Born in Ames, Iowa, Kooser has lived all his life in the rural Mid-West. He studied at Iowa State University, earning his BS in 1962. By then he was writing poems and enrolled in the graduate writing programme at Nebraska University. However he was, in his own words, "a lousy graduate student" and flunked out after a year. In need of work, the young Kooser drifted into a management trainee job with a life insurance company. Like Wallace Stevens before him, Kooser stayed in the insurance business for most of his working life, though he's wryly observed that Stevens had far more time to write than he ever did. Be that as it may, he produced a steady stream of collections from 1969 onwards. In 1999 Kooser developed cancer and gave up his job and, for a while, his writing. His return to poetry came in the form of a correspondence with his friend and fellow writer, Jim Harrison, to whom Kooser sent a daily poem pasted on a postcard. The resulting collection, Winter Morning Walks:100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, was characteristically self-effacing, avoiding direct references to his illness, and subsuming his experience into metaphors about the countryside around him. By this point Kooser's reputation was growing, but it wasn't until the publication of his first book of prose, Local Wonders, in 2002 that he began to attract considerable national attention. A series of meditations on his Nebraskan home, Local Wonders won the Nebraska Book Award for non-fiction and the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award in Non-fiction. This began a period of remarkable success culminating in the invitation to be Poet Laureate in the same week he was awarded the Pulitzer. Kooser now teaches as a Visiting Professor in the English Department of the University of Nebraska. He still lives in Nebraska, on a small farm near the town of Garland.
Kooser's poetry is deceptive in its simplicity. Focusing on everyday objects - a jar of buttons, old painted china, a spider in the bath - Kooser carefully records the passing of things from this world. Deeply influenced by the spare beauty of his mid-west home, he is a rural poet but also an historical one, intent on recording a way of life that is disappearing. Family ancestors and what they bequeath are important subjects in poems like 'Depression Glass' and 'The China Painters'. He clearly admires the thrift and reticence of an older generation but his work avoids nostalgia through its clear-eyed insistence on the hardships these people faced. Poverty haunts poems like 'Depression Glass' and 'In the Basement of a Goodwill Store' while 'Late February' shows how tough the landscape can be, even for today's inhabitants. His focus on the Great Plains has sometimes led to Kooser being regarded as a regional poet, a classification that he rejects himself - rightly so as his poems address universal themes and experiences.
This is in line with Kooser's oft-stated desire to write accessible poems: "I would like to show average people with a high school education...that they can understand poems. They are not to be afraid or feel they are being tricked by them." The emphasis on clarity and honesty is borne out by the plainness of his language and the conversational register of much of his work. He uses metaphor sparingly but when he does the effect can be startling, as in 'A Letter in October' when he describes how the night "bridled the doe with a twist/ of wet leaves and led her away." His poems' moments of lyricism are like bulbs breaking through a crust of snow. Here for instance, he remembers his grandmother amidst the dishcloths of an ordinary kitchen, rising before him "In housedresses of mist/blue aprons of rain."
Kooser's reading style complements his work beautifully. His deep tones and the long-drawn out vowels of his mid-west accent take their time with the words. They encourage the reader to do the same, to slow down and appreciate things which might otherwise be overlooked, an aim which lies at the heart of his writing: "I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention."
His recording was made on 10 July 2007 in Lincoln, Nebraska.