Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Why does Ted Kooser drive me nuts?

This is why Ted Kooser drives me nuts. First, he’ll say something that I think sounds fine, like this:

Q: Do you have a definition as to what a poem is?

A: A poem is the record of a discovery, either the discovery of something in the world, or within one’s self, or perhaps the discovery of something through the juxtaposition of sounds and sense within our language. Our job as poets is to set down the record of those discoveries in such a way that our readers will make the discoveries theirs and will delight in them. My teacher, Karl Shapiro, once said that the proper response to any work of art is joy, and if we can give joy to our readers, that’s a fine thing.

* * *

OK, so that sounds jolly good! Art aspires to the transfer of joy. It’s not what I’d say, but it’s a fine way to begin to talk about the possibilities of poetry. And it’s about discovery. That sounds like he’s advocating an art that would be open to possibility, to play, to experiment. But then he goes on to say this:

Q: There are many kinds of contemporary poetry being written: innovative, received forms, free verse, political, humorous, and so on. Is there an area of poetry you see as neglected or of which you would like to see more?

A: Not in a particular form or manner such as you describe, but I’d like to see poetry that pays more attention to how it may be received by a reader. I believe in being considerate of my readers, and not talking down to them or throwing things at them that they don’t have the ability to catch. A more generous poetry takes the reader into consideration.

* * *

Bleh. Why’d he have to go and ruin it? You know? What a dumb thing to say, to suppose that the poet is this focus group, middle manager: “throwing things at them that they don’t have the ability to catch”? Seriously, Ted Kooser has these abilities to do things that he doesn’t think people would have the ability to catch? So he brings himself down to our level? Lobs us the easy ones? Please. It’s just this kind of stuff that’s full of just the kind of “talking down to” that he says he’s avoiding. No, thank you, art is not a game of catch with a two-year-old. I dare Ted Kooser to throw a fast pitch, just once. I’d like to see that.

And that’s not the only subject he’s ready to be dumb on, here he is, talking about those Internets things:

Q: What are your views concerning online versus print magazines? Do you think poetry aesthetics will change when they are no longer just a matter of printed words on the page but also words on the screen?

A: The advantage of traditional literary magazines is that the number of pages is finite, and decisions as to which poem to publish have to be made with that limit in mind. So if a traditional little magazine has room for, say, twenty poems, just twenty get selected and presented. It’s my feeling that since the internet has infinite capacity, anything goes.

* * *

Spoken like someone who does very little reading of web-based journals. Why? Well, if he did, he’d notice that Web-based journals, by and large, publish greatly fewer poems that print journals do. So there goes his “anything goes” argument. Far be it from me to let him end on so simplistic a note. Here he is, working to redeem himself:

Q: You’ve said that you would like to see public school teachers given resources so they can more effectively inspire students to enjoy poetry. What is one way in which to engage a student’s interest in poetry?

A: I think teachers need to emphasize the pleasures of poetry and quit talking about the MEANING. If students can find pleasure in reading poems, they’ll go on reading them. But to treat a poem like a problem that needs to be solved is no fun, and discouraging.

Part of the pleasure of poetry is auditory, and I recommend that teachers be sure to read poems aloud. Some students learn to read in such a way that a word symbolizes an idea, and there’s no auditory step. Thus those students don’t understand that poems have a lot of music. It helps immensely to read them aloud.

* * *

Good words to end with. Too bad he doesn’t see the implications of what he’s saying. Oh well, you can’t have everything.

Here’s the link, if you want it:



At 10/06/2009 3:27 PM, Blogger Biombo said...

Hi John,
I'm a long time follower of your blog and have really liked some of the things you've put out there. Reading the interview, I had a completely different take on what Kooser said. My interpretation was that, he would like to see more poems be more accessible to a person that doesn't have a great grasp on poetry, or the mechanics of poetry. I remember a poem by one of my favorites, Ernesto Cardenal, that starts by saying: "I offer these verses to you, Claudia, because you are their/mistress./I wrote them simple so you can understand them". I think what the poet is saying, is that sometimes poets need to write their verses in a way that it would reach a bigger population, a population that isn't educated in poetics, yet still the words can reach them in a way only a poem could. Now, I don't have nearly the expertise on poetry as you do, but this is what I got from it, I could be and most likely am wrong. Nevertheless, thanks for you hard work on keep such a great blog!

At 10/06/2009 3:43 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hey Biombo,

Certainly I agree with you about the role of poetry . . . I was never an English major myself and wasn't at all "schooled" in what poetry was or is . . . and the first poets that really spoke to me were Jorie Graham (this was back in the 1980s), John Ashbery, and Michael Palmer . . . three poets that I'm quite certain Kooser would not say were "considerate" or "generous" to the reader. That's what I'm reacting to, the assumptions of this one type of reader, this unitary fantasy that Kooser has, this conception that readers are all alike. He must stop doing that. Readers are not all alike.

I knew nothing about poetry (or very little), and yet I found these writers, especially Ashbery, to be quite considerate.

I should have been more clear. Thank you very much for the comment. I don't know Cardenal much at all, but I believe things should always be as simple as they need to be. Sometimes that simplicity is very difficult, though, as life is difficult, and it shifts, and it often lets one down.

