Last summer I attended a writing workshop at Idyllwild Arts while Ted Kooser was leading a Poetry Festival. Every night I crashed the poetry readings under the stars. I always envisioned myself as someone who liked poetry, but it was listening to Ted Kooser read his own work that caused me to finally, truly fall in love with it (attending a Mary Oliver reading last winter was a pretty remarkable experience also). Mr. Kooser worked at an insurance agency for decades and woke up every morning at 4AM to write poetry. Can you imagine writing at 4AM? When I wake up at 4AM, the only thing I’m doing is praying I’ll get back to sleep. He is the quintessential nice Mid-America guy with a sharp wit and sense of observation. He writes poetry I understand without referencing Wikipedia, but that I’ve thought about over and over again. Mr. Kooser served as U.S. poet laureate from 2004 to 2006, won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2004 and currently is promoting poetry through American Life in Poetry.
Several years ago, he started writing an annual Valentine poem for friends, mostly the wives of his friends. Every year he sent them, and anyone who added their names to his mailing list, a Valentine poem on a postcard. He stopped in 2007 when the mailing list exceed 2,600 people. Valentines is a collection of those poems, along with a new one for 2008 for his wife. The poems aren’t love sonnets, they’re graceful odes to life. One describes cutting a Valentine heart by folding the paper in half and using elementary school scissors to shape the arch. It reminded me of my handmade creations and then decades later watching my daughter
They make you careful, just as you should be, cutting out a heart for someone you love.
concentrating with creased brows on making her own heart. Another poem lists the items used to shape shoe heels into a heart to leave a track of love with every step. He touches on the lonely on Valentine’s Day in one poem and brings beauty to the efficient motions of a store clerk counting boxes of candy in another. My favorite, that I’ve read over and over since last July, is “Splitting an Order.” It reminds of my uncle and aunt who have been sharing meals for years. When Mr. Kooser read this poem, over one hundred people sighed at the beauty of it.
SPLITTING AN ORDER
I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,
maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,
no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky hands steady
by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table
and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,
and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,
observing his progress through glasses that moments before
he wiped with his napkin, and than to see him lift half
onto the extra plate that he had asked the server to bring,
and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife
while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,
her knife and her fork in their proper places,
then smoothes the starched white napkin over her knees
and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.