I heard Ted Kooser read for the first time last month. He recently completed his term as U.S. Poet Laureate – succeeded by Kay Ryan.
Kooser calls himself a Great Plains poet. His poems are intimately connected to place. His voice sounds like actor Gary Sinese. One of the most intriguing readings I heard Kooser give at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival was a series of dramatic monologues in verse. The poems were from his 1986 book, “The Blizzard Voices.”
I just completed the rough draft of a novel in verse in multiple voices, so my ears were perked. Kooser had me hooked with lines like this:
We had been playing Fox-and-Geese
in the schoolyard, during
the afternoon recess,
when the blizzard bore down
out of the northwest, roaring
and whistling, loud as a train.
Each poem is titled “A Man’s Voice” or “A Woman’s Voice.” Each describes one person’s experience of the Great Blizzard of 1888. The storm came so suddenly over the Plains States, children were trapped in their schools, men and women got lost walking home from their barns. No one had time to prepare, stock up on food or bring in fuel. The voices are stark and straightforward, but the poems are filled with detail:
On the night
that the big storm struck, we burned
the floorboards from the side-porch
and some of the furniture
because we couldn’t reach the barn
In the book’s introduction, Kooser remembers being a child and listening to family member who lived through the storm. Later, he read “In All its Fury” by W.H. O’Gara and used it as a resource for his poems. There’s no prettying up the effects of this storm. People lose animals, limbs, their lives.
If you’re teaching a Plains book like “Little House on the Prairie” or “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” think about sharing a few of Kooser’s blizzard poems with students. The voices will open a window onto the hardships & community of Plains life. There has been at least one professional performance of “Blizzard Voices” – another great option for your classroom.
I couldn’t find any poems from “The Blizzard Voices” online, but here is a series of reviews: http://mockingbird.creighton.edu/NCW/kooscrit.htm#blizzard
The small volume takes less than an hour to read. You won’t forget these voices.