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Nebraska's Ted Kooser Named New Poet Laureate

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2004; Page C01

America's new poet laureate is Ted Kooser, a retired vice president of Lincoln Benefit Life insurance company in Nebraska, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington will announce today.

The businessman-turned-bard writes straightforward verse about stars and cows and office secretaries and everything in between. He has published 10 books, including the collections "Delights & Shadows" (2004) and "Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison," which won the 2001 Nebraska Book Award for Poetry.

TED KOOSER (Courtesy Of Kathleen Rutledge Via AP)

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Over the years, Kooser has won a barge of poetry prizes: two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Pushcart Prize, the Stanley Kunitz Prize, the James Boatwright Prize and a Merit Award from the Nebraska Arts Council. He is a visiting English professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He is married to Kathleen Rutledge, editor of the Lincoln Journal Star.

The call from the library came Friday evening while he was thinking about what he might have for supper. "I was completely surprised," Kooser says. The reality is still settling in. Asked what he plans to do to further the poetic cause, Kooser says, "I've had a few ideas. But I don't want anybody to have any expectations at all. I'd like to get some advice. I do intend to be active and do what I can for poetry."

Kooser, says former poet laureate Billy Collins, "is a poet who has deserved to be better known. This appointment will at least take care of that problem."

Collins says Kooser is distinguished from the rank and file by two things. First, Kooser has spent most of his life in the corporate world. "I won't be the first or the last to compare him to Wallace Stevens," says Collins, referring to the sublime Connecticut poet who was also an insurance executive.

And Kooser is from the Midwest. Collins suggests that Kooser's appointment is "an intentional pick." He says, "The middle section of the country needed greater poetic representation."

Kooser, he adds, "is a thoroughly American poet laureate."

As for the poetry, Collins says it is clear and openhanded. Kooser "is perhaps more interested in presenting the reader with a scene than in leading the reader on a complicated tour."

In a statement, Billington said: "Ted Kooser is a major poetic voice for rural and small town America and the first Poet Laureate chosen from the Great Plains. His verse reaches beyond his native region to touch on universal themes in accessible ways."

Born in Ames, Iowa, in 1939, Kooser graduated from Iowa State University in 1962. He received a master of arts degree in 1968 from the University of Nebraska. While in graduate school, he went to work for an insurance company. "I was committed to being a writer," he says. "I got in the habit of getting up at 4:30 or 5 every morning to write before I went to work."

Though he has retired from the daily grind, he adheres to that regimen. Wallace Stevens, he says, did not have to rise so early. "Stevens had a better job than I did. I believe he had plenty of time to write in his office."

Kooser says he didn't really talk about poetry much during his workdays. Occasionally he would show some work to colleagues, and if they didn't understand the poem, Kooser would rework it until they did. "I have always wanted to write poems that people would understand," he says.

He replaces Louise Gluck as poet laureate. His first official reading will be in October, when his one-year term begins. He will receive a $35,000 stipend.

His favorite Ted Kooser poem, he says, is always the one he has just written. "It loses its glory pretty quickly," he says.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company