I probably shouldn't care if Ted Kooser sneezes--easy pickings, right?--but I can't help my obsession with him. Probably because the things he says, which are no doubt received as folksy wisdom by many of those who read his crappy newspaper column, are unbelievably passive aggressive. I mean that, by the way. Here's his latest column, where he gives this little "kernel":
Though many of us were taught that poems have hidden meanings that must be discovered and pried out like the meat from walnuts, a poem is not a puzzle, but an experience.
Ok, read that again--what the fuck is he saying? I don't mean that in a flippant way. This sentence is borderline incomprehensible in terms of parallel structure. Are walnuts puzzles? Does the New York Times come with a little bag of walnuts to solve?
Let's go to the claim that he makes that a poem is an experience. Word aren't experiences. They can be experienced, but that's a wholly different question. Basic stuff, right?
Lastly--Kooser's on this weird anti-walnut vibe? Hey, last time I checked, people actually liked walnuts. Are walnuts little antichrists? So why is it such a big deal if people crack open walnuts. Right--that's "what we were taught". To look for "hidden meanings that might be discovered." Discovery, in this sense--in any sense--is extremely low on Mr. Kooser's totem pole.
All passive-aggressive, all the time. Here's what I guess bothers me about him so much--that his aesthetics and ethos fit so easily and blithely with this current administration. Kooser's views about poetry are profoundly radical in their fundamentalist supremacy of one aspect of poetry--fetishizing clarity over any other conceivable value-- in an ahistorical approach to language. For this approach of his to work, the only tactical option is to go beyond merely discrediting other possible avenues of poetic discovery, and to discredit discovery itself. And the keystone to this whole strategy is the "regular guy" schtick, which is smoke and mirrors in terms of a poetic persona. For his poems and taste to "work", he needs to assert the poetry as part of a faux-everyman experience. (Contrast this with Mark Nowak's Shut Up Shut Down)
Poets don't change anything in this realm; Kooser certainly won't--but in his post as laureate, he definitely has symbolic attachments to policies that seek to normalize radically conservative notions of freedom, the body, and language's ability to speak truth to power (in that it shouldn't).