"The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser" by Mary K. Stillwell, University of Nebraska Press, $24.95
“I begin with a metaphor,” Ted Kooser said about his writing process, “and then build a real tight skin on it like a balloon that is about to burst, and then I stop there.” Kooser's excellent metaphors -- his insight by highlighting strange and surprising connections -- have always been the most striking feature of his verse. “Metaphor can be seen to be a miraculous insight into that grand order,” Kooser wrote in a letter. It is an order where “all things appear to be related to another when there seemed to be nothing but disorder before.”
Mary K. Stillwell, a poet and author herself, attempts her own sort of "grand order" with the first book-length biography of Kooser, "The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser." The poet and his poetry, long notable in the Lincoln community, finally gained widespread recognition with Kooser's naming as U.S. Poet Laureate in 2004. Stillwell's biography mixes narrative of the poet's life with detailed analysis of his poetry. The resulting blend proves heavier on exegesis and lighter on biography.
Kooser, who grew up in Ames, Iowa, demonstrated poetic gifts early. Stillwell digs up a lovely couplet Kooser wrote in fourth grade: "I love my dog, his padded paws / At Christmas he’s my Santa Claus." Besides precociousness, there is something here, too, of Kooser's later profession that his poems are "love letters."
After obtaining a bachelor's degree from Iowa State, Kooser moved to Nebraska to study under famous poet Karl Shapiro. While Kooser was a promising student, his grades were "uneven," and finances prompted him to drop out and obtain a full-time job. Originally just to pay the bills, Kooser became a "correspondent" at Bankers Life Insurance. But like poet Wallace Stevens, Kooser eventually spent much of his life as an insurance executive. The career "gave him a sense of order" (there's that word again, "order") and seemed to be a metaphor for his poetry: the clean, defined days; the routine; and the diligence required day after day. It's certainly a change from the collegiate Kooser, who was hospitalized after a "drunken tobogganing party" and started drinking to ease his anxiety (he eventually quit alcohol entirely).
Despite the rigors of a career, Kooser has put forth a steady stream of poetry, waking up early every morning to write. His first book of poems, "Official Entry Blank," was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1969. Multiple volumes appeared thereafter, earning Kooser recognition and acclaim, though not always consistently and though mostly among his fellow poets. If anything, Stillwell's biography is a strong rejoinder to Kooser's critics, who have sometimes pigeonholed him as "regional" and simplistic. Kooser, Stillwell conveys, only reached such clarity and austerity after technical mastery. The straightforward Kooser of "Delights and Shadows" is a deep-thinking poet -- another Robert Frost, following Thoreau's mandate that a writer should write "a simple and sincere account of his own life" -- who has shucked gimmicks.
At times, Stillwell's detailed analysis of Kooser's earlier poems feels too detailed and technical -- too much like an English paper. But she eventually finds her stride in examining "Etude" (from "Weather Central," published in 1994), a great poem wisely chosen as representational of Kooser's work -- especially of metaphor. And Stillwell's examination of "Delights and Shadows," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, is also fluid and insightful. Kooser, Stillwell holds, who lives on "his own acreage with its version of Walden Pond," is a descendent of Emerson and Thoreau.
In "Local Wonders," Kooser's "attempt to convey the sum and essential substance" of his life, he actually describes the turns and roads it takes to get to his home (directions, Stillwell notes, "so clear that students have found their way to the poet’s front door"). This book functions as something of the same for Kooser, and his poetry and prose: While it wanders, it -- clearly a "love letter" itself -- ultimately leads us right up to the poet himself.