Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Ted Kooser’s Arrival in Nebraska

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By Mary K. Stillwell

In August 1963 Iowa native Ted Kooser, future U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, packed up his belongings and “lumbered westward on balding tires” toward Lincoln, Neb. Several months earlier as he finished a “nightmare” year of teaching high school English, the shy 24-year-old realized he didn’t want to continue teaching. For the summer, he painted signs, working out of the back of his Jeep pickup, lettering the glass windows of storefronts along small-town Main Streets while he weighed his options.

After graduation from Iowa State University, Kooser had declined an invitation from Paul Engle to study at the Iowa Writers Workshop. When he learned Karl Shapiro, who he believed was “among the two or three most important poets of his generation,” was teaching at the University of Nebraska, Kooser reconsidered graduate study. The young poet weighed the pros and cons of relocating to Lincoln, but when he learned he had been offered a graduate readership, his choice became clear: “I wanted to throw myself at his [Shapiro’s] feet.”

Lincoln turned out to be very much like the college town of Ames where Kooser was raised. He settled into an apartment at 1955 A Street, a short drive from campus, enrolled in two classes with Shapiro and set up his writing desk in an old refrigerator box in the corner of his bedroom.

In retrospect it is easy to see Kooser’s decision as fortuitous. First, the university, where enrollment had reached 11,466, was undergoing substantial change. Clifford Hardin, chancellor since 1954, was determined that the land-grant institution would become a first-class research university. He raised salaries in order to keep and to recruit faculty as well as began an ambitious development campaign to refurbish the university’s physical plant and to build additional facilities.

The Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, designed as a streamlined, contemporary temple of the arts by architect Philip Johnson, was dedicated the spring prior to Kooser’s arrival, providing him with access to one of the nation’s top collections of 19th- and 20th-century American art for a museum of its size. Kooser had originally considered a career as an artist, and drawing, photography and painting were still very important to the young poet. Edward Hopper’s “Room in New York” at the Sheldon later became a touchstone for Kooser’s poetry.

The university had also made a substantial commitment to publishing poetry. The introduction of quality paperbacks under the imprint of Bison Books furthered the reputation of the University of Nebraska Press as well as increasing its sales. The press’s First Book series, designed to promote the first books of contemporary poets, emphasized work that reflected “the American feeling for life as shown in writers like Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Mark Twain, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams.” In 1969 the press would publish Kooser’s first collection, “Official Entry Blank.”

Nationally recognized poets regularly visited the campus, John Ciardi, W. D. Snodgrass (who read two weeks after receiving his Pulitzer Prize), Stephen Spender and Allen Ginsberg, among others. Often their visits to Lincoln were at the invitation of Karl Shapiro, one of the highly visible new faculty members recruited by Chancellor Harding. A former U.S. consultant in poetry, Shapiro’s reputation as a poet had been made with “V-Letter and Other Poems,” awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.

Shapiro arrived in Lincoln seven years before Kooser to teach creative writing and to edit the university’s literary magazine, “Prairie Schooner.” The poet brought both solid editorial and teaching experience with him, and his presence alone brought the “Schooner” a wider public and literary visibility. Nebraska was not Shapiro’s nirvana, as he makes clear in his autobiographical novel, “Edsel.” By the time Kooser was his student, Shapiro had resigned his post at the magazine.

A prolific, vigorous and often outspoken critic, Shapiro railed against the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound that had dominated the early part of 20th-century poetry, calling it abstract, impersonal and Eurocentric. Shapiro staked out his own poetic grounds early on, following William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden.

The literary heritage Shapiro was eager to pass along to Kooser and his other students included the 19th-century British Romantics—Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Keats and Shelley—along with the American Transcendentalists—Emerson and Thoreau—a necessary foundation for any poet. Shapiro’s semester-long Williams’ seminar became a cornerstone of Kooser’s development.

The program of study Kooser would follow also included seminars on Whitman, Dickinson and Mark Twain, as well as a survey of American literature. However, the Willa Cather seminar with Bernice Slote, who had followed Shapiro as editor of the “Prairie Schooner,” and Virginia Faulkner, editor-in-chief of the University of Nebraska Press, was Kooser’s favorite. The scholars introduced students to the Nebraska novelist’s works, using artifacts to bring alive the time and context of her life and works. Cather’s pastoral impulse, which reaffirms the relationship between nature and its inhabitants, resonated with Kooser, and he would, over time, make it his own.

