It’s a sickness of our country that we can’t get enough of politics, which is why, some two years before the next president is supposed to take office, there are already reporters in the Midwest, notebooks in hand, trying to handicap the Iowa primaries.
But this autumn, I’ve been thinking of another man in the Midwest, also with a notebook in hand, who’s been looking around to see what he can see.
His name is Ted Kooser, and blessedly, he offers no public opinions on the state of the major parties, the quality of potential White House contenders, the prospects for bipartisan budget deals.
His interest, instead, leans toward the smaller, quieter interludes of American life, beyond the noise of cable news, that just might be more important in the long run than who wins the next election.
For years, Kooser, a retired insurance executive, has been jotting down observations from his home in Nebraska, one state over from Iowa’s epicenter of presidential campaigns.
Some of the entries in Kooser’s notebook end up as poems good enough to attract praise from high places. From 2004 to 2006, he served as U.S. poet laureate, a largely honorary title meant to recognize those with a special genius for making words sing. Even a good poet isn’t going to achieve wide celebrity these days. Poetry’s not very popular anymore, in part because too many poems are indulgently obscure.
But I offer poems like the ones in Kooser’s new book, “Splitting An Order,” as an answer to those who don’t like poetry. Kooser’s poems are as seemingly plain as Midwestern speech, but much of their eloquence rests between the lines, in what they don’t say. In the book’s title poem, Kooser watches an old married couple dividing a sandwich they’ve ordered in a restaurant — a gesture that seems almost sacramental, affirming the intimacy they’ve grown over decades of matrimony.
It’s not the kind of thing a press caravan would cover, this man and his wife sharing roast beef. But these are the moments that outlive the news cycle — and they’re too often lost to us while we’re following the latest poll, the latest scandal, the latest soundbite from Capitol Hill.
Along with his recent collection of poems, Kooser has another new book, “The Wheeling Year,” that assembles some of his journal writings. Neither of the books will get much notice, since the national culture has pretty much decided that presidential races aside, nothing truly interesting ever happens in the Midwest.
It’s the same sort of condescension that reduces Louisiana to a playground of pirogues and alligators, ripe for reality shows and little else.
All the more reason, I think, to hold Kooser’s new books close to heart. There’s more redeeming reality in what he writes than anything you’ll see on TV.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.