Ted Kooser and the poet lariat

Being the U.S. poet laureate must be easier than becoming the poet laureate. “Here, you introverted freak of nature, become a public figure!” Like that. Not all are introverted freaks of nature, but not all are totally comfortable in the spotlight either.

Take the outgoing laureate, Louise Gluck.

Gkuck’s immediate predecessors (Haas, Dove, Pinsky, and Collins among them) had all used the role to be the nation’s top poetry promoters. But upon earning the position, Gluck bluntly said she wasn’t going to do much to promote poetry. The press coverage at the time didn’t know what to make of this choice — unorthodox but valid — and had to make do with “she’s shy (like those poets are)” and “she’s severe (like those poets are)” explanations.

But was Gluck that out of it? Probably not. When she appointed to a Yale teaching post last winter, she talked to the student paper and sounded quiet and artistically normal. “Gluck, 60, said she still likes to make time for the simple joys of cooking, going to the gym and simply thinking.” And then the writer spoke for herself: “I read a lot of detective fictions. I stare at a lot of walls. There’s a lot of unused, wasted time, but I think there’s some importance in that.”

But was Gluck that with it? Lazin’ like a beer commercial man? Probably not. As at least one professor wrote at length, her poems weren’t for good-time fun boys. The intensely personal made public didn’t go easily.

So it’s a little funny to find Ted Kooser in the same spot. He’s Gluck’s successor as poet laureate, a quiet Nebraskan appointed last month, and reporters still don’t know what to do. Not to blame the reporters, of course. I’m sure they know they don’t know what to do. How do you put across a moderately reclusive genius to a moderately literate readership? “So, would you say poetry is like reality TV? But, you know, with rhyming?”

Insert blank stare here. But that hasn’t stopped some publications from trying. Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten has a poetry duel with Kooser this week. The L.A. Times digs into his humanity as well, drawing out how Kooser worked in insurance for 35 years and used to rewrite his poems if his secretary didn’t understand them.

The New York Times, meanwhile, tries to go to the same spots and comes up way short. In the 12 Questions department of the paper’s latest magazine, the interviewer parries with Kooser and tastelessly suggests he isn’t cosmopolitan enough for the job. Kooser promptly puts her in her place.

Where’s he find that kick? I figure the answer comes from Kooser’s hometown paper, the Lincoln Journal Star. The story on his selection there calls him “slightly reclusive” and even gets a friend to discuss Kooser’s “Nebraska modesty.” Almost as a side note, the article mentions his wife, Kathleen Rutledge — she edits the newspaper.

In fact, Rutledge is the editor who stirred up a political correctness debate in the state last year, announcing the Journal Star’s stance banning Native American sports nicknames from its pages. Whatever you think of that decision, it’s clearly a gutsy one. There’s no comment from her in the story about her husband, and the headline of “He’s a poet, now everyone knows it” leads one to believe she didn’t see the story before it ran. But you can imagine that shy Ted Kooser knows how to abide a tough journalist or two.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *