- The Washington Times - Friday, November 11, 2005

LINCOLN, Neb. — Ted Kooser encourages people to pick up the tiny leather-bound diary on a table in his office.

Peek inside, he says, and you’ll see what he wants to accomplish in his second term as U.S. poet laureate.

The year was 1925, and the diary’s owner clipped poems out of newspapers to paste into the journal that had been given to Mr. Kooser at a reading in Minnesota.

Mr. Kooser can’t recall a time when he could find poems in a newspaper. But he hopes that will change with his newest project, which each week provides newspapers with works by contemporary poets. “We have to get back to the point where they’re fun and useful and can add something to our lives,” Mr. Kooser says of poems.

The eight-month-old American Life in Poetry project’s free columns have been printed at least once in 58 newspapers and are e-mailed regularly to about 134, according to the Poetry Foundation, a literary organization that helps run the project. It estimates that 1 million people read the column each week in various newspapers, such as the Ellsworth American in Ellsworth, Maine, or the Grinnell Herald-Register in Grinnell, Iowa.

Overall, the papers that run the column carry a combined circulation of about 4 million people, the Chicago-based foundation says.

The column was created with small- to midsize papers in mind, says Anne Halsley, a foundation spokeswoman. However, it’s being picked up in larger papers as well, such as the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska. It’s also used by Nebraska’s Lincoln Journal Star, where Mr. Kooser’s wife, Kathleen Rutledge, is editor.

It was only natural to run Mr. Kooser’s column in the Omaha World-Herald because he is a Nebraskan, says Executive Editor Larry King. Mr. Kooser, who lives in Garland, Neb., is the first poet laureate from the Great Plains.

The paper received many calls from readers worried that the column had been canceled when it was inadvertently left out of the Arts and Travel section one Sunday, Mr. King says.

Editors and readers alike have responded with enthusiasm to the 30-some columns that have been distributed so far, Mr. Kooser says. They’re recognizing that poems aren’t the complicated patterns of words that many people were taught to decode in school.

“The idea that a poem is a problem that needs to be solved is pretty discouraging,” says Mr. Kooser, 66, a slight man with an unassuming, warm smile who began writing poetry at 18 and whose most recent collection is “The Bull Rider’s Advice: New and Selected Poems.”

Working with a handful of graduate students at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he is a visiting professor, Mr. Kooser publishes modern poems by writers who are relatively unknown to the non-poetry-reading public.

There are no Emily Dickinsons or Robert Frosts here — but there’s “Old Woman in a Housecoat,” by Georgiana Cohen, a 26-year-old Web content writer in Somerville, Mass., who has been published only a handful of times in literary magazines. There’s also a poem about fishing and grief called “Speckled Trout,” by Ron Rash, a professor at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C.

Readers won’t see anything by Mr. Kooser, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry for “Delights and Shadows.” It’s his 10th collection of poetry, published last year. Mr. Kooser says he doesn’t want to use the project to publish his works, but rather to give a sampling of contemporary American poets.

The criteria for inclusion in the project are fairly loose, but Mr. Kooser sticks to a few key points. Poems must not be complicated or overly challenging to readers. That’s so he can sum up the meaning of the poem — without spelling everything out — in his short introduction.

He concedes that some readers find poetry a difficult art form to understand. He says that’s often because writers choose to make their work more complex — but, he adds, not all poets choose to present such challenges.

Rather than confuse, poetry is meant to entertain and provide people with a new perspective on life, Mr. Kooser notes.

“It’s good for us. It makes life a little fresher and more interesting,” says Mr. Kooser, who graduated from Iowa State University in 1962 and earned his master’s degree in English from the University of Nebraska in 1968.

Retired from the insurance business, he advises 13 graduate students, most of them poets, in between his weekly travels for his post as poet laureate. In the span of a few weeks last month, Mr. Kooser attended readings and functions in the District; New York; Indianapolis; Chicago; Sioux City, Iowa; and at the opening of a new arts center in Omaha.

He was in the District about once a month during his first term as poet laureate, a trend that most likely will continue until this second term expires in May, he says. While there, he gives lectures and readings and works with fellows.

Even if he isn’t appointed to a third term — a rarity, he says — Mr. Kooser plans to stick with the project, which will be funded for at least the next year. “I hope it’ll just keep going. I don’t want it to die when my term is up,” Mr. Kooser says.

Mike Wilson, features editor of the St. Petersburg Times in Florida and a longtime poetry fan, says that when he heard of the column this spring, he knew he wanted to run it in the paper, which has a circulation of more than 300,000. He put the decision to his readers, who overwhelmingly welcomed the Monday fixture.

He says he has heard that people are cutting out the columns to save and share, including teachers who are using them in their classrooms.

That’s exactly what Mr. Kooser wants: to foster a new appreciation for the art form and get more people writing.

“What would be wrong with everybody writing poems?” Mr. Kooser asks. “It’s a much better thing to do with your time than watching ‘Wheel of Fortune’.”

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