(April 25, 1939 — )
Alumnus Theodore Kooser served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his collection Delights & Shadows (2004), one of many awards he has received during his long and prolific career as a writer, editor, and publisher.
Born in Ames, Iowa, Kooser is the son of Theodore Briggs and Vera Deloras Moser Kooser. The Kooser family, originally from Wüttemberg, Germany, settled in Story County, Iowa, in the early 1800s. By 1905, Ted’s grandparents lived in Ames. Kooser’s father worked at Tilden’s department store, where he met his future wife. Their daughter, Judith, was born in 1942. The Kooser children enjoyed the small-town life of the 1940s and 1950s, although Ames did not go untouched by World War II as Local Wonders, Kooser’s memoir, recalls.
The Koosers, from Switzerland and Germany, settled along the Mississippi River in Clayton County. Kooser affectionately describes the area, returning to it again and again in his poetry and prose, including his essay “Lights on a Ground of Darkness: An Evocation of a Place and Time.” His grandfather farmed before taking over the Standard Filling Station in Guttenberg. Much of Kooser’s work reflects the loss of rural life as small farms were gathered into large corporate ventures.
Art was integral to the community as Kooser grew up. His parents were part of a play-reading group, and as a boy, he thrived on art classes and poetry. His first job as a twelve-year-old was making posters for the Ames Public Library. During high school he tinkered with his hot rod, Henrietta, painted, and directed his poetry toward his girl friend. Fortunately, he says, that poetry did not survive.
In 1957, Kooser enrolled in Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, as it was known then (now Iowa State University), majoring in architecture. Kooser was familiar with the campus as his father’s brother, Herold, began and headed the college’s audio-visual department. (Kooser Drive is named in his honor.) Kooser loved drawing classes but not math and changed his major to English Education. Dr. Will C. Jumper, advisor to the Writers’ Round Table, became his mentor. Kooser credits the Round Table with helping him hone his craft within a community of writers, including future senator, Tom Harkin. Many of the poems in Kooser’s first book, Official Entry Blank (1969), dedicated to Jumper, were written at Iowa State. Fellow student Diana Tressler from Marshalltown, Iowa, would become his first wife in 1962, the year Kooser received his bachelor’s degree.
Teaching high school English in Madrid, Iowa, for a year convinced Kooser to reconsider his career. After a summer of sign painting, Kooser and his wife packed up their “wedding gifts and courage” and “lumbered westward on balding tires” toward Lincoln, Nebraska. The young poet had received a readership to study poetry with Karl Shapiro, who taught at the University of Nebraska and edited the Prairie Schooner.
After a year of full-time study, Kooser took a job in insurance, completing his master’s degree (1968) part-time. The poet’s years in the insurance business served as a continuing reminder of the passage of time, change, and mortality that figure in so much of his work. He maintained a close relationship with Shapiro, spending weekends driving through the hills southwest of Lincoln that Kooser would dub “the Bohemian Alps.” His son, Jeffrey, was born in 1967. Kooser and Tressler divorced three years later.
Kooser founded Windflower Press, still operating today, and began publishing Salt Creek Reader, the first of several journals he would edit over the years. He began teaching part-time at the University of Nebraska in 1970. In addition to a number of chapbooks, Kooser’s second collection of poems, Local Habitation & a Name, was published in 1974, followed by Not Coming to Be Barked at in 1976, the year he was awarded his first National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
In 1977, he married journalist Kathleen Rutledge, who became managing editor of the Lincoln Journal Star. Seven years later, when Kooser received a second National Endowment of the Arts fellowship, he and Rutledge purchased an acreage outside of Garland.
The 1980s and 1990s were productive for Kooser as an editor and as a poet. In addition to publishing collections Sure Signs (1980), One World at a Time (1985), and The Blizzard Voices (1986), Kooser edited the poetry anthology Windflower Home Almanac of Poetry and several journals. In 1998, Kooser was diagnosed with tongue cancer, leaving him literally and figuratively voiceless. Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison (2000) records his recovery. The Blizzard Voices and excerpts from Winter Morning Walks have been set to music by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Paul Moravec and Maria Schneider, respectively.
With the return of good health and his retirement from the insurance industry (1999), Kooser entered a new phase of creativity. In addition to Local Wonders (2002) and Delights & Shadows (2004), Kooser published Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry with Jim Harrison (2003), The Poetry Home Repair Manual (2005), Flying at Night: Selected Poems (2005), Writing Brave and Free with Steve Cox (2005), Valentines (2008), and edited The Poet’s Guide to the Birds (2009) with Judith Kitchen. While serving two terms as U.S. Poet laureate (2004-2006), Kooser launched American Life in Poetry, providing newspapers and online publications with a free weekly column featuring contemporary American poems. Kooser Elementary School in Lincoln was dedicated in (2009).
Kooser continues to be a prolific writer and editor. After the birth of his granddaughters, Kooser turned to writing children’s books: Bag in the Wind (2010), House Held Up by Trees (2012), and The Bell in the Bridge (2016). Kooser edited the poetry of Jared Carter, Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems, published in 2014. His own collection of poems, Splitting an Order, and The Wheeling Years, selections from Kooser’s workbooks, were published the same year. Two new children’s books are forthcomming, Mr. Posey's New Glasses, forthcoming from Candlewick Press in 2019, and Making Mischief: Two Poets at Play Among Figures of Speech, a collaboration with Connie Wanek, forthcoming from Candlewick in 2022. Kooser recent published work is Kindest Regards: Poems Selected and New (2018), which was chosen by Library Journal as one of the five best poetry picks for 2018. Kindest Regards spans nearly five decades, featuring more than 50 pages of new writing and generous selections from 11 previous books. He and Kathleen Rutledge continue to reside on their acreage in the heart of the Bohemian Alps.
Information is taken from The Life & Poetry of Ted Kooser by Mary K. Stillwell, published by the University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2013.
The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ted-kooser
Ted Kooser website: https://www.tedkooser.net