The Wheeling Year is a bit different for Ted Kooser. The University of Nebraska Press classifies the book as “memoir/creative nonfiction,” but it reads and feels like a collection of prose poems.
Kooser’s poetry is in some ways similar to the poems of the ancient Chinese. At first glance, he appears to present a straightforward description of every scenes and experiences. Upon closer examination it’s clear there’s a lot going on beyond mere description. It all begins with close observation that Kooser values so highly. As he notes, “it is all around us, free, this wonderful life. . .each hour is a gift to those who take it up.”
An important reason for the poetic feeling to these pieces lies in Kooser’s extensive and effective use of metaphor. In one poem the rain is “a woman with thin old hands” that she uses to rearrange the leaves, until they are positioned in a way that pleases her. In another, sunflowers in a field become troops in their uniforms, “little more than a few mildewed tatters of khaki and brown” in front of their “cold gray barracks of late autumn dawn.” A catalog of his grandmother’s kitchen items is compared to a birder’s life list of items such as her iron skillet with its low scrape of song, and the chirping percolator (but not the Cuisinart or Salad Shooter). In his characteristic manner, Kooser conveys the basic information and his points get made, but always in a highly poetic way.
In the preface, Kooser likens the book to the field books of a landscape painter friend who uses them for sketches and observations of daily life. There is a journal-like feel to The Wheeling Year, with the entries presented in chapters named for the months of the year. It’s worth noting that, like his publisher, Kooser does not claim to have written a collection of prose poems. On the other hand, the pieces are too polished to be casual observations noted down in the field, even for a poet laureate with Kooser’s considerable talent.
The U of N Press kindly provides a sampling.