Theodore J. Kooser

The 13th U.S. Poet Laureate and 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry traces his roots back several generations in Ames, Iowa.  Ted Kooser was born and raised in Ames, and, from 1939 to 1955, lived in the parental home at 109 West 9th Street, next door to the Mezvinsky family that operated Ames Fruit & Grocery.  He attended Beardshear Elementary School and graduated from Ames High School with the class of 1957. Ted received a BS degree in English and Speech from Iowa State University (ISU) in 1962, and an MA in English from the University of Nebraska in 1968. For 35 years Ted worked in the life insurance before retiring in 1999 as vice president of Lincoln Benefit Life Company.

Ted began teaching creative writing at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in the 1970s, and returned there as a visiting professor after retirement.  He is presently professor of English at the University and continues to write, publish, and teach.  His poems have been published widely in magazines and gathered into ten collections.  The plain-spoken volume, Delights & Shadows, won him the Pulitzer Prize.  Ted is the first laureate from the Plains States to receive the coveted Library of Congress poetry honor.  Other awards include two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Pushcart Prize and the Stanley Kunitz Prize from Columbia.  Ted also has created American Life in Poetry, a weekly column available free to newspapers and other publications across the country. This project “seeks to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture” by featuring brief contemporary American poems.

Ted’s father, Theodore B. Kooser, was manager at two Ames department stores, first at the Tilden Store and later at Younker’s  when it was located at 323-325 Main Street.  Ted references his life in Ames in Local Wonders, a book of essays first published in 2002 (see pp. 64-65, 85-89, 91-93, 102, 108, 110-111, & 132-139).  His uncle, Herold “Tubby” Kooser, founded the ISU Visual Instruction Service, a film library that circulated prints to schools from the 1920s to the 1980s.  Long-time Ames residents can hardly refrain from observing that Hollywood actor, Nick Nolte, and poet, Ted Kooser, grew up only a block apart in Historic Old Town Neighborhood.  Ted now lives on an acreage near the village of Garland, Nebraska with his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, editor of The Lincoln Journal Star.

The official title is poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. Kooser becomes the 13th laureate on Oct. 7, following the likes of Robert Penn Warren, Robert Frost, Billy Collins and, most recently, Louise Gluck.

James Billington, the librarian of Congress, has the final pick of a laureate, said Prosser Gifford, the director of the Office of Scholarly Programs for the library who's been working with Kooser since the laureate selection was announced August 12. There's no standing selection committee, Gifford said. But there's lots of consulting with critics, editors and others who wouldn't be eligible for the office. That's created a big list of the country's great poets. And this time there was particular interest in "finding somebody in the big middle of the country," Gifford said.

You'll find Kooser on 62 acres of hilly prairie 20 miles northwest of Lincoln. He might be babying the two dogs or remembering childhood details of Ames or studying snakes in the grass or painting the hay bales down the road or leveling the gazebo overlooking the pond or suggesting a pretty drive across Iowa or preparing pork roast and red cabbage for dinner or lettering signs for a local fund-raiser or writing poetry you really don't need a doctorate to understand.

I'll bet, Jim Harrison remembered telling Kooser during his first visit to Kooser's Nebraska acreage, you've got two kegs of bent nails in that red barn. "My father was a county agent," Harrison said over the phone from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he's researching a novel. "And that's who Ted reminds me most of."  But, Harrison said, Kooser is also a "first-rate poet." Harrison read him long before the two met some 15 years ago. And Kooser was "way up there in my top five or so."  "I just think he's able to find profundity in the ordinary," Harrison said. "When he's at his best, he seems able to look at everything with fresh eyes."

Kooser's early years were at 109 West Ninth St. in Ames. His dad managed the Younkers store. His mother was a clerk at the old Tilden's store but stayed home when the couple started a family. Kooser worked his way from the old Beardshear School at Ninth Street and Carroll Avenue to the Ames High Class of 1957. The family moved to 1321 Marston Avenue when he was in high school.

That's where he met Jack Winkler who operates Winkler and Sons painting and decorating in Ames. Winkler remembers years of hot rodding with Kooser and a group called the "Night Crawlers." He said Kooser created a major neighborhood attraction when he put a big Chevy engine on a little roadster. Kooser's first drive in the dragster ended with a spin over a neighbor's landscaping. Winkler said he and Kooser were into writing, too. "The beatnik poets were a big attraction," he said. "They were hot and that's where we wanted to be." They certainly didn't want to be poet laureates. "Back when we were hippy brothers we sneered at that kind of respectability," Winkler said.

There's no sneering now. Kooser had no idea he was being considered for the laureate post and its $35,000 salary and its third-floor office overlooking the U.S. Capitol. And he admits to getting flustered when the Library of Congress called with the news. But he's recovered and is already getting busy with the laureate's work. He has readings to prepare. The New York Times has been calling with arty essay questions. The Omaha World-Herald published a Sunday profile complete with pictures of the dogs.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where Kooser is a visiting professor of English, asked him to deliver the December commencement address. Kooser has arranged to attend the National Council of Teachers of English convention in Indianapolis so he can talk poetry with the people who teach it to kids. He's trying to think of ways to get poetry back in newspapers. And now that he's the nation's next poet laureate Kooser isn't so shy about something like a commencement speech. (His, by the way, will suggest that a box full of thank you notes should be standard equipment for all new graduates.) "All of a sudden," Kooser said, "I have 200,000 volts of confidence."

The Tribune, August 28, 2004, Story by Mike Krapfl