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The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser

In the last three years, I’ve had a lot of interaction with poets from around the world. In these interactions, there often has been discussion of what is and isn’t poetry. About a previous publication, which was a political Website of poetry, I received a number of complaints from poets who said, “There’s no poetry on your site. It has no voice, no metaphor, no etc.” One of my counter-arguments was that poetry and the other arts are first and foremost media of communication, and while lacking artistry, the poets on that site communicated well. Artists more often call communication “expression,” but for whom is the expression intended? You can measure the beauty and technique of a poem by counting poetic devices, listening to the sonic qualities of the poem, or analyzing meter, but you measure effectiveness by how well it communicates to an audience.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic to see that our current Poet Laureate agrees with me. By page two of his new book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser is advocating “for poems that can be read and understood without professional interpretation.” This beginning alone inspires me to suggest that beginning poets read his book. It is not only artsy poets who so often violate the rules of communications, but also inexperienced poets. How many times have we all read a poem and asked, “But what does it mean?”

Mr. Kooser gives us more than that one bit of wisdom. His book is subtitled “Practical Advice for Beginning Poets,” and it lives up to that sobriquet well. Not only is it chock full of good advice, but he also practices in his prose what he preaches for in poetry. The book communicates. It is obvious that he had an audience in mind, and the voice of his writing sounds like an uncle advising his favorite niece or nephew. It is injected with humor and memorable images. His anecdotes become shorthand for common poetic problems.

One of these anecdotes is about when he was a young child and went on a tourist ride in a glass-bottomed boat. He was absorbed by the view beneath the boat until a lady dropped her sunglasses onto the glass. It brought him back to reality where he was a bored, little boy on a hot day. He uses this as a metaphor for poets who do things that distract the reader. You want to have some obscure allusion to Greek mythology, such as writing a poem referring to Tithonus or Endymion? You can do it, but if the reader has to go look up these gentlemen, you’ve dropped your sunglasses in the boat. If you, as a poet, do something that loses the reader’s attention, you’ll probably never get it back because most people don’t have that much time or patience.

Mr. Kooser presents several memorable images in his book. For instance, you’ll never again see ham cubes of the sort used in homemade soup without thinking of poetry. Maybe you’ll think of your poetry as a guest in the home of your readers, as Mr. Kooser suggests. More than likely some of these images that he paints will stick in your mind and give you ways to explain the difference between good and bad poetry. They’ll also be there as you write and edit your poems.

The Poetry Home Repair Manual is a treasure of advice for poets, both beginning and experienced. I’ve written poetry almost thirty years and studied it intensively for the last five. I’ve read dozens of books on writing, many specifically on writing poetry. I’ve interviewed poets and songwriters for a book I am writing. Yet, for all my experience and study, I found new things to learn in Ted Kooser’s book and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Out of all the books I’ve read on writing poetry, The Poetry Home Repair Manual is the most enjoyable and accessible. Mr. Kooser walks the talk of the good advice he dispenses. While I initially borrowed this book from a library, I decided I had to have a copy for my shelf of treasured books on writing and invested the money in buying a copy. And it is an investment. I know I’ll be re-reading this book and referring to it for years to come.

The Poetry Home Repair Manual, University of Nebraska Press, 2005. Available through link or through your favorite bookstore.

This was originally published in Poetry Renewal, a formalist poetry e-zine. The Gnostic Poet was senior editor and publisher of Poetry Renewal magazine. He can be reached for questions at thegnosticpoet@poetrybase.info.

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