Ted Kooser (born 1939) won the Pulitzer for his book Delights & Shadows. He served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. Other Pulitzer finalists in 2005 were William Matthews for his book Search Party: Collected Poems and Brigit Pegeen Kelly for her book The Orchard.
The following poem is from Kooser’s book Delights & Shadows and the excerpt is from his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, published in 2005.
All night each reedy whinny
from a bird no bigger than a heart
flies out of a tall black pine
and, in a breath, is taken away
by the stars. Yet, with small hope
from the center of darkness,
it calls out again and again.
A Career As A Poet?
You’ll never be able to make a living writing poems. We’d better get this money business out of the way before we go any further. I don’t want you to have any illusions. You might make a living as a teacher of poetry writing or as a lecturer about poetry, but writing poems won’t go very far toward paying your electric bill. A poem published in one of the very best literary magazines in the country might net you a check for enough money to buy half a sack of groceries. The chances are much better that all you’ll receive, beside the pleasure of seeing your poem in print, are a couple of copies of the magazine, one to keep and one to show to your mother. You might get a letter or postcard from a grateful reader, always a delightful surprise. But look at it this way: Any activity that’s worth lots of money, like professional basketball, comes with rules pinned all over it. In poetry, the only rules thinking about are the standards of perfection you set for yourself.
There’s no money in poetry because most of my neighbors, and most of yours, don’t have any use for it. If, at a neighborhood yard sale, you happened to find the original handwritten manuscript of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, you could take it to every quick shop in the city and you wouldn’t find a single person who would trade you ten gallons of gas for it.
Part of the reason for our country’s lack of interest in poetry is that most of us learned in school that finding the meaning of a poem is way too much work, like cracking a walnut and digging out the meat. Most readers have plenty to do that’s far more interesting that puzzling over poems. I’ll venture that 99 percent of the people who read the New Yorker prefer the cartoons to the poems.
A lot of resistance to poetry is to be blamed on poets. Some go out of their way to make their poems difficult if not downright discouraging. That may be because difficult poems are what they think they’re expected to write to advance their careers. They know it’s the professional interpreters of poetry — book reviewers and literary critics — who most often establish a poet’s reputation, and that those interpreters are attracted to poems that offer opportunities to show off their skills at interpretation….
My teacher and mentor, Karl Shapiro, once pointed out that the poetry of twentieth century was the first poetry that had to be taught. He might have said that had to be explained. I believe with all my heart that it’s a virtue to show our appreciation for readers by writing with kindness, generosity, and humility toward them….
One other point: Isaac Newton attributed his accomplishments to standing on the shoulders of giants. He meant great thinkers who had gone before. Accordingly, beginning poets sometimes start off trying to stand on the shoulders of famous poets, imitating the difficult and obscure poems those successful poets have published. That’s understandable, but they soon learn that, somehow, no literary journal is interested in publishing their difficult poems. If these beginners were to study the careers of the famous poets upon whose work they’re modeling their own, they’d find that those writers were often, in their early careers, publishing clear, understandable poems. In most instances, only after establishing reputations could they go on to write in more challenging ways. In a sense they earned the right to do so by first attracting an audience of readers, editors, and publishers with less difficult poems.