Ted Kooser on Nature and Poetry

UNLPublications and Photography.

Below is a continuation of the Q&As I did with several poets on the connection between poetry and nature/wilderness. The first was with Jane Hirshfield, and if you need to get caught up you can see that one here. These Q&A were all done via email. In this one former U.S. Poet Laureate writes briefly about why corporate/business life plays so small a part in the poetry of people who actually work in business for a living (Kooser worked in insurance before he taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln).

Do you think writers’ approach to nature/wild has changed in the contemporary world?

No. There are certainly lots of writers using urban life and subjects, and they get a lot of attention, but there is always a steady outflow of poetry and nonfiction about the natural world.

Another way of asking—has our dependence on technology and distance from nature changed poets’ relationship to it?

I don’t think so.

Is nature a good yardstick for measuring our own human issues by?

Certainly. Despite our habit of complicating our lives, we are still natural beings.

You’re a poet who spent a good portion of his life in a business/office environment, yet that world doesn’t surface in your work as frequently as fields, farms, animals or laborers? In general, opening any poetry journal, it’s much easier to find birds, mountains and rivers than it is to find references to inter-office mail, insertion orders or spreadsheets, yet they are probably a larger part of most people’s (and most poets) daily lives. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?

In an office, one’s experiences are often the same experiences day after day after day, whereas in nature there may be epiphanous events, coming as us as complete surprises. I did write some poems about my days in the insurance business, “Four Secretaries” is a good example, but, frankly, I just wasn’t very interested in what happened at the office, and why write about something that doesn’t interest you.

Galway Kinnell has said we must include the city in our definition of nature. What do you think of that? Can the city work for the poet in the same way as the forest or the sea?

I don’t know that quote, or its context, but I think he may have been talking about life in the city, rather than the city. His wonderful long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ….” is rich with human life, which is nature. You can almost smell the people in that poem.

The concepts of bewilderment and wonder—brash and sometimes meditative—seems to be a strong thread connecting nature poetry (from the ancient Chinese writers to present writers like Harry Humes). What role do you believe bewilderment plays in nature poetry? I also believe bewilderment is tied into gratitude. And if not that, then what?

You know, I’ve never thought about that word [bewilderment] and what it means and how it’s constructed to include wild until this very moment, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’ll have to give it a lot more thought. Li Po is bewildered, not by nature but by alcohol, and I don’t think of him, or Tu Fu, as being confused by nature in the way that they are confused by their own circumstances.

Ted

You can find Ted Kooser’s latest book, Delights and Shadows, here.

Kooser’s website: American Life in Poetry

My next poetry workshop at Musehouse begins the week of March 12. It’s a six-week course held on Wednesday evenings. Go here to view the description and sign up.

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