Arts’ Watch: A poetry review

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, April 15, 2023

April is National Poetry Month. In honor of that fact, the Sun is accepting submissions of haikus from the poets among us. And for those who are not yet poets but aspire to read some poetry, I am dedicating this column to a review of “Delights and Shadows”, a collection of poetry that won the Pulitzer Prize for its author, Ted Kooser.

Kooser’s poems are accessible to nearly everyone. Part of this is because he had a career in the insurance industry long before retirement allowed him to become “a poet.” He was a “regular person,” not an academic, and his poems reflect that human touch. Looking at as a whole, Kooser seems most often to portray people in ways that either show moments we all recognize or show us people we know.

For instance, his poem “Tattoo” begins with describing what might once have been a dangerous man because he had a tattoo of a “dripping dagger held in the fist/ of a shuddering heart/.” Yet immediately afterward the poem says that the tat had become “a bruise on a bony old shoulder.”

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And indeed, the once-dangerous man, we go on to discover, is “only a another old man, picking up/ broken tools and putting them back,/ his heart gone soft and blue with stories.” In the span of fifteen lines, Kooser takes us from fear of who this man was to, pity, maybe curiosity, about who he has become and the stories he might tell.

Another of his poems about people is simply titled “Pearl.” This poem reminds me very much of times I went with my father to visit relatives he had relationships with, frequently from his childhood, but that to me—whether I was seven or seventeen—were old as dirt and only half as interesting. Yet viewing those ‘visits’ through the prism of Kooser’s poem, 50, 60 years later, I see things differently. I hear them differently, too.

For instance, early in the poem, the author introduces himself to an unseen Pearl through a door while standing on her porch: “’ Pearl,/it’s Ted. It’s Vera’s boy,’ and my voice broke,/ for it came to me, nearly sixty, I was still/ my mother’s boy, that boy for the rest of my life.”

Indeed, how often did I visit my father in his last years or other relatives who were ill or merely aged, that left me feeling like “Bill’s boy,” or “Boo’s son” years after I was full-grown. In those few lines, I recognize efforts to feel grown up (even as I was), but suddenly found myself interacting with older adults as if they were again 50 and I, 15.                     

Kooser’s poems are nothing if not accessible. We can see “Vera’s boy” on the porch peering in, waiting to be recognized. We can see that the tattooed old man is no longer someone to be feared. But beyond the insights provided by the people in his poems, Kooser also uses “A Jar of Buttons,” “Applesauce,” “Flow Blue China,” “Casting Reels,” and even a “Home Medical Dictionary” as topics for poems that can provide insights into the human condition.

Sometimes his poems paint word pictures that bring things to life in ways I never imagined. One of these is simply called “The Necktie.” Over nearly seven decades, I’ve tied I don’t know how many neckties, and I have taught several other boys and men how to tie such death traps around their necks. But never have I seen that task as vividly, as beautifully described as in Kooser’s six-line poem, The Necktie:

“His hands fluttered like birds

each with a fancy silk ribbon

to weave into their nest

as he stood at the mirror

dressing for work, waving hello

to himself with both hands.”

“Delights and Shadows” by Ted Kooser can be purchased from an online retailer or by visiting a bookstore. Or you can borrow it from our local library. If you’d like to read some poetry during National Poetry Month, Professor Kooser’s collection is a delightful place to start.