On a Perfect New England Evening, the Nebraska Poet Speaks

June 29, 2015 — Leave a comment

Visitors to the annual summer Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut can picnic in the criss-crossed paths that separate tidy flower beds. Those familiar with the festival know to bring collapsible chairs that sit just little higher up so as to see the small stage over the tall stalks of bee-balm, phlox, roses or delphinium.Screenshot 2015-06-28 21.25.27

On June 24th, that small stage was bathed in warm setting-sunlight as Ted Kooser, United States Poet Laureate (2004-2006), stepped up to read several of his poems. The tail of his light jacket was rumpled  into his right back back pocket; above him, the tail of a circling hawk flashed red with each wide turn.

Only 24 hours earlier, there had been hail, damaging winds, and a reported micro-burst. Now, New England held back her willful nature, as if to say, “Yes, I can be a gracious hostess…” to those who organized the poetry and music for the evening.

Ted Kooser is both a poet and essayist, whose collection Delights & Shadows was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He is also a Professor of English at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is probably best known for his promotion of American poetry through the free weekly American Life in Poetry column that features contemporary American poems:

 The sole mission of this project is to promote poetry: American Life in Poetry seeks to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.

In each column, Kooser makes a brief introduction to the poem that is featured, why it might have been selected, or what is most striking about the poem. For example, in his introduction to Barbara Crooker’s poem “Sparklers”, he writes the poem was selected because

“… in 2004 we set off the fire alarm system at the Willard Hotel in Washington by lighting a few to celebrate my inauguration as poet laureate.”

Crooker’s 15 line poem is featured in From American Life in Poetry: Column 484 and  she begins with a familiar image, how she wrote names in the air using the light of the sparkler:

Sparklers

We’re writing our names with sizzles of light
to celebrate the fourth. I use the loops of cursive,

make a big B like the sloping hills on the west side
of the lake….(cont)
Poem copyright ©2013 by Barbara Crooker from her most recent book of poems, Gold, Cascade Books, 2013.
 
Kooser’s promotion of poets like Crooker may be the reason for the large crowd attending the reading. Once he took the stage, Kooser spoke about poems that centered on his relationships with his father, his mother, and in particular his mother’s cousin, Pearl.
He read the poem “Pearl” (read here at Chautauqua, a lake community in southwestern New York/text of the poem reprinted on this site.)
This poem opens with his mission to speak to his mother’s elderly cousin, Pearl:

Elkader, Iowa, a morning in March,
the Turkey River running brown and wrinkly
from a late spring snow in Minnesota,
the white two-story house on Mulberry Street,
windows flashing with sun, and I had come
a hundred miles to tell our cousin, Pearl,
that her childhood playmate, Vera, my mother,
had died….

After he finished reading, Kooser noted that this poem had been adapted and made into a 17 minute film that won a New England Film Contest in 2012:

When a midwestern poet (Dan Butler) visits an elderly relative (Frances Sternhagen) to bring news of his mother’s recent death, the visit takes an unsettling turn.

He told the audience he was “quite proud of” the film, which can be viewed here:  http://newenglandfilm.com/festival_film/2012/pearl

Many of the poems he selected to read were short, from the break up of a marriage (“Neither of us would clean the aquarium”) to the memory of his dog (“The ghost of my good dog, Alice,sits at the foot of my ladder”). Too soon, it seemed, that Kooser explained that his “voice was giving out” as he wrapped up the reading from the stage.

But this crowd did not seem disappointed. Seasoned by unpredictable weather, they appreciated the rare quality of the evening.

On this beautiful June night, while the Nebraska poet spoke, the setting offered by Connecticut was sublime.

 

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