This Old Poem #104:
The Poets Laureate Special Edition #12:
Ted Kooser’s A Happy Birthday
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/20/04

  Recently Nebraskan Ted Kooser was named US Poet Laureate. Why? No 1 really knows. The Brits, at least, let their Laureates reign till death, ensuring that no more than a handful of Laureates reign in a century. In the US a new Laureate is selected every year or 2. This urge to demoticism, of course, cannot be sustained by the dearth of quality writing these PLs produce. At any given time, even in the best of times, only a handful of great published poets have been around. In the last few decades not a single great new poet has been published.
  TK is merely 1 of those poets whose name has been around long enough that he’s tossed the PL for a year or 2. Think of it as the equivalent of the ‘lifetime’ Oscar- such as when Al Pacino won Best Actor for The Scent Of A Woman rather than for a ½ dozen other memorable roles. Is TK a terrible poet? No. But he’s never written anything in the galaxy of greatness. In the tradition of needing to say something he’s often been compared to William Carlos Williams- presumably because he’s plainspoken. Of course, he’s nothing like the overrated doctor, but book jackets must have scribbling on them.
  Here’s the obligatory online bio:


  Born in Ames, Iowa, in 1939, Ted Kooser is one of Nebraska's most highly regarded poets and the country's newest Poet Laureate. He earned a BS at Iowa State University in 1962 and the MA at the University of Nebraska in 1968. He is the author of ten collections of poetry, including Sure Signs (Pittsburgh, 1980), One World at a Time (Pittsburh, 1985), Weather Central (Pittsburgh, 1994), Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison (Carnegie-Mellon UP, 2000), winner of the 2001 Nebraska Book Award for poetry, and Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry (Copper Canyon, 2003), written with his longtime friend, Jim Harrison. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The Hudson Review, The Kenyon Review, Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. His poems appear regularly in textbooks and anthologies currently in use in secondary schools and college classrooms across the country. Among other awards and distinctions he has received two NEA fellowships in poetry, the Pushcart Prize, the Stanley Kunitz Prize, The James Boatwright Prize, The Society of Midland Authors Prize (twice), and a Merit Award from the Nebraska Arts Council. A book of prose, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps (U of Nebraska P, 2002), won the Nebraska Book Award for Nonfiction in 2003 and Third Place in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award in Nonfiction for 2002. The book was also chosen as the Best Book Written by a Midwestern Writer for 2002 by Friends of American Writers, and it won the Gold Award for Autobiography in ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year Awards. His most recent book is Delights & Shadows (Copper Canyon Press, 2004). He is former vice-president of Lincoln Benefit Life, an insurance company, and lives on an acreage near the village of Garland, NE. He teaches as a Visiting Professor in the English department of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.


  Unlike some of the great writers that have emerged from Nebraska- poets James Emanuel, Weldon Kees, John G. Neihardt, & essayist/poet Loren Eiseley, there simply is nothing unique about TK. He’s as forgettable & dull as a middle-aged white man from Nebraska sounds.
  Here’s an attempt at symbolism:


In January


Only one cell in the frozen hive of night
is lit, or so it seems to us:
this Vietnamese café, with its oily light,
its odors whose colorful shapes are like flowers.
Laughter and talking, the tick of chopsticks.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.
A great wind rushes under all of us.
The bigger the window, the more it trembles.


  Unfortunately, the last line’s ‘payoff’ is an odorless fart. The imagery is not short, nor condensed, enough to be indelible, as in haiku, & the words that are longer than haiku length are, well, just dull. There’s no narrative, no great metaphor, so we are left with an image poem. Yet, the images are snoozers. Could not a different adjective be substituted for ‘wintry’? Why is line 7 a simile? It would be better as direct metaphor. I could go on, but this ‘poem’, easily written in about 3 minutes, does not deserve greater recitation of its flaws.
  Here’s another ‘plainspoken’ poem:




Slap of the screen door, flat knock
of my grandmother’s boxy black shoes
on the wooden stoop, the hush and sweep
of her knob-kneed, cotton-aproned stride
out to the edge and then, toed in
with a furious twist and heave,
a bridge that leaps from her hot red hands
and hangs there shining for fifty years
over the mystified chickens,
over the swaying nettles, the ragweed,
the clay slope down to the creek,
over the redwing blackbirds in the tops.


  OK, a nice enough Frostian set up & scene, but what does TK do with it? Nothing. What could be a comment on domesticity, sexism, etc., instead is merely an ‘unfinished poem’ with limited potential.


Flying at Night


Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.


  OK, this poem is a set up for the closing couplet. I ask, drop the rest of the poem- have you lost anything? No- even in 8 lines TK overwrites. Poetry is best when concise.
  On to the titular poem:


A Happy Birthday


This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

  If this poem ended with a knockout image, idea, or metaphor, the clichés in lines 1-5 would be ameliorated. Instead, all we get is a rather banal end to a banal poem Is this horrid? No. But it could be made a little better:


A Happy Birthday


This evening, I sat by an open window,
read till the book was gone and the light
was no more than part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but wanted to ride down into night,
sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the stale dayghost of my hand.


  In line 2, by switching book & light, you get the dyslexic comfort of the original’s cliché, yet undermine it, by having light contend within dark. By making the hand stale, you reference time more organically than with pale, & the dayghost of the speaker’s hand lends more possibility for reader imbuement than the straightforward gray ghost.
  Neither of these changes makes the poem a masterpiece, but it does show the poet’s at least thinking, & enjoying wordplay. That is what a Poet Laureate should at least strive for- no? 

Final Score: (1-100):

Ted Kooser’s A Happy Birthday: 55
TOP’s A Happy Birthday: 68

Return to TOP

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