Although The Poetry Home Repair Manual by former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser is a "how to" for poetry, Kooser writes more as a guide, directing poets down the right path. As you read, it seems that his hand is on your shoulder, encouraging you to set aside your experiences, and suggesting to you what to change in order for your poem to become more powerful and memorable. The manual is bursting with many of his tools and insights. It includes the instructions (and warnings against instructions) that poets—aspiring or practicing—can use to perfect their craft. He cites over 90 other books and also displays his own poetry for helpful examples. The writing is so accessible it’s hard to stop reading and makes you want to immerse yourself into the poetic world and never leave.
The sub-heading for this work is "Practical Advice for Beginning Poets,” but this book can be a guide for anyone intrigued by the art of poetry. Any level poet can refer to this book for inspiration as it is memorable and informative. It also allows a poet to reflect upon their own work, illuminating what they have been doing well and supporting change in other areas. It may spark a renewed interest in writing poetry for some as well.
Ted Kooser begins the journey into the poetry world by telling poets their roles. He says truthfully that poetry alone cannot be a career, because there is not much money in writing. However, a poet’s job as a writer and the personal reward are far more satisfying. A poet's work should be shared with others in order to display his or her creativity. Although Kooser relates that poems cannot “pay the electric bill,” he does say it is “a way of living.”
He begins to guide writers immediately in the first chapter. His first advice is to read other’s poetry each time for inspiration, because we are more likely to write similar to the poems we love. This also keeps the writer motivated and teaches them new techniques and styles in order to form their own ideas. The second advice regards how to come up with the ideas. Ted Kooser suggests that the writer take a blank piece of paper and a pencil, then ponder for a few moments. After a while, something interesting just might come. In another area of this chapter he says, “The best poetry doesn’t come from ideas at all, but instead from little glimpses of life and catchy twists of language.” Ideas for poems can come from what a writer sees happening in their own neighborhood.
In chapter three of the manual, Kooser broadly discusses how important it is to revise poems, come up with creative opening lines, and create titles that catch the reader's attention. Kooser states that “Titles are very important tools for delivering information and setting expectations.” Revision of poems is another aspect that Kooser discusses. Revising may take hours, days, or even weeks before the poem is finished. This is simply another step in making your poem the best it can be. Kooser believes that first impressions to a reader are what truly matters. The opening line will draw the reader in or turn them away.
Another useful tip he gives is in the fourth chapter, as he tells the reader not to be concerned about the rules. The rules that Kooser is referring to are the many poetic forms such as iambic pentameter, couplets, sonnets, etc. He wants poets to understand that a magnificent poem comes from personal experiences, and this allows the freedom to choose and form your own. For example, there may be two authors who write in a sonnet form, but they both incorporate their own style so that the reader can distinguish who wrote it. While finding your style, Kooser urges poets to focus less on the rules because there is no right or wrong way to write a poem.
In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser also warns poets about adding too much emotion into a poem. For example, he says, “Each of us who writes must find a balance between restraint and expressions of feeling.” The point that he is trying to get across is that emotion can be great, but there needs to be a sense of restraint as well.
Ted Kooser dedicates the fifth chapter to rhyming, fixed forms, and prose poems. Rhyming is a major component of a style, and if a person is into it, he says to simply let it flow. Rhyming is a bit tricky at first because there needs to be much familiarity with language. Another imperative aspect of this chapter is his explanation behind fixed forms. He talks about writing in fixed forms and how it requires a pattern of repetition. Playing around with words, rhyming, and the appearance of the poem are characteristics that can make a poem your own. Ted Kooser stresses one very crucial piece of advice in this chapter: the importance of writing from your soul. Again, he puts his hand on a poet’s shoulder and says, “I urge you to write from your soul no matter what form you choose because that’s what really matters. You want poems that connect with others.” When a poet writes from their soul, they will naturally find their style, and will also be able to connect with their readers.
Kooser goes further into the subject of creating ideas in the eighth chapter. He believes that our minds possess many experiences, people, places, and things that may evolve into poems. When a writer simply sits down and day dreams for about fifteen minutes, they may have enough subjects to keep them writing all afternoon. Topics are everywhere: in going to the park with a family member, riding a plane for the first time, or looking back on your first birthday party. We must dig deep for these memories, and Kooser gives us a beautiful simile for our memory. He writes, “The surface of memory is like one of those Advent calendars with lots of little flaps under which you can see things.” This is indeed great advice, but Kooser also gives poets a warning in this chapter regarding the events of our pasts. When a person writes down their memories, they will leave them as stories and not as poems. This will hinder the poem’s meaning and may even take away its magic. Kooser tells us, “Do more with your memories than just write them down and think they’re poems.” What he is saying is, make the memory new by altering the language of it and bring it to life. We as poets need to reach down inside us and drift back to those special places. He says, “We each have our country of memory always within us, always open to exploration, and we hold this for most of our lives.”
Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual is an amazing guide for any poet, no matter what level. It assists beginners by helping them find ideas and their own styles. Advanced poets can also use this book to refine their skills and even gain new ones. This wonderful book has been published by Bison Books and can be purchased for $13.95 at any bookstore.
By Kara Talen, Samantha Mikita, and Leah Niemchick