The Use of Metaphor in Ted Kooser’s Poetry
By Jeremy Caldwell
Synergy is not a word that Ted Kooser generally uses, but the word seems central to his writing and teaching. Incorporating metaphor into a poem is an integral part of creating connections within the world, and it is in some ways the foundation of Kooser’s poetry. In Aristotelian fashion, a good metaphor becomes greater than the sum of its parts when used properly, and the resulting effect can produce excitement and wonder for the reader.
Kooser’s use of metaphor has been widely acclaimed. Teacher and editor David Mason once wrote, “Kooser is one of the best makers of metaphor alive in the country, and for this alone he deserves honor.” For Kooser, figures of speech are not just ornaments one hangs haphazardly on a Christmas tree—they should be deployed carefully and deliberately to clarify a piece of writing. In terms of Kooser’s ornament/tree analogy, a metaphor would seem to encompass the whole tree, with all its ornaments, lights, branches, and even that awkward-looking dinosaur ornament that one made in elementary school. A metaphor is not something incorporated from the top-down; rather, it is a technique and a device that should be integrated into the very structure of a poem from the start in order to produce its greatest effect on a reader.
In “Etude,” for example, we immediately see the development of a physical scene: the poet is watching a blue heron, a bird common in Western and Central Nebraska during Spring and Fall along the fish-laden rivers, streams, and lakes. The image however is pushed into metaphor by the third line, which likens the heron’s signature stealthy, spear motion of catching fish to that “of a lover composing a letter.” From here, the poem develops from metaphor into sustained conceit. The progression of the poem establishes a correspondence between poet (as vehicle) and the blue heron (as tenor), with the result that the activities associated with each begin to merge. In the second stanza the blue plumage of the heron has turned into a suit, someone that “holds down an everyday job / in an office”; a scene familiar to Kooser from having worked in the insurance industry for many years. The comparison that the poem sets up may be between poet and heron, but it is the theme of “fishing” that carries the poem into the broader conceit. Much like a heron that fishes in the cattails, the lover writing the letter is searching for the right words, phrases, and metaphors to pen. This gradual blurring – or merging – of the lover/heron figure is marked by adjectives and other descriptors like “on the lip,” “trembles,” and “poised”. Both are finding the right moment to, “describe (to capture or, in this case, to spear, as the heron does) the scene before him, the meaning he makes, the experience he captures . . .” as Mary Stillwell writes about the poem.
In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Kooser writes, “to make such a comparison have its strongest effect, the poet must work only with those aspects of each half that find some kind of reflection in the other half.” The comparison may only incorporate one or two of the senses, but the important thing is a poet’s follow through in a process that extracts everything possible between the “real object” and the “imaginary one,” often called the vehicle. Take Kooser’s poem, “Telescope,” a six-stanza set of couplets, as an example. The opening lines set up the metaphor for the entire poem:
This is the pipe that pierces the dam
That holds back the universe,
The telescope is the actual physical object, while the dam and its associative imagery become the vehicle that helps carry the poem. The telescope looks like a pipe, which is an actual piece of equipment used in dams, while the dam—normally used to stop water—instead holds the universe in check within the telescope’s glass lens.
Each couplet that follows introduces new words associated with dams without losing track of the other side of the metaphor. The telescope relieves pressure, keeping the universe from “breaking through and washing us all down the valley.” The poem continues, using the “small tube” to expand on much larger concepts like time and space. As Kooser reminds us, a metaphorical poem should be one of control and balance; it should appear “transparent” to a reader. Part of this transparency lies in the poem’s ability to draw a reader’s emotional engagement without being explicit about it. The poem’s emotional charge is evoked subtly through imagery and adjectives so that the emotion is drawn out “naturally”. A poem like “Telescope,” evokes a sense of helplessness that readers internalize by the “weight” and “pressure” of looking at the universe through the “small tube.” Our infinitesimally small perception of the universe cannot see comprehend the depth and breadth of all it contains. There is a subtle shift, however, toward the end of the poem. The stars, the reader is told, are “always constant,” always within sight so we may sleep easy, “at least for now.” The universe becomes slightly more comforting—albeit not completely so, given the equivocal “at least for now”—in the face of the indescribable vastness of the universe. This sense of control and comfort, expressed not only in the poem itself, but also as a theme, highlights Kooser’s belief that metaphor brings together some semblance of universal order. In his essay, “Metaphor and Faith,” Kooser quotes Robert Frost to elaborate on the concept: “With so many ladders going up everywhere, there must be something for them to lean against.” In “Telescope,” against the backdrop of an unfolding, chaotic universe, the poet offers us something to hold on to momentarily.
Kooser tells his readers that incorporating metaphor in a poem is a lot like stepping through a mirror. When comparing two halves, each side should make logical sense. A simple exercise he teaches in his tutorial classes involves simply listing the similarities—that way one can visually see what will work and what will not in a poem. In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Kooser writes that an idea is a kind of plan that is akin to building an outline, and that “building a poem from a comparison is the discovery-in-process of a plan, or perhaps the playful pursuit of an idea.” In his poem “A Mouse in a Trap,” then, readers can envision for themselves how one can build these similarities into a workable table to draw from. On one side there are words describing the mouse and the environment in which one typically finds a mouse: cold gray . . . cellar floor, legs and tail, and the dead mouse itself. On the other side, one could list all the words for the vehicle, which in this case is the sea: tiny wood raft, sea, ship, ripple, and firm deck. From this catalogue of similarities and associations one has the basics for the foundation upon which to build their poem, to use a metaphor as something other than an ornament, and to create a poetic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts – to create synergy.
Kooser, Ted. “Metaphor and Faith.” Seminary Ridge Review, vol. 13, no. 2, Spring 2011, pp. 139-41.
—. “The Poetry Home Repair Manual”. Bison Books, 2005.
Mason, David. Review of Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, by Ted Kooser. Prairie Schooner, vol. 76, no. 3, Fall 2002, pp. 187-92. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40639484.
Stillwell, Mary. The Life & Poetry of Ted Kooser. Bison Books, 2013.