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Inspired to Notice Things

Ted Kooser, America’s first poet laureate from the Great Plains, talks about the soul’s heartland

By Rosie Schaap, New York, New York

As appeared in

Friday. My flight’s overbooked. And there’s a ruckus at the gate. I’m heading to Des Moines, Iowa, to meet Poet Laureate Ted Kooser at the Des Moines National Poetry Festival, but poetry is far from my mind. I’m anxious.

Why has travel become so stressful? Finally, we board. I settle in and go over my notes.

I’ve admired Ted Kooser’s work for ages. In school I copied his poem “The Red Wing Church” onto a sheet of loose-leaf paper and tucked it into my backpack like a good-luck charm. It’s about an old dilapidated church—no steeple, no congregation—transformed into:

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…Homer Johnson’s barn, but it’s still a church,
with clumps of tiger lilies in the grass…

That sense of sacredness remains. It’s all around, in fact. But lately I’ve just been too busy to notice.

“Rosie from Guideposts,” Ted greets me the next day at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, his voice warm and assured. Now 66, Ted’s appointment as poet laureate was recently renewed by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, and Ted won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Still, I discover that Ted Kooser is a regular guy. Who happens to be remarkable.

“They put me in ‘The Presidential Suite,’” Ted says, tickled. “It’s bigger than the house I grew up in!” That was in Ames. Ted has lived in Nebraska for decades, but he was in Ames last night, reading at Iowa State, his alma mater.

He pours us each a glass of water and eases into an armchair. “In Ames I visited the church I attended as a boy and spent some time there,” he says wistfully. 

“There was an old man, Seaman Knapp, with a collection of bells. At Christmas he always did a bell-ringing in front of the church, running up and down this long table. It’s so sweet in my memory, and he’s been gone fifty years.”

Ted pays close attention to people, places. But he knows it isn’t always easy.

“You drive home from work, find yourself in the garage and can’t remember a thing that’s happened between when you left and when you arrived,” Ted says. “To really participate in life we have to figure out ways of being aware of what’s around us.”

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Sure, I think. But how do you do that with a busy life, work, family? “The poet Linda Gregg has her students notice six things a day. Lots of days I don’t notice six things. I’m not always successful,” Ted admits. “But I like paying attention to ordinary things.”

Six things. I make a note. Maybe I’ll try that.

Like the great American poet Wallace Stevens, Ted started out in insurance. His career lasted more than three decades. He rose daily at 4:30 A.M. to write before heading to work. Sometimes poetry and business intersected.

“In the late sixties Bankers Life Nebraska hired an artist to take photos throughout the building, things we passed every day. He gave a slide show and built a production out of the beauty of these ordinary things,” Ted says.

“Poems are like that. They say, ‘Here’s something you may not have looked at. I’m going to show it to you in a way that will make you notice.’”