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On the enduring value of poet Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks May 16, 2020
Arts and Culture

If I had only a few books that I could read for the rest of my life, I would want one to be Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks. As the title suggests, the poems in this collection record the experience of one season in a year of Kooser’s life. For this poet, the season was literal as well as metaphorical, and it can be so for the reader, as well. While we are currently surrounded by the beauty of spring, we’re also in the middle of a kind of winter we have not experienced before.

Kooser, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for Delights and Shadows, is a wonderful poet. “Bank Fishing for Bluegills,” from that prizewinning collection, is the kind of poem that should be introduced to sixth-grade boys so that they don’t spend the remainder of their school lives closing the blinds whenever a teacher mentions the word “poetry.”

Kooser lives in Nebraska, and he wrote the poems in Winter Morning Walks while under treatment for skin cancer. His skin during this time was too sensitive for even the limited sun of a midwestern winter, so Kooser would rise early every morning in the dark to take a walk, coming home to record his observations.

Each observation became a poem, mailed on a postcard to his writing friend, the late Jim Harrison. Winter Morning Walks is a collection of 100 of these postcards, ordered by date and introduced by a description of the weather that day, which becomes the setting for each poem. December 28, Kooser tells us, is “windy and at the freezing point:”

These are days when the world

has a hard time keeping its clouds on,

and its grass in place

Most of Kooser’s walks are solitary, but on November 14, “My wife and I walk the cold road/in silence, asking for thirty more years.” The cancer is never far from Kooser’s mind, and he is not naïve about what might lie before him. He sees a rabbit ahead of him, stopping

at the edge of the sound of my footsteps,

Then runs ahead and stops again,

trembling in darkness

In his restrained manner, Kooser never complains about his disease, but death and decay surround him. “The sky hangs thin and wet on its clothesline,” he observes in one poem, and, in another, noting how “the wreck of an old barn lists to one side.” He wakes one morning to see “nothing” watching from the foot of the bed; on another, he is “wrapped in fear.” When first diagnosed with cancer, Kooser thought that he might die before his dogs, but soon he realizes that he is wrong. His beloved Hattie “is losing the trail/at the end of her fourteenth year.”

Kooser’s poetry is memorable for its imagery and cadence, for its ability to be profound without ever seeming pretentious. I find myself coming back to Winter Morning Walks for other reasons, though. These poems reveal the direct connection between the poet’s soul and his powers of observation. In early December, for example, he finds himself “Walking in darkness, in awe/beneath a billion indifferent stars.” A few days later, he notices that a hunter, “shooting out of season,” has

subtracted a good sized deer

from these woods when nobody else

was around but six inches of snow

to take account of it

Winter Morning Walks was published nearly 20 years ago, and Kooser is still with us. We begin to sense a happy ending to his story as the poet encounters spring. In March, he sees “the season’s first bluebird/this morning, one month ahead/of its scheduled arrival,” and not long after notes how “the sun stood/right at the end of the road/and waited for me.”

Winter Morning Walks is a testament to the human spirit, not just to the artistic spirit—though there is plenty of that—and to the unconquerable will that wants as much life as it can get. On a sunny and clear February morning, Kooser stands hat in hand, pleading before his fate: “I’ll take whatever work you have.”

Photo: borchee/iStock

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