At 10/06/2009 5:05 PM, Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Hi John -
It's always good to here people saying this kind of thing (though sometimes depressing how often it needs to be repeated).
I always think, would these folks like to see writing about physics (for example) written without difficult ideas like general relativity, observer effect, etc?
These are important, neccessary for the task at hand, and appropriate for the audience the work is directed at.
Not all poetry is written for all audiences, and if you do enough reading (like you would if you were studying physics, or Art History for that matter), you might find that you get more out of it.
Why should a poem hand everything to you on a platter, or be a slow ball for a two year old to catch?
It was when I discovered poetry that wasn't sentimental, moralising or obvious that I really started paying attention - and like you I'm largely self-tought when it comes to contemporary innovative/experimental verse.

(sorry if that sounds incredibely uncompromising - I'm just trying to make a point about niche audiences and the like)

At 10/07/2009 2:33 AM, Blogger vazambam said...


"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public"--H.L.Mencken

I guess this explains why Kooser struck it rich in PoBiz.

word verification: smoni!

At 10/07/2009 2:19 PM, Blogger Neil Kelly said...

Fuck Ted Kooser.

At 10/07/2009 2:59 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

But he's not my type!

At 10/08/2009 7:37 AM, Blogger knott said...

kooser drives you nuts because you're delusional—

the kind of poetry you prefer is NEVER going to achieve the popularity/sales/readership

that Kooser Collins Hirshfield et al enjoy,

and you won't accept this—

give it up— stick to promoting your faves

and stop whining about what you can't change—

it's boring, you're boring when you get on this kick—

At 10/08/2009 8:45 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi BK:

Yeah, I do have the tape on repeat about some things, but the good news is I'm boring a lot of the other time as well. I think there's a comfort in that. A surety.

As for the popularity thing. I'm not hung up on that. I'm quite aware of how popular some poets are, and how unpopular others are. But, even so, I feel, specifically because of their popularity, the pip squeaks like me out there, must speak back to them, boring as it is, and impotent as it is.

It's important to me. And I really don't do it all that often.

Coming up tomorrow (or whenever I can get around to it) I'm going to post my HUGE list of books I'm buying. My current favorite:

John Koethe's 95th-Street. Is he popular?

wv: muffi

Ah, Muffi. Brings back such memories.

At 10/08/2009 1:20 PM, Blogger knott said...

koethe, huh—you must be kidding:

has a single one of his books EVER gone into a second printing?

Sharon Olds' books from the 80-90s are going into their 20th printing by now—("20th" is hyperbole— i don't know the exact number, but the copy of "The Living and the Dead" i bought a decade ago was from the 14th printing—so i'm extrapolating)—

on your deathbed you're going to be grousing about Jane Hirshfield (who will be po-laureate anyday now) or whoever her younger version is—

At 10/08/2009 2:13 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Koethe! No, I'm not kidding. I think it's a wonderful book. I'd follow that voice anywhere. But that's not what you meant, I know. You're interested in how much poetry sells. But you know, all poetry sells terribly. Why dwell on that?

The A-level poetry seller is about at the same level as a Z-level fiction seller. I think this is an unhelpful way to think of the art.

And the poets you mention, Olds and Hirshfield, specifically, I don't think I've ever said a bad word about either (or Lucille Clifton or Mary Oliver, who outsell them by truckloads). Let alone grouse. I try to stay away from going on negatively about the poetry that poets write, because I find very few poets from whom I can't find some poems I like. I've liked some Olds. I haven't read any recently, but there are several poems in Satan Says that I find quite well done. By and large, Olds and Hirshfield, and others, aren't what I love the most in poetry, but that's not worth spending much time on, really. I'll let others praise or damn them.

What I DO go on about, is when poets say dumb things about the writing of poetry, and the reception of poetry. So Tony Hoagland and Ted Kooser, and others (Kay Ryan, for instance), when they say dismissive, reductive things, are going to get a rise out of me, but their poetry, by and large, isn't.

On my deathbed, I promise, I'm going to be thinking about my children and my friends. I will not be thinking about dumb things that Ted Koser said about poetry back in 2009. I'm really not as filled with bile as you think I am.

At 10/08/2009 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's the Sinatra kick, sweetheart--there's little real difference between a "Koosner" poem and that Prufer poem that you posted--and if Prufer reads this he'll say: thanks. Prufer wants to be Koosner--and you know it's true, kitten!

Love your blog--thanks.

At 10/08/2009 5:01 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hey Anon, thanks for visiting.

About Prufer and Kooser. I can’t tell what goes on in Prufer’s mind about Kooser, if anything. He’s doing a pretty good job just being Kevin Prufer, these days.

I am sure, though, that Kooser would be critical of that Prufer poem. It’s far too interior for Kooser’s taste. And that late entry of “the war.” I think Kooser would say that was flighty and out of the blue, and not being communicative enough. Not “earned” in any narrative or pre-existing way. But I’m just guessing. I could be wrong.

At 10/08/2009 6:06 PM, Blogger David Dodd Lee said...

