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Valentines — a book review

Did you all know that Ted Kooser has a new book out? It's called Valentines and it contains just that. Turns out that, starting in 1986, Kooser started writing a poem each year for Valentine's Day, which he had printed onto postcards, which he then sent to female friends (and later, to women who wanted to be on his Valentine's Day mailing list). He discontinued the practice last year because the list contained over 2500 names and printing and postage costs were making it exhorbitant.

The book is a lovely, slim, hardback volume with a white cover, as you can see off to the right here. What the cover doesn't tell you is that the book also contains illustrations by Robert Hanna, done in pen and ink (I'm guessing), which are designed to echo the "aesthetic temper of Ted's writing space—which includes his home, his work shed, and the rolling landscape of Nebraska's Bohemian Alps—and reveal the heartland that provides his inspiration."

Kooser includes an author's note that indicates that this collection is, primarily, for fun. He says, "I suppose some of them have a little literary merit but, really, they were written with pleasure and meant for the reader's fun. I hope you enjoy the reading half as much as I enjoyed the writing, the licking of stamps, and the addressing to all those women who were willing to tolerate my foolishness."

The book contains 23 poems (22 years of sending Valentine's, with an extra poem written just for his wife).

Here's one of the more romantic of his poems, found on page 19 of the book:

For You, Friend,

this Valentine's Day, I intend to stand
for as long as I can on a kitchen stool
and hold back the hands of the clock,
so that wherever you are, you may walk
even more lightly in your loveliness;
so that the weak, mid-February sun
(whose chill I will feel from the face
of the clock) cannot in any way
lessent the lights in your hair, and the wind
(whose subtle insistence I will feel
in the minute hand) cannot tighten
the corners of your smile. People
drearily walking the winter streets
will long remember this day:
how they glanced up to see you
there in a storefront window, glorious,
strolling along on the outside of time.

Is that not lovely and charming and sweet? How I love this poem and its images, and that I feel as if he was talking, for a moment, just to me. And I glory in being glorious. Don't you?

Not all of the poems are particularly personal or romantic. One that I love is about the small barns (or large sheds) that one sometimes sees in rural areas, which Kooser describes in a poem called "Home Storage Barns", in which he describes the sheds in the fields and those already built and waiting in the lumberyards for someone wanting "a barn of a reasonable scale,/yet that looks like a barn ought to look/to a person who's dreaming/(with an X of white boards on the door/as if making a spot for the heart)." Or "Skater", which describes seeing a woman ice-skating in a way that manages to be intimate yet unacquainted, all at the same time: Kooser describes her in detail — what she's wearing, her motions, leading to a jump followed by these concluding lines: "skating backward right out of that moment, smiling back/at the woman she'd been just an instant before." Two owl poems are in the collection: "Barn Owl", which describes the lovely heart-shaped face of the owl and offers it a mouse as a valentine, and "Screech Owl", which speaks of "a bird no bigger than a heart".

The final poem in the collection is a valentine to his wife, Kathleen, who didn't mind him sending all those lovely valentines out into the world to other women. ("She's not only a good sport; she also knows that though I'm a flirt, I'm pretty much a harmless geezer . . . ") Kooser notes that his last annual valentine poem (not sent to others, but published first in this book) turns its attention back to Kathleen. He notes, "You'll see that this last poem is indeed the poem of a man who has careened beyond the romantic into an altogether different age."

The Hog-Nosed Snake

The hog-nosed snake, when playing dead,
Lets its tongue loll out of its ugly head.

It lies on its back as stiff as a stick;
If you flip it over it'll flip back quick.

If I seem dead when you awake,
Just flip me once, like the hog-nosed snake.

I'm just guessing here, but I'm pretty sure that this one came out of wordplay associated with the old children's prayer that ends "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."

The poems in this collection are just what you would hope to see from Ted Kooser: witty, wry, observant slices of life based in the imagery of his native plains and, evidently, something called "the Bohemian Alps" of Nebraska. Barns and owls and crops; homeless men in the Commerce plaza; beer bottles, oak trees and cut-paper hearts; even an almost-erotic poem entitled "Song of the Ironing Board", which is not sexual in nature, exactly, and is a sort of "mask poem" in which the narrator is the ironing board, but really, once you read about things from the ironing board's perspective, you can't help but feel a little steamy.

