The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser


The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser

Mary K. Stillwell

336 pages
28 photographs, 1 illustration, 1 chronology


September 2013


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eBook (EPUB)

April 2020


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eBook (PDF)

September 2013


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About the Book

Like a flash of lightning it came to him—the unathletic high school student Ted Kooser saw a future as a famous poet that promised everything: glory, immortality, a bohemian lifestyle (no more doing dishes, no more cleaning his room), and, particularly important to the lonely teenager, girls! Unlike most kids with a sudden ambition, Kooser, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and thirteenth poet laureate of the United States, made good on his dream. But glory was a long time coming, and along the way Kooser lived the life that has made his poetry what it is, as deeply grounded in family, work, and the natural world as it is attuned to the nuances of language.
Just as so much of Kooser’s own writing weaves geography, history, and family stories into its measures, so does this first critical biography consider the poet’s work and life together: his upbringing in Iowa, his studies in Nebraska with poet Karl Shapiro as mentor, his career in insurance, his family life, his bout with cancer, and, always, his poetry. Combining a fine appreciation of Kooser’s work and life, this book finally provides a fuller and more complex picture of a writer who, perhaps more than any other, has brought the Great Plains and the Midwest, lived large and small, into the poetry of our day.

Author Bio

A Nebraska native, Mary K. Stillwell has studied writing in New York and, with Ted Kooser, on the plains and earned her PhD in plains literature from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She served as coeditor of Nebraska Presence: An Anthology of Poetry and has published her poetry widely in literary magazines and journals as well as a number of anthologies. Her full-length collection of poems is Moving to Malibu.


"Stillwell shows us that that effect of Kooser's poems is the result of a prosody as carefully cultivated as that of any fine poet. As she unfolds the events of Kooser's ordinary life, she examines each of his collections and his few, short prose books to disclose the large aim of his writing, which is to demonstrate and affirm the interconnectedness of people and their natural contexts."—Ray Olson, Booklist

"A fine, authoritative first biography of the former U.S. Poet Laureate."—Tom Lavoie, Shelf Awareness

"[The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser] is more than just a biography. It offers a window into much of Kooser's life and highlights his writing throughout."—Jill Martin, Seward County Independent

"The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser is an invaluable resource and entertaining work for poetry lovers of all kinds."—Travis Amundson, Nebraska Life

"Stillwell has accomplished a nice piece of very readable scholarship."—Nancy S. Gillis, Nebraska History

"Working far outside the dominant literary establishment—both geographically and in terms of current fads—Kooser modestly yet powerfully turns us toward the mystery, heartache, and beauty at the heart of ordinary life. Stillwell’s excellent study helps us to understand how and why he does this."—Scott Kinckerbocker, Western American Literature

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations 000
Acknowledgments 000
Chronology 000
Part 1. Growing Up in Iowa, 1939<EN>1963
1. Official Entry
2. An Emerging Imagination
3. Summers in Paradise
4. Looking the Part
5. King, A Dog of the North
6. Moving Gibraltar
Part 2. Nebraska Apprenticeship, 1963<EN>1969
7. The Move to Nebraska
8. Journey to a Place of Work
9. Official Entry Blank
10. Running on Empty
Part 3. The Shepherd's New Song, 1970<EN>1979
11. A Local Habitation & a Name
12. Singing the Shepherd's Song
13. Not Coming to Be Barked At
14. "Walking Home to You"
Part 4. American Scripture, 1980<EN>1994
15. Sure Signs
16. Common Ground
17. One World at a Time
18. Weather Central
Part 5. "Feeling the Speed," 1995<EN>Today
19. "Lights on a Ground of Darkness"
20. Winter Morning Walks
21. Local Wonders
22. Delights & Shadows
23. "The Ripening Odor of Praise"
24. "Bright Yellow Leaves Flying"
Source Acknowledgments 000
Notes 000
Bibliography 000
Index 000

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