The Poet’s Home Repair Manual – “Taking Poetry Out of the Tower”

February 26, 2015
Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser

How many things give you a choice. Buy a car because it offers less miles per gallon, what’s the choice? Live in a house that your parents’ would approve of, what’s the choice? Interpret a poem in a way that is beneficial to you because that is what a poem allows you to do—in fact that is the definition of a poem—now you have choice. Now you are free to be yourself.

So what if it isn’t the kind of magic teachers have presented to us with awe. To be free, to be yourself, is a magic being offered to us that is even better.

I remember once reading in a Colorado journal: “No one buys poetry, no one reads it, so you can do whatever you want.” Except everyone knows what a poem should be (It should be what the writer himself, or herself, would do—haven’t you ever belonged to a critique group?).

Everyone, that is, except Ted Kooser in The Poet’s Home Repair Manual.  He takes poetry out of the tower where college teachers have kept it captive.

He begins his book by saying: “Most of a poet’s education is self-education, and most of what you’ll learn you’ll teach yourself through reading and writing poems…. You’ll never make a living writing poems…. There’s no money in poetry because most of my neighbors, and most of yours, don’t have any use for it…. Part of the reason for our country’s lack of interest in poetry is that most of us learned in school that finding the meaning of a poem is way too much work…. I believe with all my heart that it’s a virtue to show our appreciation for readers by writing with kindness, generosity, and humility toward them….”

Kooser goes on to talk not only about readers, but also form, rhyme, prose, feelings, critique groups, metaphors and similes. But he does this in real terms, using great examples. This is a book for all people, not just would-be-poets and I guarantee you will read it again and again and again.

Meanwhile, here are what I believe are the eight stages of writing:

  1. EXPOSURE In the first stage we absorb the world and its experiences through our senses and intuition.
  2. REACTION In the second our unconscious dreams and fantasies put these in a form we can grasp and manipulate.
  3. INVESTMENT As we take ownership of the subject our empathy grows for the characters or people who are part of the story and we further invest our feelings in their conflict.
  4. REALIZATION Next we make this even more tangible as a short story, poem, article, play or book, giving it dramatic structure that heightens those emotions.
  5. VERIFICATION Fifth, we test its effectiveness on others through classes, readings, and critique groups—clarifying, refocusing, reinterpreting.
  6. REVISION In the sixth stage we incorporate that feedback into our project often mirroring a larger theme beyond the original scope.
  7. PUBLICATION We find an extended audience through being published or performing the piece.
  8. EXPANSION Encouraged by success we return to the initial stages and do more of the same at an even deeper level.

While choosing your words it is as if you were at a window looking out into the world. If the light that falls upon what lies beyond is very bright, you see the scene in vivid colors and there is only the faintest hint of your reflection in the glass. If the light beyond the window is faint, as at dusk, the speaker’s reflection  is much more prominent. The speaker notices both his or her reflection and the scene beyond. And if it has grown dark outside, dark enough to make a mirror of the window, the speaker, or presence sees very little other than his or her own reflection….

You happen to think of some object or event from the past, maybe the clock in your grandmother’s kitchen, and suddenly part of your memory opens like a little door and you can see all kinds of other details. The surface of memory is like one of those Advent calendars with lots of little flaps under which you can see things.

Writing a poem about that clock, you begin to see: blue willow-ware dishes in the cupboards; a gray spatterware calendar on the countertop, the faucet dripping into a rusty stain in the porcelain sink: you grandmother’s soapy red hands; the fragrance of cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven; the bull terrier, Ralph, gnawing on a prok chop bone in the doorway; an alutumn day outside the window and the warm highway wavering beyond, upon which an old red truck with one green door is passing. And beyond that, the picked corn fields reaching to the horizon.                         – The Poetry Home Repair Manual

One comment

  1. Very cool. Thank you for sharing.

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