[(essay date 2012) In the following essay, Istvan deplores the surprising critical neglect of Kooser and suggests that it is only a matter of time until his work receives the “adequate attention” it deserves.]
With the exception of early essays by George von Glahn and Mark Sanders (MC), serious critical scholarship on the writings of Ted Kooser began after the 1980 release of the now classic Sure Signs, Kooser’s fifth major collection of poems. Looking back over the thirty-plus years since then, only about a dozen or so significant studies—none book-length—currently boulder out against the relative flatscape of secondary materials constituted mostly by quick and dirty reviews. Aside from the essays by Wes Mantooth, Allan N. Benn, and Mary K. Stillwell in this special issue of Midwestern Miscellany, the following works particularly stand out and, in my view, must be consulted by the Kooser scholar: David Baker’s “Ted’s Box”; William Barillas’s Chapter 7 of The Midwestern Pastoral; Victor Contoski’s “Words and Raincoats”; Dana Gioia’s “The Anonymity of the Regional Poet”; Jeff Gundy’s “Among the Erratics”; Jonathan Holden’s “The Chekov of American Poetry”; Denise Low’s “Sight in Motion”; David Mason’s “Introducing Ted Kooser”; and Mary K. Stillwell’s “The ‘In Between’” and “When a Walk Is a Poem.”
Like the blind feeling into the elevator with their porcupine quills (as they do in Kooser’s enchanting poem, “The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise”), such news about the state of Kooser scholarship may come as a surprise. Kooser, published from early on with strong presses and in major literary journals does not even have a listing in the first volume of Philip Greasley’s 2001 Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, which is intended to cover the lives and works of not only established, but also emerging, contemporary Midwestern authors. One wonders how all this can be when Kooser started receiving national attention since the mid-1970s (largely due to William Cole’s ahead-of-the-curve praises in several issues of Saturday Review), and since then has won prestigious honors and awards: two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships (1976 and 1984), the Stanley Kunitz Prize (1984), the Pushcart Prize (1984), the Richard Hugo Prize (1994), the James Boatwright Award (2000), two appointments as the US Poet Laureate (2004-2006), the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (2005) and much more.
Explanations for Kooser’s undervaluation have been offered: his work is so transparent that there are no interpretive problems for critics to feel a sense of worth by solving (Gioia ARP 92); the literary establishment is dismissive of writers of the American Midwest, especially when they focus on “small towns and agricultural countryside” (92; see Mason ITK 10); Kooser spent thirty years working in insurance instead of schmoozing in academic circles (10); and so on. Whatever the truth may be, I believe the days of worrying about why Kooser is not receiving adequate attention are numbered. Before us are sure signs that a storm of critical notice is imminent. Aside from the accolades and the enduring promotion by the eminent Gioia,...