In writing workshops, Shapiro encouraged the young poet to find his voice and subject matter. Kooser says, “Karl was always very down to earth, but he was not a person to give specific criticism… He was not a textual person.”

Kooser found inspiration outside the classroom as well. “Karl was,” he recalls, “writing the cranky and explosive prose poems of ‘The Bourgeois Poet,’ works whose form was dictated, he said, by the size and shape of a regular sheet of typing paper. They were the first prose poems I had ever read. I could feel the heat rolling off those manuscript pages. I was then living among the things and people that he was transforming into poems and it was a thrilling experience for a young writer.”

“The Bourgeois Poet,” published in 1964, is a milestone in Shapiro’s career, reflecting his democratic literary tastes, his turn toward the prose poem and his continuing movement toward subjective experience. Plainspoken and direct, it is remarkable for Shapiro’s command of the image.

By the end of the first semester Kooser and his mentor were friends. In the taverns and restaurants of what we now call the Bohemian Alps, Shapiro continued the classroom exchange with Kooser. The senior poet’s method of instruction was, as he describes it in “Edsel,” “simply conversation, talking until I feel myself being carried away by my convictions or, what is better, by some new idea.” The Koosers, along with Shapiro and other friends, toured the hills and dales of Seward, Saunders and Butler counties, where the poet would eventually settle.

Both inside and outside the classroom, Kooser made friends among a dynamic group of young artists, including Lincoln native abstract expressionist Stewart Hitch, S. Clay Wilson and Don Williams. Kooser also became acquainted with Tom McLoughlin, professor of photography at the university, and his wife, Patty (later Lombardi), with whom he would become lifelong friends. Several years later he met landscape painters Keith Jacobshagen, who came to teach, and his student, well-known New York landscape painter Harry Orlyk.

“The interesting thing to me now,” Kooser says, “is that when I came here there were so very many poets around.” Poet Don Welch, who taught at Kearney State College (now the University of Nebraska at Kearney) during the academic year, was in town during the summers working on his doctorate. Bill Kloefkorn, who would become Nebraska State Poet in 1982, was teaching at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Roy Scheele, who continued his Three Sheets chapbook series, kept in touch, although he was attending graduate school in another state.

Then, just as the countryside was coming into full bloom in spring 1964, Kooser’s life took a dramatic turn. In April he won the prestigious Vreeland award for poetry, which included honorarium of $400, from the Department of English; the following month, he lost his graduate readership.

Kooser began job hunting. He answered an ad in the Lincoln Journal and was hired by Bankers Life Nebraska as a “Correspondent,” answering queries in the Policyholders Service Department, launching a career in the insurance business that would last 35 years. Writing poetry, however, remained his primary occupation. The newly hired poet-businessman began his early morning writing schedule, rising at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. to work at his desk before heading for the office.

During Kooser’s 50 years in Nebraska, he has written 12 collections of poetry, two books of selected poems, three memoirs, two poetry handbooks, three children’s books, plus a number of chapbooks, essays and a graphic novel. His Windflower Press has published poetry collections, broadsides and magazines since 1967.

Following treatment for cancer, Kooser retired as a vice president from the insurance business in 1999. Literary retirement doesn’t appear to be in Kooser’s plans. In 2004 he was named U.S. Poet Laureate, a position he held for two terms. Kooser received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for “Delights & Shadows” in 2005. Four years ago Kooser Elementary School, named in his honor, was formally dedicated.

Today Kooser lives with his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, former managing editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, in his beloved Bohemian Alps, where he has made his home since the 1980s and celebrated in his memoir, “Local Wonders.” Still an early morning writer, the poet brews his coffee and turns to his notebook, part diary and part workbook. Some days Kooser works in his Dwight studio, converted from a 19th-century storefront. On other days he joins friends in Lincoln for lunch and conversation.

After 50 years, Ted Kooser calls Nebraska home.

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