Ted Kooser was Poet Laureate of The United States from 2004-2006. He is a professor of English at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, although for years he worked as an executive in the insurance industry (because even the best poets must have day jobs). He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winner and has published many collections of poetry. And with The Poetry Home Repair Manual he wrote one of the most approachable, practical, and joyful books on writing poetry that I’ve yet run across.
A friend of mine recommended this book to me a while back when I started writing poetry, and I was intrigued by the title right away. Who writes a book for beginning poets and styles the name as a home repair manual? Well, only a few pages in, I got it. The book is a repair manual. In it, Kooser will not teach you the basics of verse, rhyme, or rhythm. He does not lecture about forms. Of course, this is all ground that he covers, and he covers it well. But it’s not academic or theoretical. Instead he approaches poetry as he would a broken lawnmower or dishwasher. He helps the reader see what’s wrong, and then instructs you how to fix it by demonstrating how the thing is supposed to work. This unusual title is actually perfect for this book.
The book is a casual read, but more than that it’s a joyful read. Kooser is not only a good teacher, he is a great curator. He uses wonderful poems (more from other poets than his own, by my estimation) to illustrate his points. And some of the gems I discovered in this slim little book made this book worth it on their own. One great example is this poem by Frank Steele:
If you are interested in writing poetry—or just understanding it—this is a great place to start. As I am writing this review it’s hard for me to think of anything I didn’t like. The chapters are a good length, the whole book is not too long—which has encouraged me to re-read it—and the tone is perfect. If I was pressed to find something that another reader may not like, I would mention that Kooser’s advice lends itself well to his own particular style and voice. If you want to write poetry that is not about everyday life, earthy, and utterly human, maybe (maybe?) you wouldn’t find it useful. But honestly, I’d only make that observation if pressed. The truth is this book is a great place for a poet to start. It will help you find your voice, understand who you are, and write poems that are yours. And really, what more can you want from a book with the subtitle, “Practical Advice for Beginning Poets”?
I highly recommend this book. Honestly, if you are serious about your writing in any form or genre, I’d suggest that you pick it up. This book can help any writer connect with their readers and write with more power and feeling. And that’s a great thing for writers of all stripes.