I hope DH doesn't feel offended, but I found someone to make my heart go "pitty-pat" this Valentine's Day. It's Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser. (hat tip: Amelia) Some of you young male bloggers can pick up a few tips from this guy! Kooser admits that he started writing poetry as a young man with the goal of gaining female attention. In those years," he said, "I desperately needed some sort of a gimmick, for I was thin and pimply, my palms sweated, and my breath was sour from smoking the Chesterfields that despite the claims of magazine advertising had failed to make me irresistible. I got the idea that being a poet might make me attractive. It didn't occur to me for a long time that in order to earn the title of 'poet,' I ought to have written at least one poem. Being a poet was looking the part.
Oh, Mariachi Me
All my life I have wanted nothing so much
as the love of women. For them I have fashioned
the myth of myself, the singing troubador
with the flashing eyes. Always for them
my black sombrero with its swinging tassels,
this vest embroidered with hearts, these trousers
with silver studs down the seams. Oh, I am
Mariachi me, as I had intended. I am success
and the price of success, now old and dusty
at the edge of the dance floor, still smiling,
heavy with hope, clutching my dead guitar.
Ted Kooser, Valentine's Day 2006
He seems to have learned a lot since his early days! Now, he gives Valentine advice such as this: "Any kind of handwritten message to anyone else is a plus, even if it isn't a great work of art. Love letters are a wonderful gift, even when poorly written." BiV can only heartily agree. (Are you still reading, DH?) Kooser said men, in particular, fall back on the old standards: a dozen roses and a box of chocolates.
"That's OK, but my guess is a handwritten letter would convey a lot more. But I wouldn't want to deprive women of roses and chocolates." That Kooser understands the secret longings and fears women experience is obvious from this tidbit:
If you feel sorry for yourself
this Valentine's Day, think of
the dozens of little paper poppies
left in the box when the last
of the candy is gone, how they
must feel, dried out and brown
in their sad old heart-shaped box...
(Excerpt of Ted Kooser poem "If You Feel Sorry")
February 14th became a special day for this romantic soul, and in 1986, Kooser mailed one of his efforts, "Pocket Poem" to 50 female friends for Valentine's Day. Kooser continued the tradition (approved by his wife), and did it for the next 21 years. He spent time and money tenderly applying little red hearts to the cards, boxing them up and sending them to a different post office just so they could be postmarked from Valentine, Neb. Isn't that just too sweet for words?? Eventually, over 2,500 women received a yearly poem from the Nebraska poet.
If this comes creased and creased again and soiled
as if I'd opened it a thousand times
to see if what I'd written here was right,
it's all because I looked too long for you
to put it in your pocket. Midnight says
the little gifts of loneliness come wrapped
by nervous fingers. What I wanted this
to say was that I want to be so close
that when you find it, it is warm from me.
Ted Kooser, "Pocket Poem," Valentine's Day 1986
What I love most about Kooser's poems is that although he is a romantic, he appreciates depth and variety in women. The woman he describes in the poem "Selecting a Reader" is priceless, and she demonstrates that his definition of beauty is nuanced:
First, I would have her be beautiful,
and walking carefully up on my poetry
at the loneliest moment of an afternoon,
her hair still damp at the neck
from washing it. She should be wearing
a raincoat, an old one, dirty
from not having money enough for the cleaners.
She will take out her glasses, and there
in the bookstore, she will thumb
over my poems, then put the book back
up on its shelf. She will say to herself,
"For that kind of money, I can get
my raincoat cleaned." And she will.
Kooser's poems avoid over-sentimentality and often have unexpected twists. There's a dark, seductive, almost ravenous side to the poem "Barn Owl" that will give you the shivers...
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 bailing twine
I have hidden my valentine for you
A white heart woven of snowy feathers
In which wide eyes are welcome
Open to you as you climb the rickety ladder to my love
Behind those eyes lies a boudoir of intimate darkness, darling
The silks of oblivion
And set like a jewel dead center in the heart
Is a golden hook the size of a finger ring
To hold you always
Plumpest sweetheart mouse of mine.
(Here he is reading the poem aloud, in his adorable, self-deprecating manner: (KooserBarnOwl)
And yet, although Kooser has now passed the landmark of 60 years old, he retains the sweet shyness of youth, as evidenced in the poem, "Tracks:"
Using a cobbler’s shoe last
I found one summer at a yard sale,
and the heavy leather uppers
from cast-off boots, a jigsaw,
some wood, an awl and thread,
and a few evenings sitting alone
thinking of you, I have fashioned
a pair of red valentine shoes
with heart-shaped wooden heels.
Look for my tracks on your doorstep
where I stood with sore feet
through the evening, too timid to knock.
Kooser's Valentine postcards are now available to all in the form of his newly published book, "Valentines." A review describes it thus, "Kooser's valentine poems encompass all the facets of the holiday: the traditional hearts and candy, the brilliance and purity of love, the quiet beauty of friendship, and the bittersweetness of longing." I just can't get enough of these love poems. Will you read just one more?
Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer’s retina
as he stood on the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.
So, guys, if you haven't already bought a diamond bracelet or box of chocolates, hie thyself to the nearest bookstore and pick up a copy of Kooser's book. Write your own ditty, be it ever so humble, and tuck it among the pages, where it will be cherished in years to come. And in the best of Kooser tradition, get an extra copy and send it to that older lady you home teach.