With the possible exception of Billy Collins, Ted Kooser must be the most accessible and enjoyable major poet in America. His lines are so clear and simple that, in comparison, even Robert Frost sounds like Mallarmé. The captious might complain that Kooser is prosy, that his work doesn’t exhibit enough razzle-dazzle to count as real poetry, yet how can you read “Painting the Barn” — a poem about death — and not marvel at its understated beauty? Here it is, in its entirety:

The ghost of my good dog, Alice,

sits at the foot of my ladder,

looking up, now and then touching

the bottom rung with her paw.

Even a spirit dog can’t climb

an extension ladder, and so,

with my scraper, bucket, and brush,

I am up here alone, hanging on

with one hand in the autumn wind,

high over the earth that Alice

knew so well, every last inch,

and there she sits, whimpering

in just the way the chilly wind

whines under the tin of the roof —

Sweet Alice, dear Alice, good Alice,

waiting for me to come down.

Note the wonderful visual detail of the dog placing its paw on the ladder rung, the ominous double-meaning of the phrase “I am up here alone, hanging on/ with one hand in the autumn wind,” and finally that tender invocation of Alice — or does he mean death itself? — as sweet, dear and good, before that quietly poignant last line: “waiting for me to come down.” In life we ascend the ladder of the years, go as high as we can or dare, yet sooner or later each of us must climb down. But how tender is Kooser’s image of dying. Dogs and mortality share a long history — think of Edwin Landseer’s heartbreakingly pathetic painting “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner” — yet seldom has death seemed so gentle and welcoming.

A biographical note at the end of “Splitting an Order” points out that this is Kooser’s 13th collection of poems — his 2004 collection, “Delights & Shadows,” received the Pulitzer Prize — and that its publication coincides with his 75th birthday. The back cover pictures a bespectacled, benevolent figure, thin and wispy-haired, dressed in a blue-checked shirt and a tan jacket with a brown leather throat catch on the lapel. Give Kooser a pitchfork and he might be a happier, 21st-century version of the homespun farmer in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

Like Wood, Kooser is a celebrant of the Midwest. Apart from his two terms in Washington as poet laureate from 2004 to 2006, he seems to have spent most of his life in Nebraska. And while he may have worked for many years for an insurance company, he nonetheless comes across, at least in his poetry, as more wiry roustabout or weathered farmhand than desk-bound business executive. Throughout “Splitting an Order,” he refers knowingly and with affection to canning bottles and hand tools, to wooden birdhouses and rusty lanterns:

All winter, the earth was sealed

by a lid of frost, like the layer

of paraffin over the apple jelly,

or the white disk of chicken fat

on soup left to cool, but now,

in cold tin sheds with dripping roofs,

old tractors warm their engines,

burning the feathery mouse nests

from red exhausts, rattling the jars

of cotter pins, shaking gaskets

on nails and stirring the dirty rags

of cobwebs.

— from “A Morning in Early Spring”

Such imagery from a vanishing America further enforces the overall autumnal quality of these recent poems. Kooser writes of elderly men in waiting rooms, of an aged couple splitting a roast beef sandwich, of a blind man who has fallen in the street, of the old people around us we never really see until we are old, too. Even Kooser’s titles bear a certain doleful inflection: “Changing Drivers,” “Estate Sale,” “Closing the Windows,” “Sundial” or — quite baldly — “The Past”:

What we remember of it

is what we began to memorize

as children, rehearsing

the same scenes again and again

until we got them perfect.

For all their recurrent wistfulness, though, Kooser’s poems are somehow never depressing; they convey instead a strange wonder at the coming of age and a stoic acceptance of diminution. Consider “A Person of Limited Palette”:

I would love to have lived out my years

in a cottage a few blocks from the sea,

and to have spent my mornings painting

out in the cold, wet rocks, to be known

as “a local artist,” a pleasant old man

who “paints passably well, in a traditional

manner,” a person of limited palette:

earth tones and predictable blues, cloth cap

and cardigan, baggy old trousers

and comfortable shoes, but none of this

shall come to pass, for every day

the possiblities grow fewer, like swallows

in autumn.

Of course, these same lines also hint at critiques that Kooser must have heard of his own art. Yet even in these distinctly brown studies, which possess a “limited palette,” he causes us see the world afresh, whether he describes a rollerblader and “that singular, side-to-side, whisk-broom movement/as she swung her arms and legs,” or sums up a small tree frog as “a dollop of life,” or makes us visualize the way he and other old men sit in the sunlight, “none with his legs crossed, our feet in loose shoes/ hot and flat on the earth, hands curled in our laps/or on our knees.”

A few of these poems may not appeal to everyone — the cataloguing of disused items in “Estate Sale” grows somewhat tedious — and many of them will be most meaningful to those over 60. But if you reflexively dismiss modern verse as dauntingly esoteric or embarrassingly corny or tediously singsong, you need to try Ted Kooser. William Wordsworth once described poetry’s ideal diction as that of a man speaking to other men. Today we would make that “men and women,” but the phrase otherwise aptly conveys the sturdy Shaker plainness of these pages about — to use Philip Larkin’s phrase — “age, and then the only end of age.” Kooser, however, eschews Larkin’s resolute and bitter melancholy, turning away from English angst to sound a still, sad music, a wholly American music, all his own.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.