Ted Kooser’s Delights and Shadows has been on the Poetry Foundation’s list of best-sellers for fifty-eight weeks, a record matched only by Billy Collins and Mary Oliver. The man himself arrived for an extended visit to the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference weekend Poetry Conference on March 16-18 and addressed a full house.
Kooser did not read from Delights and Shadows; he must have guessed that most of the audience had the volume memorized. He did favor the group with a couple of recent gems, poems featuring his trademark plain-style self-deprecation and pushing even further into humorous territory than his previous work has done. For the most part Kooser-who said he was working on a series of travel essays about not going anywhere– spent Saturday evening answering questions and discussing the ways in which poets can enrich their poetry by paying better attention to the everyday.
One of his most powerful anecdotes involved a photographer who had been hired to shoot the environment in which Kooser worked, an insurance office. When the slides of the project were shown, Kooser began to see how beautiful the things around him that he had been ignoring were, from the shine on a doorknob to the arc of water in the drinking fountain. This world transformed by an engaged attention is a world that Kooser has increasingly inhabited, and to which he invites his many readers and listeners.
Sunday morning Kooser held a master class, considering six poems that had been submitted by participants and answering more questions, clearly relishing the interaction with the crowd. Kooser was opinionated where we might have expected it, but decidedly gentle with the aspiring poets, opening up the critique session by insisting that he wanted to hear what was going right with a poem as much as what was wrong with it.
He was less gentle with the academic poetry establishment, at one point claiming that the whole of 20th-century poetry had been about excluding the audience and that quoting Karl Shapiro that Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot had been the Hiroshima and Nagasaki of poetic enjoyment for the general public. The movement to encourage poetry that appeals to a wide readership and that is, as Kooser said, “first of all about pleasure” has been growing steadily in this country.
Ted Kooser has emerged as a clear champion of the movement, armored in caramel-colored tweed, light glinting off his shining spectacles.