.
DB: The rhetoric is plain, the idiom. That’s the virtue of the plain style in your poems. But the application of the metaphor, the pushing of metaphor into extended conceit, that’s the thing I like, that sort of irony, that pull of those two polarities. What we think of as usually different kinds of rhetoric. It shoves the image beyond its economical spare use.
TH: I’m thinking of a passage in Local Wonders where you’re talking to your postman. Your postman has seen one of your poems and also some mention of your poetry and he reluctantly says, “They say you have a gift for metaphor. What exactly does that mean?” What I like about that passage is you work through with him what metaphor is and what metaphor does. And that contributes to a step in his understanding of what you’re about.
TK: I can’t remember exactly how that passage goes, but the mailman had stopped me by the side of the road and said he read on the back of a book that I was a “master of metaphor,” and he said, “What does that mean?” I said, “Well, you know, a metaphor is a kind of comparison of things.” He said, “You mean when I say such and such was like, it was like . . ., well, you know what I mean.” I said, “Yeah, that’s right.”
TH: Do we have a natural gift for metaphor, and to what extent, do you think?
TK: No, all of us don’t have a natural gift for metaphor. I happen to be blessed with an imagination that leans in that direction. I’ve worked with a lot of students who have learned to write poems that exclude metaphors because they are just no good at it. You cannot deliberately construct a metaphor. It arises in the process of writing. It always comes as a marvelous surprise when it arrives. Just like that “Etude” poem, you think, “Where did that come from?” A student will show me a poem and say, “Don’t you think I ought to put a metaphor right about there?” As if you could go to Circuit City and buy one and plug it in. I am immensely grateful that I was given an imagination that has the associative side to it.
TH: You have a wonderful way of sharing it in the poems. This partly has to do with what we are talking about, with that style. I also think about a device you use, which I think we have touched on. Where you say to a reader “you’ve seen how” and then you lead them into a scene. But you have a tension there, too, a tension where you expect a person to say, “Yes, I have seen that.”
TK: You have to be careful with that kind of “lead-in” phrase. In the poem we’re talking about—it’s the one about the woman in the wheelchair, in which I say “You’ve seen how pianists bend forward to strike the keys, then lift their hands.” I can assume when I write like that every one here has seen a pianist do that. I wouldn’t say, “You’ve seen how a man can repair a carburetor on a chainsaw.” I couldn’t expect you to know that.
There is another poem, the kind of poem that we’ve been talking about, a poem with an extended metaphor, that I sometimes read in public. It’s called “A Washing of Hands.” This is what happens to me when I’m working. I try to pay attention. This is the important thing in being a writer, trying to pay attention to what’s going on. I was watching my wife at the sink washing her hands under the water and then flicking her fingers to get the water off.
DB: Great. Let’s take a look at “A Washing of Hands”:
She turned on the tap and a silver braid
unraveled over her fingers.
She cupped them, weighing that tassel,
first in one hand and then the other,
then pinched through the threads
as if searching for something, perhaps
an entangled cocklebur of water,
or the seed of a lake. A time or two
she took the tassel in both hands,
squeezed it into a knot, wrung out
the cold and the light, and then, at the end,
pulled down hard on it twice,
as if the water were a rope and she was
ringing a bell to call me, two bright rings,
though I was there.
TK: I love the idea of playing your way into that sort of associative stuff: just a braid of water. Those are the kinds of poems I really love to write because I am always so thrilled when they work. And let down when they fail.
DB: This poem again is a single conceit, or rather, a poem whose metaphor keeps transforming into another version of itself. There’s the cocklebur, and then the seed of the lake, and then the tassel, the knot, the rope. These images aren’t exactly cognitively connected; it’s more about the magic, the leap of an associative imagination.
TK: Yes, it’s me following my imagination as it plays, and writing down some of that play, but not all of it. In a poem like that I will usually have deleted some of the play if it doesn’t seem to enhance the effect. I like your use of the word magic, because when those metaphors come to me, unbidden, it feels magical.
DB: What do you see as the most hopeful movements in contemporary poetry? You are right, earlier, when you point out so many fields and schools and types. A poetry for every audience. There is a loud din in the small world of poetry. What do you foresee?
TK: I am not much of a scholar, and no cultural historian, but I hope time will somehow preserve the poems that have real meaning for broad groups of people, not just for literary professionals. Sir Thomas Beecham once said that he thought composers should write music that chauffeurs and delivery boys could whistle. Elsewhere he said that unless composers write music that organ grinders can play it will never be immortal.
DB: What are you working on now? I know—the “American Life in Poetry” project. But how about your poems? Are you writing? Do you see a new collection in the future?
TK: I am slowly assembling a small stack of poems I’m pleased with, and the ones in The Kenyon Review are part of that, but I think it will be five or six years before I have another book ready. I don’t want to publish anything that isn’t at least as well done as Delights & Shadows. Right now, I could get just about anything published because my name is well-known. But it would be stupid to use that celebrity as a way of getting inferior work published. Others have done that and it’s a mistake.
TH: I wonder if you have any final things you’d like to say—about your work, or the wider state of poetry?
TK: Poetry has meant a great deal to me for almost fifty years, and I have been immensely lucky with my poems, to have them noticed and appreciated. I have a happy writing life and I am thankful.
[This interview is part
of a series of conversations with authors who have work in KR.
It is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for