I think that Kooser sold himself short and that most, if not all, of the poems here have some literary merit (even, or perhaps especially, the hog-nosed snake). He was 100% correct that these poems are fun, and his pleasure in their writing comes through. Fans of Kooser must of course snap this one up. I also highly recommend it for anyone wanting a slim, charming book full of candy-box poems, each a different shape and texture, but all delicious.

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( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 10th, 2008 03:32 pm (UTC)
I suppose that you're correct about the judgment of poems for adults, and yet Billy Collins has outsold so many other contemporary poets because his poems are fun in addition to being thoughtful and having literary merit. Then again, there are those in the adult world who equate "literary merit" with dense unapproachableness, obscure references, and/or tortured phrasing and forms.

As for children's poetry, I think that sometimes, in fact, I'd go still further and say that "literary merit" is actually underappreciated in kids' poems, and fun is a bit overly emphasized sometimes, leading to a perception, fair or not, that all kids poems are silly ones when that is not, in fact, the case.

Mar. 10th, 2008 02:26 pm (UTC)
Fans of Kooser must of course snap this one up.
I'm not one (only cuz I's unaware) but I could be one!
Mar. 10th, 2008 03:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Fans of Kooser must of course snap this one up.
You would dig his work for its plainspokenness and its homely feeling and its imagery. I think.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 10th, 2008 03:18 pm (UTC)
You are very welcome.
Mar. 10th, 2008 03:37 pm (UTC)
Mar. 10th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
Good thing I didn't post "In the Alley" or "Tracks" or "A Map of the World" or you might have actually required resuscitation.
Mar. 10th, 2008 04:04 pm (UTC)
This sounds like my kind of book: funny, weird, and with owl poems! Thanks for the review.
Mar. 10th, 2008 04:48 pm (UTC)
"Barn Owl" begins:

High in the chaffy, taffy-colored haze
of the hayloft, up under the starry
nail-hole twinkle of the old tin roof,
there in a nest of straw and baling twine
I have hidden my valentine for you:
a white heart woven of snow feathers
in which wide eyes of welcome open
to you as you cliimb the rickety ladder
into my love.

I believe I've just become a puddle, it's so lovely.
Mar. 10th, 2008 06:45 pm (UTC)
Mar. 10th, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's wonderful. I'm calling my son over to read this one and the Hog nosed snake as well. Thanks, Kelly--you're our poetry maestra. :)
Mar. 10th, 2008 08:54 pm (UTC)
I like the sound of that!
Mar. 10th, 2008 06:31 pm (UTC)
I love that "harmless geezer." How great is that first poem? Swoon.

Thanks! Can't wait to see this one.

jules, 7-Imp
Mar. 10th, 2008 08:30 pm (UTC)
It's in stores now. I got it from the library, but I'll be buying it for my home library.
Mar. 10th, 2008 06:44 pm (UTC)
That last one!!!
Mar. 10th, 2008 08:54 pm (UTC)
Isn't he great?
Mar. 10th, 2008 08:55 pm (UTC)
Mar. 10th, 2008 09:01 pm (UTC)
How in the world could these not be "literary"? Just what is the definition of that, anyway?

And as to that last poem, I love it. Humor between two married people is one of the highest forms of love. I won't embarrass myself here with specific examples, but you must truly, truly know someone to make them laugh in the daily togetherness of your lives. And to laugh in bed is the best. Hog-nosed snake or no.
Mar. 11th, 2008 02:24 am (UTC)
I love that he's referring to himself as a hog-nosed snake. So funny.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 11th, 2008 02:25 am (UTC)
I am glad that the holding of the clock hands and the realization of your gloriousness calmed you down. And yeah, what you said about daylight. As if calling it a different name ever affected Nature. Yeesh.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 11th, 2008 12:39 pm (UTC)
I hear you. I've already ordered my copy.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )

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