Ted Kooser began establishing a reputation in the 1970s as a regionalist poet, and as a poet of clarity. During the last decade of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st, in a time of growing backlash (in some circles) against Modernism and obscurity in America art, Kooser came rather swiftly to the forefront of American poetry, culiminating in his selection as U.S. Poet Laureate in 2004 and again in 2005.
Kooser was born 25 April 1939 in Ames, Iowa, the son of a merchant. He was raised in the Midwest, and says that he has never lived outside of Iowa or Nebraska. He was graduated with a B.S. from Iowa State University in 1962, and received an M.A. from the University of Nebraska in 1968. He took a teaching assistantship at Nebraska, but soon realized that although he was committed to writing poetry, he had no interest in an academic career, and went to work as a trainee with an insurance company, Bankers Life Nebraska. He was to remain in the insurance business for over 30 years, finally retiring as a vice-president of public relations at Lincoln Benefit Life in 1999. His first marriage ended in divorce; he is married to Kathleen Rutledge, editor of the Lincoln Journal Star.
He has been awarded National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in 1976 and 1984, and has won a number of regional awards: the John H Vreeland Award for Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska in 1964, the Society of Midland Authors Poetry Prize in 1980, 2004 (with Jim Harrison) and 2005, the Governor's Arts Award from the Nebraska Arts Council in 1988, the Mayor's Arts Award from the city of Lincoln in 1989, the Merit Award from the Nebraska Arts Council in 2000, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association in 2000, Nebraska Book Awards for poetry in 2001 (Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison) and for Nonfiction in 2003 (Local Wonders), the Friends of American Writers Prize in 2003. He received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2005 (Delights and Shadows).
Probably the word most closely associated with Kooser and his work is "heartland." When he was selected as Poet Laureate, newspaper headlines described him as a poet from the heartland; to less charitable reviewers, like Brian Phillips in Poetry, "the word 'heartland' seems to embroider itself in six-inch sampler letters across the covers of his books" Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, in announcing Kooser's appointment as Poet Laureate, described him as "a major poetic voice for rural and small town America," and pointed out that he was the first Laureate to hail from the Great Plains. A predecessor in the office, Billy Collins, said of his appointment that "the middle section of the country needed greater poetic representation."
Kooser's attitude toward this geographical summation of his aesthetic appears to have been ambivalent. "If you look at my poems one by one," he told an interviewer from USA Today in 2005, "you'll find lots of them that could have been written anywhere, in cities, in empty places." Nevertheless, his subject matter typically stays close to home, and he treats with assurance the cartography of small town rural America, and the genealogy of families rooted in that experience. In one poem (from Delights and Shadows), he describes the eponymous "Grasshoppers" as "exactly the size/of the pencil stub my grandfather kept/to mark off the days since rain," and is equally certain that they are "precisely the color of dust," the dust of country roads that lead back into the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s—reminding us that his family's roots go back to that era when so many left their farms.
As for the other issue, that of accessibility, Kooser has made it clear that this is at the center of his aesthetic. In an interview for Poets and Writers, he describes trying out poems on his secretary or a co-worker, and going back and reworking it if the reader didn't understand it at first hearing. For his Laureate project, a series of press releases to newspapers featuring a short poem by a contemporary poet and Kooser's own brief commentary, he has emphasized that he wants to present poems that the average newspaper reader will understand.
The issue of accessibility in poetry became a controversial one in the late 20th Century, as the public role of art came under scrutiny, as much political as aesthetic. The outraging of bourgeois sensibilities has always been a part of art, certainly 20th Century art, but as public arts funding grew more controversial, so did political debates over the subject matter of art. Obscurity tends to be associated with the avant-garde, and with the political left; at a time of conservative dominance in American politics, it is probably not surprising that the Laureateship went to an anti-obscurantist poet.
One sees relatively little thematic or stylistic development in Kooser's work over time: the subject matter of family and place, the observation of nature and individuals is always at the heart of it, as is the sense that there are mysteries beyond our grasp, but perhaps they're not so far beyond our grasp, if we take the time to contemplate them. In the title poem from his collection Flying at Night, he notes and draws a connection, from the vantage point of an airplane, between a dying galaxy and a farmer, "feeling the chill of that distant death," turning on a light in his yard.
But in the late-1990s, after suffering from and being cured of oral cancer, and then retiring from the insurance business, his focus became increasingly on mortality, and the world seen through the eyes of one aware of it. This is especially true in his collection, One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, written to his friend the poet/novelist during morning walks that were part of his cancer recovery process, but the sense of the special connection to life's grandeur and minutiae which comes from the contemplation of it end is also an important theme of his 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, Delights and Shadows.