Is it just me or does Kooser look
like a dirty old man in disguise?
His hands interlocking, laughing inside, or cackling . . .
Is the whole poetry thing a ruse?

At 10/10/2009 4:45 PM, Blogger David Dodd Lee said...

No, John, Prufer wants to be
Koosner--you've got to pronounce
it correctly--Koosner, Koosner

At 10/12/2009 3:57 PM, Blogger Collin Kelley said...

Jesus, here I go again agreeing with Bill Knott. This kind of bitch and moan against Kooser, Collins, et al has been done to DEATH. It doesn't do anything to further poetry, it's just more whining. Anyway, it's your blog, so whine away.

At 10/12/2009 4:10 PM, Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Yeah, but ignoring it or what have you would be all well and good if those folks weren't being so disparaging of the work that folks such as us do, and care passionately about.
It may be a smaller audience, but who cares? that doesn't make those who read or write it any less committed to poetry, nor does it make the work any less valuable.

More people (I hazzard a guess) have read Enid Blyton then James Joyce - what does that prove? and by chasing some illlusory "popular audience" you dont' do poetry any favours either. I only became committed to poetry though reading the Black Mountain and Language poets, because they taught me poetry could be interesting. If I instead had been reading Collins and Heaney, I'd probably be an accountant or something. Those folks can write what they want, and people can read it, but it doesn't mean that they should keep ragging on folks like us and the work we do.

And people do read 'experimental poetry' - Look at Bok's Eunoia, Hejinian's My Life, and in New Zealand, where I'm based, The previous poet lauriate, Michele Leggott, is a Language Writer. A previous Lauriate was Bill Manhire, who is kind of like our John Ashbery.

At 10/13/2009 6:38 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


It’s probably no surprise, but I’m going to echo some of what Ross B said above.

I’ve looked back over my post, and other posts on Kooser (and Hoagland and Barr, etc), and I really don’t see in what way they could be considered whining. But that’s a minor point. The major point is what should I do when I come across things I believe portray art in reductive and false ways. I believe that when I come across these things, I must say something. Silence can be taken as agreement. As long as they are on their pedestals with megaphones, I feel we must, pipsqueaks that we are, squeak back. It’s not just helpful to the art of poetry, but it’s necessary.

It might not matter to many people, and it might not matter right now, this second, but it’s part of a long conversation that gathers force over time. There are always disagreements in art, about art. If we don’t participate in them, we will get steamrolled by them.

I think Ted Kooser needs to grow a larger consciousness. Or at the very least, to read more.

WV: pastas

Or to eat more pastas.

At 10/14/2009 8:11 AM, Blogger Don Share said...

An aside on the Koethe book - it's autumnal, kind of like late-period Koch, to whom the title poem (disclosure: we published it in Poetry) is partly in homage; that title poem is a weird and warm tapestry of NY school voices. The book picks up where Koch, O'Hara, and Schuyler left off - if that sounds unappealing, as I imagine it would to Bill, you won't like it. But speaking of Schuyler, you can go right back to him directly in the forthcoming collection of his uncollected poems - we have 10 pages of them in our November issue, just out, if you need a sampler. Sorry for this digression, but it took me a while to warm to Koethke's work, and so I was interested in John's interest in him!

At 10/14/2009 8:23 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I'm crazy about this book. I wish I had it next to me right now, as I can't remember the poem I'm thinking of, but the poem that suddenly falls into prose and then back out again as it prys at memory and the futility (that's not the right word) of all of this, just amazes me. It just blasted me around the room. I really should type it out on the blog, but his lines look terrible in my narrow blog space. The title poem aside (which is also so warm and difficult) this book reminds me a bit of Charles Wright's The Other Side of the RIver with its formal / personal investigation of memory and the byways of memory's associative and generative forces.

As you can see, I rather like it. I really can't speak highly enough about it. (I find his every now and then uses of rhyme to be less deft, but I like that he wants to range there.)

At 10/14/2009 8:25 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I shouldn't have said "the title poem aside". I meant to say something more like: "in the title poem, yes, but also throughout the book".

Or something like that.

At 10/14/2009 2:50 PM, Blogger Don Share said...


You mean "The Distinguished Thing," I think, a poem with the amusing (literally!) epigraph from Henry James, "Here it is at last, the distinguished thing." (And one of the swell things about the book is its wry deployment of epigraphs - no pompous chest-puffing nuggets outta Benjamin or Wittgenstein here, nossir!)

I hadn't thought of comparing it to Chas. Wright - that's really good.

Anyway, it's an enjoyable book!

Question: have I hallucinated finding hexameter in many of his lines?! Very sly of him, if so.

At 10/14/2009 4:20 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yes, that's the one. Koethe has always been something of an under the radar poet. If it were up to me, this book would be on one of the awards lists this year.

I'm feeling bold about that, as my last two books I've really pushed were Mary Jo Bang's Elegy and Rae Armantrout's Versed (but really all her books).

I'm pretty clueless about meter and such, but I was driing with G.C. Waldrep who is very interested in such things, and he was going on and on about Koethe's lines. It sounded good to me, and I kind of followed it awhile. But I've never been good with math.

WV: arrow



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