On November 9 former Poet Laureate (US) Ted Kooser read to a full house at Windward Community College’s Paliku Theatre in Kaneohe, Hawai`i. Despite an earlier reading on the 6th at UH Manoa, the college still had to provide room in an adjacent classroom for latecomers to view the reading via video link.
Kooser’s verse is in many ways “everyman’s” poetry, and no less powerful for it; the event reflected this accessibility, from audience to organizers. But a belabored introduction, spoken slowly and deliberately as if it were also a performance, would have confirmed any poetry skeptic’s assumptions about such events, down to the audience being asked to contemplate What is poetry? on a worksheet but as if it were an avant-garde inquiry for an audience there presumably because they know what it is to them, and being cautioned about the death of poetry in schools since Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation, pronounced with dramatic pause and punctuated by gasps from an over-gracious audience. It’s not the message but the delivery that transformed the venue into a yellowing kitchen where a group of grandmothers sat clucking over their knitting, instead of into a space of authentic communication bent on addressing issues and sparking action and change.
Reading from a podium, amidst a comical forest of palms, it appeared as if Kooser were peering out from the forest to speak. The stage had been “decorated” with fourteen palm and one money tree, still in black plastic pots with price stickers on them. Again, it wasn’t the foliage that was offensive, but their overzealous arrangement.
Though he claims to be shy, throughout the reading Kooser lapped up the spotlight, reading confidently and chatting folksily, providing anecdotes in between vocalizations of poetry and prose, mainly about rural life in Nebraska. The adoring audience laughed copiously, and at the end asked many questions, including the perhaps obligatory “Does being in Hawai`i inspire you to write about it?” (the answer, in short, was not really).
Afterward he agreed to sign copies of his books for purchase. It is there that the folksy approachability evinced on stage disappeared in favor of a business-like Kooser bent on the dutiful signing he had promised—no chatting or connection to his readers would get in the way. The “everyman” poet of the people, for the rest of the night, was hermetically sealed.