By DONNA URSCHEL
Everyday things—droplets of rain, the chatter of secretaries, an artichoke, a leaky faucet —became the subjects of discovery and beauty as Kooser read poems about them before an overflowing crowd in early May. His lecture "Out of the Ordinary" marked the end of the Library's 2004-2005 literary season and his first term as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Kooser talked about writing poems and how he tries to find beauty in the commonplace, making the ordinary into something extraordinary.
"Ted's a wise and modest man," said Prosser Gifford, head of the Office of Scholarly Programs, when he introduced Kooser. "Perhaps dealing with medical risks in the insurance business for a number of years made him aware of human frailty and also gave him a deeper appreciation of the small gestures and memorable moments in everyday life that his poems celebrate."
Kooser started the lecture by comparing a teleidoscope and a poem. Both do similar things. When a teleidoscope, similar to a kaleidoscope, is focused on an object, a beautiful array of colors and textures appears.
"A teleidoscope's charm is that it can make the ordinary look extraordinary. We like that. We rejoice a little when someone shows us something special about our ordinary lives. That goes for poems, too," he said.
Kooser didn't always see the beauty in things. In the mid 1960s, he was a young man employed at Bankers Life Nebraska, a life insurance company. "Bankers Life seemed a stern, humdrum, conservative place," Kooser said, "and it was at that time I wrote the following poem: ‘They Had Torn Off My Face at the Office.'" Kooser read the poem and another one he wrote at the time, "A Death at the Office."
"Cold, hard poems," he said. "Bankers Life was that kind of place, or so it seemed to a poet still in his 20s, wondering how he had wound up behind a gray metal desk, wearing a necktie, answering letters about policy loans, beneficiaries and bounced premium checks."
Then one day, at the suggestion of a Bankers Life management consultant, the insurance company brought in Reinhold Marxhausen, a photographer, to cheer up the employees. "Marxhausen was a delightful man, playful yet serious about art and its happy effects," Kooser said. The photographer spent several weeks taking pictures, 35mm color slides, of the workplace, capturing "the way light refracted from the chrome of a doorknob, the flowing shadows in curtained windows, and so on."
When he was finished, Marxhausen appeared before an assembly of employees in the cafeteria and showed the slides. "He showed us what was all around us, but what we had never stopped to notice," Kooser said.
"His slides were beautiful, rich with color and mass and texture. Who would have thought, for example, that the arc of water in a common drinking fountain could be so beautiful? We left our gray metal folding chairs feeling altogether happy and refreshed, as if sprinkled by a hose on a summer day. And we were a little in awe, looking about us to see what kinds of beauty we, too, might find right under our noses. What had we been missing every day?"
The slide show was a life-changing event for Kooser. He, too, started to pay attention to the details, "to the beauties and pleasures of the ordinary." Kooser read two poems that demonstrated the change: "At the Office Early" describes how he sees in raindrops the upside down reflections of a nearby bank—
"… a thousand banks
turned over, the change
crashing out of the drawers
and bouncing upstairs
to the roof, the soft
percussion of ferns
dropping out of their pots,
the ball-point pens
popping out of their sockets
in a fluffy snow
of deposit slips …"
The second poem was "Four Secretaries," which describes the supportive relationships among four young women. Kooser said he liked these poems much better than ones about the coldness of office life.
He also read a one-line poem by Joseph Hutchison called "Artichoke":
"O heart weighed down by so many wings."
Kooser asked "With that poem in your head, could you ever see a bin full of artichokes in quite the same way?"
He read poems about potatoes and one about a spiral notebook, all about making the ordinary into the extraordinary.
About 10 years ago, Kooser was asked to write a poem to accompany a painting for an art book, which was never published. (Kooser later used a picture of that George Ault painting on the cover of "Delights & Shadows.") The poem that Kooser proposed was:
"If you can awaken
inside the familiar
and discover it strange,
you need never leave home."
"This four-line poem is a kind of credo for me," Kooser told the audience. "In short, we have beauty all about us, if we take the time to pay attention to it. Reinhold Marxhausen knew about paying attention; George Ault knew it. Pablo Neruda wrote dozens of remarkable poems about common things. Thousands of poets and painters have learned to pay attention like this. We honor the ordinary by giving it our attention. We enshrine the ordinary in our art. Is there anything really ordinary, I wonder."
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.