A Look at “Selecting a Reader” by Ted Kooser

This week’s poem comes from Ted Kooser, one of my favorite poets.  Hailing from Nebraska, Kooser’s poems are often marked by a midwestern frugality and simplicity.  His poems are unpretentious, yet reveal the vision of a man who has marveled at many things.  In a minute I’ll tell you how to get a free copy of Kooser’s poetry.

Kooser’s poetry is incredibly important to me.  When I came across Kooser’s book Flying at Night, my wife was expecting our first child, we were buying our first house, and my career was starting to take off.  I had a lot on my plate, and was feeling pretty anxious about the weight of all these changes.  But then I read Kooser’s book.  His quiet, bright praise of simple things transformed my anxiety into sheer joy:  his poems showed me that the life I had chosen was indeed a good one, and was only going to get better.

The very first Kooser poem I read was “Selecting a Reader”, which is also the first poem in Flying at Night.  As the title suggests, the poem describes Kooser’s ideal reader, but it also hints at his whole reason for writing poetry.  Or better yet, watch the movie above to hear Kooser’s own voice.

Selecting a Reader

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.

from Flying at Night

Meeting the Reader

On the first reading, this poem seems contradictory:  the poet’s ideal reader is someone who barely reads his poems?  But, like most poems, the meaning is in the details.  Though this reader doesn’t really read Kooser’s book, his poetry still has the desired effect on her.  Let’s take a closer look.

It is of first importance, Kooser states, that the reader be a beautiful woman–beautiful and perhaps lonely.  Nothing in the poem indicates that she is lonely, but during the “loneliest moment of the afternoon” she has nothing better to do than wash her hair and browse the poetry section.  The woman is beautiful, but her raincoat is not, because she hasn’t wanted to spend the money to get it clean.

One day she walks into the store and picks up Kooser’s book.  She “thumbs over” it, considers buying it, but replaces it and gets her coat cleaned instead.  Then the poem is over, and Kooser is none the richer.  The woman, however, has a clean coat, which accentuates her beauty and perhaps ends her loneliness.

Learning to See

What’s going on here?  Why is this Kooser’s ideal reader?  Consider this simple detail:  the fact that the woman wears glasses indicates that she needs help seeing clearly.  This detail is certainly literal, but also metaphorical.  As she reads Kooser’s poems, they help her to see the beauty of simple things–things like clean raincoats, perhaps.  Though the lady is beautiful, she doesn’t give much attention to these everyday details.  In short, she needs help seeing the beauty in the world, which is exactly what Kooser’s poems are trying to do for every reader.

This is Kooser’s ideal reader because after reading his poetry, she adds beauty to the world.  The poems gave her a lens to see the world more clearly, more beautifully.  They help her see that getting her coat cleaned wouldn’t be a waste of money, but an act of beauty.  She now sees small things like her raincoat with greater attention and care–which is perhaps the most essential purpose of poetry.

Book Giveaway

Because Kooser’s poetry is so important to me, I want to give away a copy of Flying at Night to one of my readers.  In order get this free copy, you need to do the following:

  1. Leave a comment below.  Tell me why you’d like to read this book.  Be creative and honest.  I’ll select the recipient of this book based on these comments.
  2. Twitter a link to this post.  You can do this automatically by clicking here.  If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can use Facebook.

Next Friday (Nov. 2) I’ll select the winner of Flying at Night based on my arbitrary and subjective evaluation of the comments submitted.  I’ll announce the winner in next Friday’s poetry post and contact the winner via the email used in the comment section.

After you’ve posted your comment, be sure to check out Ted Kooser’s web page.  It includes some of his poems, as well as more audio and video of him reading his own work.

Question:  Why do you want to read Flying at Night?  If I give you a copy, do you promise to read it?