Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ted Kooser's VALENTINES: Chocolates That Last

The flowers are dozing in their vase, the chocolates are half gone, and whatever meal you've shared with a dear companion is done -- and someone's doing the dishes (or they'll wait til morning). If you have a card with a sweet sentiment or tasty tease in it, the card will still be there in the morning. But by then, it will be out of date, because the moment to say "happy Valentine's Day" is over for the year.

That means that Ted Kooser's 2008 collection VALENTINES is one of the most lasting salutes to the season. And it's been more than 20 years in the making.


To make a perfect heart you take a sheet
of red construction paper of the type
that's rough as a cat's tongue, fold it once,
and crease it really hard, so it feels
as if your thumb might light up like a match,

then choose your scissors from the box ....

The story, in brief, is that in 1986 the insurance exec/Nebraska poet began saluting the occasion with a poem on a postcard, sent to each of 50 women friends. The first one, "Pocket Poem," was a nine-line scrap of neatly punctuated narrative, ending with a warm and sentimental line: one suggesting that the author of the poem might be very close to the person receiving it, so close that the paper is still "warm from me."

Cleaner in scope and sharper in images than the traditional holiday letter, the Kooser holiday postcard nevertheless gained circulation. In 2007, postage was way out of hand, as the little cards traveled to the welcoming mailboxes of more than 2500 women. So the former U.S. Poet Laureate (2004-2006) pulled the collection together into a neat little book wrapped in white with a single red "foil" heart.

Critic Dana Gioia has tackled in "The Predicament of Popular Poetry" the putdown that "complicated" people sometimes assign to Kooser's easily accessible, finely honed poems: that they are simple, limited, lack depth. Simple on the page, in small, regular forms, yes: but lacking in depth, no. And Gioia points to the way Kooser perfected his miniatures, polishing them to such an intense "fitting" that often there's no way to change or replace a line -- it's just "right." Gioia invites us to value Kooser's work for the high percentage of "perfect" poems in it, as well as for the carefully achieved openness of the conversations they continue.

I especially like the variety of images here that outline love in fresh ways. The turtle burying its eggs, "her eyes like stars /fixed on the future"; the trash haulers salvaging roses from a florist's dumpster, where the poet sees a parallel with his poem of "used" words that in turn become a bouquet; the dark red oak leaf on the snow, as close to a heart in shape as is the footprint of the wide-eyed deer pausing in the night. And I would have enjoyed being one of the people on the mailing list, surprised one year with a poem that urges "think how they feel" -- the leftover bits of paper from the candy box, that is, whose bewilderment at their final neglect is an example of why we might chuckle ruefully at our own small losses and resentments.

So I've paired with this little entry an unusual photo of Kooser, one that's less like the insurance agent/grandpa image he often has in the press, and more full of the merriment and energy that underlie all that polishing, 30 to 40 revisions per jewel before they are mounted in their settings. I note, too, that Kooser's "poet laureate project," the newspaper columns called "American Life in Poetry," are still emerging on a weekly schedule. He's up to number 151. Here's the web site to look at the arvhive: It's a jewel box, a chocolate box, a Valentine that lasts.

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