by Ed Darling
Just by chance, I met Ted Kooser, the Poet Laureate of the United States, at the 2004 NCTE Indianapolis Convention. He was talking informally with teachers at the book display, and one of the group remarked that this was the first time a poet laureate had come to an NCTE convention.
He and I started talking and, as I listened to him, I took note of what he had to say about the art and craft of poetry. He knows his territory well, having written poetry for 45 years, mostly during the hours of 4-6 a.m. before leaving for his day job at an insurance company.
Laureate Kooser, creator of eight published books of poems, looks as much to us as we look to him for a climate that nurtures poetry.
What Was a Poet Laureate Doing at an NCTE Convention?
"Middle-school and high school teachers," Kooser said, "are on the front line of showing poetry to young people. A lot of people would never be introduced to poetry at all if it weren't in the curriculum. I could travel around the country all year giving readings on college campuses, but those people already are readers and purchasers of poetry. Middle school and high school, that's where poetry becomes part of our lives, so I wanted to come and meet teachers and see what I could do to help them."
How Does Poetry Become Part of a Student's Life?
"Enthusiasm. It's got to be fun. If poetry is reduced to an algebraic equation with one meaning, and only a teacher has the meaning, and you can't figure it out without the teacher, it's no fun. And when you become an adult, when you see a poem in The New Yorker, you'll turn the page and look for a cartoon. You'll say, 'I don't have to work for a good grade anymore.'
"Poems aren't like walnuts that you have to crack open to dig the meat out. That can kill interest in poetry."
How Did His Teachers Influence His Interest in Poetry?
"In junior high I remember Miss McCord and Miss Wilcox. A teacher's enthusiasm sticks with a student, I think. With one of those teachers I memorized part of 'The Lady of the Lake':
The stag at eve had drunk his fill
Where danced the moon on Monan's rill.
"Things like that stick with you, too. They had us write poems, and we must have read them to the class.
"A teacher in Ames High School in Ames, Iowa, encouraged me to write, and I think I began to write poetic essays. I published my first poem when I was 16. It was a Robert Service-like action poem called 'Hot Rod Race,' and it was published in Dig, a slick national magazine. It was fun at the time to do it."
Where Do Poetry Skills Come From?
"Training in skills and technique is part of teaching poetry. Do it with examples. Show how a poem is made.
"Next to reading a lot of poems, it's important to pay attention to what's going on in the world. Linda Gregg, a poet and teacher, has her students try to notice six things a day. Once you get that discipline going, you'll realize everything that you haven't been seeing.
"May Swenson was one of my favorite poets when I was young. There's a wonderful variety in all her poems, and there is a wonderful posthumous collection of her nature poems. And Nancy Willard, who teaches at Vassar, is one of my favorite poets. She writes metaphorically-rich yet accessible poems."
With Teachers in Mind
Kooser said he would like to see an interactive Web site where teachers could talk about successes and failures in teaching poetry. His new book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual (available from the University of Nebraska Press), is designed to help poets of all ages deal with problems and opportunities that might come up in their writing of poetry.
A "Noticing" Poet's Reading Invited Us to Experience Poetry Ourselves
On Saturday afternoon at the Indianapolis Convention, Kooser gave a public reading, and every poem illustrated what teacher Linda Gregg would call "noticing"--a paying attention to experience.
As I listened to Kooser's poems, I could connect all his "noticing" with things I had seen or done, and I could hear that I was not alone in my response to the truths revealed by Kooser's poems. At the end of several, I heard a collective, involuntary sound--a gasp, a sigh, an intake of breath--come from the hundreds of listeners. It seemed to indicate discovery, recognition, surprise, awe. It made the poetry that afternoon a physical, as well as intellectual and emotional experience.
That intake of breath occurred at the end of his reading of "At the Cancer Clinic," in which the speaker sees a woman making her way slowly towards an examining room, with help. We are shown the details of how the woman walks, and how a nurse who is holding a door open responds to her. And then the speaker says, "There is no restlessness or impatience/or anger anywhere in sight." Then the speaker shifts attention to the other waiting patients and ends the poem with "all the shuffling magazines grow still."
We in the audience, drawn into this scene, also grew still as we experienced it, and then we released that audible sigh that signaled our recognition: This experience was true for each of us in our own way.
Kooser told us that he had been treated for cancer six years ago and had sent a copy of this poem to his doctor, who had it enlarged, copied, framed, and hung in his clinic. "When I saw that," he said, "I thought, 'Now I've really done something meaningful.'"
He's Paid His Dues!
During the course of the Convention, Ted Kooser had greeted, talked with, and read to scores of teachers, sharing the gifts of a dues-paying lifetime of pre-dawn writing sessions. Then he was given especially warm applause and cheers during his reading when he told the audience he'd just paid up his NCTE dues for a year.
He had told us we were on the "front lines" of the effort to make poetry part of our students' lives, and now NCTE-member Kooser is right there with us!
Ed Darling teaches at South Burlington High School in Vermont, is past president of the Vermont Council of Teachers of English Language Arts, and is a member of the New England Association of Teachers of English and NCTE.
Former poet laureate Ted Kooser answers questions by middle and high school students at http://www.studentpublishingprogram.org/q_and_a/ (Note: Use the back button on your browser to return to the NCTE website after reading the questions and answers.)