The title grabbed me from the start. I’ve read this book at least a dozen times, and with each reading I’ve come away with new insights and inspiration. I loved the idea that a poem could be repaired like a leaky faucet or loose hinge with tools readily at hand. Actually, there are some poems I’d like to take a sledgehammer to, but I digress.
The subtitle Practical Advice for Beginning Poets is somewhat misleading, for it implies that this book is aimed only at those who write poetry. But it is much more than that. The book offers ample advice for readers of poetry as well. Reading it is like having a conversation with an old friend, who just happens to be a former U.S. Poet Laureate and one of the most beloved poetic voices of rural and small-town America. He reminds us throughout of the poet’s essential relationship with readers and that “poetry’s purpose is to reach other people and to touch their hearts” (emphasis mine). I like that part about touching hearts. So many poets seem to forget that.
In the opening chapter, “A Poet’s Job Description,” Kooser describes the main task of the poet. Poets must serve the poems they write. “Any well-made poem,” he observes, “is worth a whole lot more to the world than the person who wrote it.” He pokes fun at the poet seeking only fame and recognition for their poems, or as the author confesses, as a way to attract women. “I don’t remember the specific date when I decided to be a poet,” he writes, “but it was during one of my many desperately lonely hours as a teenager, and I set about establishing myself as a poet with adolescent single-mindedness. I began to dress the part. I took to walking around in rubber shower sandals and white beachcomber pants that tied with a piece of clothesline rope. I let my hair grow longer and tried to grow a beard. I carried big fat books wherever I went…” He dreamed of “fame and immortality: the lichen-encrusted bust of the poet on his monument in the town cemetery, standing throughout time in a swirl of autumn leaves … the delicious irresponsibility of the bohemian lifestyle.” It would take him many years to realize that maybe he should actually write at least one poem before calling himself a poet.
With similar humor and wisdom, Kooser helps the reader and would-be poet alike understand what a good poem can and should do. Using plain language and various contemporary poems as examples, including some of his own, he provides an overview of the basic forms and techniques used in poetry. He describes a few simple rules, then tells the reader not to worry about them.
Most people don’t have any use for poetry, Kooser observes. “Most of us learned in school that finding the meaning of a poem is way too much work.” For many of us, reading poetry is too often “an experience full of dread” and we end up being confused, embarrassed, and intimidated by the poems we read. Part of the problem stems from the way poetry is often taught. But part of the blame also comes from poets themselves, the author writes, some of whom “go out of their way to make their poems difficult if not downright discouraging,” in an attempt to impress the poetry critics. He notes that too much of the poetry published today has to be explained or taught. Instead, he “advocates for poems that can be read without professional interpretation.”
Ruth Stephan, founder of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, would have agreed. In her Notes on Establishing and Maintaining a Poetry Collection, she wrote of her goal … “for a person, whether a student or not, to discover poetry for herself by browsing alone, selecting alone, and reading alone in a quiet atmosphere…without a critic or teacher…” (emphasis mine).
And what if everybody wrote poems? Kooser asks, then playfully channels Paul McCartney: “What’s wrong with that?” After all, “there’s a significant service to humanity in spending time doing no harm…there’s one less scoundrel in the world.” Wouldn’t it be great to truly think about what we’re saying?
Most of all, we should read poems. A poem freshens the world,” writes Kooser. “We are thus indelibly marked by the poems we read, and the more we read the deeper is our knowledge of the world.”