Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ted Kooser Admonishes Against Anecdotes in Road Trip

Road Trip: Conversations with Writers, edited by Shelly Clark and Marjorie Salser, is a an collection of interviews with distinguished Nebraska writers, including Ted Kooser. The book is worth reading for insights into writing well. Especially, this comment by Ted Kooser sticks with me:

One of the things that troubles me concerns anecdotes. We have always had anecdotes as part of our social intercourse, and it seems to me that the only refuge for the anecdote in literature has come to be the poem. I mean, you can use anecdotes in fiction but they are just an incremental part of it. The only place that an anecdote is legitimate is as a poem today, and as a result we have tens of thousands of poems that are merely anecdotes.
 I go to probably 50 poetry readings a year, and I can attest to the fact that many poems are simply personal stories—about scraping ice in winter, watching birds, overhearing conversations, road trip sights, confrontation with the neighbor’s dog or cat—that do not go beyond the moment with heightened language or other tugs on the strings of poetry’s lyre. Kooser goes on: “Simply to take an anecdote of how you helped your mother wash the car and to cut it up in lines and put it on a page is not enough for anybody” (229). Kooser articulates for me the new kind of poetry cliché. The poem's topic itself becomes a cliche, just a like a commonly used phrase--"Flatter than a pancake." This kind of poem begins implicitly, “Isn’t it interesting how I noticed __________?” This can be ended with a clincher, like a joke. Like a joke, it does not translate well to the page. Try reading a joke book, and then watch John Stewart suppress giggles as he delivers a line. Performance adds the sparkle to the words. A good lyric poem is rich and can be read and reread, with new light reflecting when seen from different angles (of time).
 I appreciate Kooser’s comments on two-dimensional storytelling. I apologize to the world for all the poems of this ilk I have written myself (about scraping ice in winter, birds, cats, etc.). I pledge to do better.
 I highly recommend this terrific book of good sense and wit, Road Trip, available online and through indie The Backwaters Press, publisher Greg Kosmicki ( ). Other authors in the book are: Jonis Agee, William Kloefkorn, Don Welch, Hilda Raz, Charles Fort, Barbara Schmitz, Ron Block, Eamonn Wall, Twyla Hansen, J.V. Brummels, and Brent Spencer. Each interview includes a picture of the author and representative selections from their work.