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Book Review


Review: Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005)

In reviewing this 163-page book, I expected to see poetry with part numbers – something like the Sears Manual to its LP-20 washing machine. Or a taxonomy of rhymes and rhythms. Happily, I was disappointed in both expectations

The new U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Ted Kooser dispels the idea of poetry as an elite medium. “A lot of the resistance to poetry can be blamed on poets,” he says, reminding me that a similar sentence could be constructed to blame low opera attendance on Wagner. Now this comparison is probably unfair, but is does have some traction.

But bear with me, if you will. Here’s a better quote: “A poem is the invited guest of its reader.” Now this can become controversial, because there are those that might feel the poet is in charge, regardess. Kooser would rather bring the reader into the equation.

It gets more interesting with this quotation: “Give those titles and openings a cost-benefit analysis: How much do you gain by using the beginning you’ve written, versus how much might it cost you by putting off the reader?” The economics of poetry. But Kooser isn’t all wrong.

Kooser gets into the idea of audience building and making poetry more readily understandable for readers, for example by using contemporary speech. “Don’t Worry about Rules” (the title of Chapter 4) is the order of the day.

Kooser also gives us important warnings, such as the avoidance of self-indulgence and sentimentality, which often forms a barrier between good and bad in this area of expression. (After all, many “Roses are red, violets are blue… “ poets feel that sentimentality and self-indulgence is the stuff of good poetry.)

Here a poet laureate gets down to earth and helps “the rest of us” learn how to apply our imagination in this unique form of expression. “Most of the poets I know are of average intelligence,” he says. “What makes them ‘different’ is that they love playing with language.” We can all be different that way, he seems to be saying, and the poetic profession is closed to none.

I recommend this “Home Repair Manual” for poets and students of poetry. There’s something there for all of us and it’s far better reading than that Sears Manual I was thinking about.

-- Bruce L. Cook

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