500 Columns and Counting: Celebrating Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry Project

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser. © Jeff Glennon.
Image available courtesy of Blue Flower Arts.

In the first-half of the 20th century, “newspaper poets” such as Edgar A. Guest and Anne Campbell published massively popular syndicated poetry columns that touched the lives of millions of readers. In succeeding decades the written poem, subject to a variety of cultural and technological changes, gradually faded from the pages of mainstream print media as it sought new homes in more specialized print publications and on the Web. By the time Ted Kooser was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate in 2004, it was a rare surprise indeed for most people to stumble across a poem–usually wedged unceremoniously into a few spare inches of column space–in a daily or weekly paper.

Ted Kooser decided to change that.

On April 7, 2005, Mr. Kooser, following in the footsteps of other recent Poets Laureate who had led national poetry initiatives during their terms, launched the American Life in Poetry project, a free weekly column offered to newspapers and online publications. Mr. Kooser did not end the project after his tenure in the “Catbird Seat;” he decided to continue offering a new column each week. His persistence has paid off. More than nine-and-a-half years after its first column appeared, American Life in Poetry will achieve a milestone of poetic longevity next Monday with the publication of its 500th column.

Each American Life in Poetry column consists of a short poem (approximately 20 lines or fewer) by a contemporary American poet, with a few introductory words from Mr. Kooser. He says he selects the poems, written by both established and lesser-known poets, “to show the people who read newspapers that poetry can be for them, can give them a chuckle or an insight.” Indeed, anyone who explores the column archive is sure to come across handfuls of poems that offer new ways of seeing or thinking about moments in their everyday lives. After reading the opening lines of Martin Walls’ “Cicadas at the End of Summer,” for instance, the cries of cicadas may never sound quite the same:

Whine as though a pine tree is bowing a broken violin,
As though a bandsaw cleaves a thousand thin sheets of
titanium;
They chime like freight wheels on a Norfolk Southern
slowing into town.
 
And those of us who have had an MRI may find ourselves nodding in agreement when Jackie Fox writes, in “MRI,” that it “thuds and clanks / like tennis shoes / in a dryer, only / I am the shoe. . . .”
 
By spotlighting poems that use crisp, clear images to offer glimpses into people’s everyday lives, American Life in Poetry appeals to people who might not have read a poem since high school–or ever read a poem. “How many Americans discover their first poem in a daily or weekly newspaper?” asks Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation. “Ted Kooser finds voices that otherwise would be lost to poetry.” The column likewise has been welcomed by many publications that might not otherwise devote much space or time to poetry. Newspapers that have published the column include Florida’s Tampa Bay Times; Omaha, Nebraska’s Sunday World-Herald; Syracuse, New York’s Post-Standard; Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman Review; Lincoln, Nebraska’s Lincoln Journal Star; Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s Argus Leader; and Champaign, Illinois’  News Gazette. As of this month, more than three dozen print newspapers, with a combined circulation of more than 1.2 million, feature the column in its pages. The column’s combined print and electronic circulation exceeds 2.2 million. And thanks to the column’s online availability, it has been read in at least 70 countries, including Indonesia, Uganda, Bangladesh, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Mexico, South Korea, India, the Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Canada, and most countries in Europe. The American Life in Poetry website states that “the sole mission of this project is to promote poetry.” Based on these figures, the project’s success–over the course of 500 columns and nearly a decade–is beyond question.
 
Credit for the ongoing success of American Life in Poetry should go to the Poetry Foundation, which provides the funding and supervision for the program; Patricia Emile, the column’s Assistant Editor; and of course to Ted Kooser himself. When it comes time to assess Mr. Kooser’s contributions to American literature, his weekly column should take pride of place alongside his own Pulitzer-prize winning poetry. After all, it’s through American Life in Poetry that Nebraska’s first Poet Laureate has staked a claim to bringing the joy of poetry to millions of readers on a regular basis.If you’re interested in receiving the weekly American Life in Poetry column through email, you can register online. And if you’d like to leave a comment for Ted Kooser, feel free to do so below and we’ll be sure to pass it along to him!

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