Ted Kooser, 2004 and 2005 US Poet Laureate, visited my small, Midwestern university back in 2009. Unfortunately I was not able to attend his poetry reading at the time. Nevertheless, I became slightly acquainted with his poetry.
Ted Kooser, born in 1939, is a pastoral, Midwestern poet of sorts. He focuses on rural landscapes and universal themes, and what makes him so powerful is his accessibility. In an age of obscurity, abstraction, and elitism in poetry, Kooser brings poetry back to the people. Perhaps Dana Gioia sums up Kooser best.
…unlike most of his peers he writes naturally for a nonliterary public. His style is accomplished but extremely simple—his diction drawn from common speech, his syntax conversational. His subjects are chosen from the everyday world of the Great Plains, and his sensibility, though more subtle and articulate, is that of the average Midwesterner. Kooser never makes an allusion that an intelligent but unbookish reader will not immediately grasp. There is to my knowledge no poet of equal stature who writes so convincingly in a manner the average American can understand and appreciate. -Can Poetry Matter
Here I share Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse” (1980). What might we discover if we came upon an abandoned farmhouse or any old building for that matter? What do we deduce without a word when we meet someone? What kind of burdens are they carrying? Perhaps Kooser’s poem does not exactly raise our spirits, but it helps us think about our lives and the symbols of our stuff.
He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.
A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.
Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.