Relief, Release, and Repair: An Evening with Ted Kooser by J.M. Romig

Ted Kooser Photo from The Poetry Foundation

A frail and gentle looking old man with kindness in his eyes sat behind a plastic table signing books. He sat there behind the table, with his glasses sitting on his nose, and his skin sitting on his bones, both loosely, the way you’d expect someone to sit after 75 years of good, but hard, living. “The trick is-” he said, deliberately pausing to shift the weight of the sentence toward the upcoming words, “you have to wipe away all the things you don’t want to see.” He then scribbled his name in my new copy of Delights & Shadows, and I scampered off, feeling like an idiot for rambling at him about how good he was at writing – like he didn’t already know.

Ted Kooser, former US Poet Laureate, read some magnificent poetry for Kent State students and faculty Thursday night. The entire room was floored by the way this man could take an ordinary solitary image and turn it into an extraordinary piece that somehow captured the very essence of being human. During Kooser’s introduction speech, the head of the Wick Poetry Center on Kent Campus described Kooser’s work as a sort of repairing. I would say this is a more than accurate statement. He shows you things in such a way that makes the simplest things seem full of wonder. It reminds you of how exciting, amazing, and literally awesome the world around us is.

Each of his poems read like a snapshot of a moment, usually very minimalistic and somewhat objective. He didn’t tell the audience what to think, not outright. He just showed us pictures. He only showed us what he wanted us to see, and by doing that he showed us more than we would ever have seen otherwise. There was one poem that focused on the hands of two men, clasping each other in love, as they descended down stairs. The two hands separate to let the poem’s narrator through, and rejoin each other after he passes. The short poem about family was well received by the audience who applauded, showering the kind old man with praise. He took it well, wearing a smile, patiently waiting for the adoration to dissipate, so he could move on to the next poem. Most pieces were like this, little moments we could all find easily identifiable. For example, his poem “Splitting the Order” chronicles the act of watching an old man cutting a sandwich in half:

…keeping his shaky hands steady

by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table

and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,

and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,

observing his progress through glasses that moments before

he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half

onto the extra plate that he had asked the server to bring,

and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife… (Kooser)

The poem was charming and delightful. It is an ode to love. It’s an image you can see in any diner, anywhere in America. And yet, the way he words it makes it so that the love this couple shares is all that you see. He wipes away the screaming kid and overwhelmed mother in the booth to the left, the table of teenagers playing hooky to their right, and the underpaid twenty-something waitress who clearly doesn’t want to be there. He wipes away all of that distraction and unearths a beautiful moment that we miss out on every day, because it’s submerged in the stuff we don’t want to see.

I began that night uncertain of what this experience would be. I’d been to more readings than I can count, but I’ve never seen a poet laureate read. I was not at all disappointed. At the end, I felt better than I had in a long time. I left that auditorium with a spring in my step. I wandered aimlessly about campus and got taken by the sound of a sophomore with an acoustic guitar, singing his rendition of “Whiskey in the Jar”. I took a moment to soak in the experience, thinking – this is the kind of thing I’d overlook any other day. The image hiding among the everyday distraction. I don’t know if it was just the weight of winter finally falling off my shoulders or what, but I felt like I had brand new eyes. I took a nice long breath of the Ohio air and rocked back and forth as the musician played on. I felt renewed, no…repaired.

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