The Wheeling Year: A Poet's Field Book

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Ted Kooser sees a writer?s workbooks as the stepping-stones on which a poet makes his way across the stream of experience toward a poem. Because those wobbly stones are only inches above the quotidian rush, what?s jotted there has an immediacy that is intimate and close to life.

Kooser, winner of the Pultizer Prize and a former U.S. poet laureate, has filled scores of workbooks. The Wheeling Year offers a sequence of contemplative prose ...

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Ted Kooser sees a writer’s workbooks as the stepping-stones on which a poet makes his way across the stream of experience toward a poem. Because those wobbly stones are only inches above the quotidian rush, what’s jotted there has an immediacy that is intimate and close to life.

Kooser, winner of the Pultizer Prize and a former U.S. poet laureate, has filled scores of workbooks. The Wheeling Year offers a sequence of contemplative prose observations about nature, place, and time arranged according to the calendar year.

Written by one of America’s most beloved poets, this book is published in the year in which Kooser turns seventy-five, with sixty years of workbooks stretching behind him.


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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

For six decades of his seventy-five years, poet Ted Kooser has been carried around a sketchbook in which prose, poetry, and watercolors intermingle. For the Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate, this is not habit, it's a commitment. "Don't ever be without one of these," he told an audience. "You never know when something will come to you or you will see something that you need to capture—a word, a phrase or a story idea." In The Wheeling Year, he captures them adroitly, proving anew that you don't have to move to a big city to become a major poet. A small town in Nebraska serves just as well. Editor's recommendation.

Schuyler Sun - Michael Rea

"Kooser is a shining example of Nebraska as the "Good Life.""—Michael Rea, Schuyler Sun
Praise for Ted Kooser's work

Praise for Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps

“Kooser is a poet by nature, and his essays have the generous feel of a man who’s rolled up his sleeves, pen in hand, for a long time, choosing words as an act of beauty, and knowing the small things of the world are of great import.”—Bloomsbury Review

“A quietly eloquent diary of a year in a small town in Nebraska. . . . This is a heartfelt plainspoken book about slowing down and appreciating the world around you.”—Janet Maslin on CBS News Sunday Morning

“Clear, generous, and imaginative, Local Wonders increases the sum of the world’s best goods.”—Patrice Koelsch, Speakeasy

“Through his eyes we learn to see, then appreciate, the beauty and grace in everyday miracles, the comfort and sanctity in local wonders.”—Booklist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803249707
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2014
  • Pages: 96
  • Sales rank: 154,156
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and former U.S. poet laureate, is Presidential Professor of the University of Nebraska. He is the author of twelve books of poetry, including The Blizzard Voices (Nebraska, 2006) and Valentines (Nebraska, 2008) and several books of prose, including The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, and Lights on a Ground of Darkness: An Evocation of a Place and Time, all available in Bison Books editions.

Good To Know

Kooser revealed some interesting facts about himself in our interview:

"I wanted to be a writer from the time I was a young man, but realized that I'd have to make a living somehow. I tried high school teaching but was incapable of maintaining discipline in the classroom and the students ran right over me. In 1964, after being tossed out of graduate school because I was a completely undisciplined scholar, I went to work at an "entry level" job in a life insurance company and over twenty five years was gradually elevated to a vice presidency.

During those years I wrote every morning from 5:30 till about 7:00. I never saw myself as an insurance executive, but rather as a writer in need of a paying job."

"I love living in rural America, away from the noise and clamor of the city, and I am completely content to go all week without speaking to anyone but my wife and my dog. My wife, Kathleen Rutledge, is the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, the daily newspaper in Lincoln, Nebraska, and she helps keep me up on the news. I rarely leave home unless I can't find a good excuse not to go.

I write and paint and do chores around the farm, and am immensely thankful for every new day."

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    1. Hometown:
      Garland, Nebraska
    1. Date of Birth:
    2. Place of Birth:
      Ames, Iowa
    1. Education:
      B.S., Iowa State University, 1962; M.A., University of Nebraska, 1968

Read an Excerpt

The Wheeling Year

A Poet's Field Book

By Ted Kooser


Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-5674-3



It's New Year's Day, and the future backs up, beeping with cheer, and closes its iron maw on the past. And then, with its massive hydraulics, it crushes the last year, mushing all the days together. Then it lumbers away, groaning and leaking, the scraps of the good times flapping farewell from the edges.

* * *

That flat snap of a stick match popping to flame on a cast iron stove lid, the first sound of the morning, and then the whoosh of the draft in the pipe, well, that's one of the most important noises of the past two hundred years, more so than the sweet peal of any victory bell, or the words of the greatest leader, and when you are lying in bed in the predawn darkness, fearing the future, that's the sound I recommend you listen for.

* * *

But why must I put on this old body day after day, sitting on the side of the bed, pulling on one leg and then the other, tucking the cuffs into my feet, pulling the top over my skull and then trying to smooth out the wrinkles? I'm an old fellow now, have paid off the mortgage and have a little money in the bank. I ought to be able to treat myself to a new body every few years, getting a tax receipt when I turn in the old one at the second-hand store.

* * *

Part of my morning ritual is to put on my shoes without sitting down, and by this demonstrating to myself that I am not so old as to topple over into a steaming heap when trying to balance on one leg. I even tie them that way, shoe in the air, wobbling on one leg and then the other, making a point of it.

* * *

Such pleasure there is in the simple, though, such as fitting the ball of my thumb into the bowl of a spoon, and the smooth bowl warming to my touch. Can it be that I have discovered that the first spoon was formed by a thumb? And to hold it like this, with the bowl between finger and thumb, its handle trembling just a little in my fingers, standing in my flannel nightshirt the first thing in the morning, how lovely it is.

* * *

If there's some one thing to live for, how can we choose just one among so many? Take, for example, this ordinary kitchen chair, nineteen pieces of wood, fifteen of them—the spindles and legs—turned on a lathe, the seat sawn from a plank and shaped with a scraper, some of the pieces drilled, all of them sanded, fitted together, adjusted, clamped, and glued, a good week's work for someone fifty years ago, the dust of that workshop long since settled onto the cobwebs, the cobwebs swept away, the broom worn down and gone. Five bucks at a yard sale. Any god would be happy to be given just one good chair like this, upon which the light of hundreds of mornings has rested like grace itself, but how long has it stood there next to the kitchen table, turning first one way and then another, waiting for someone to take a moment's notice?

* * *

One of my mother's Moser uncles had raised, from a seed, in a copper laundry boiler, a little lemon tree that as it had grown had twisted this way and that, trying to escape those bone-cold Iowa winters, though it stood in the warmest spot, a parlor window to the south, and was now and then turned so each little leaf got a taste of the sun.

Each summer it bore a handful of rock-hard, acorn-sized lemons, and her aunt would make one pie, lathered with sweet meringue to overpower that poor tree's sour reluctance, and all the relatives would be invited to their house to taste a little slice of miracle.

* * *

And, hey, now comes another day, towed by a pickup with yellow caution lights and a big WIDE LOAD banner on its bumper, a vague shape lumbering forward, wrapped in plastic. Perhaps it's only a morning on its way to where an afternoon can be rolled up by its side and bolted on. Who knows how many pieces of this life are up ahead crowding the road? Watch out. Pull over a little.

* * *

Everywhere at this moment women are cupping their hands the way this teenage girl at the bus stop cups hers, striking a match to light a cigarette as if dipping a portion of light from the wind, then swiftly lifting the glow to her lips though it leaks through her stubby fingers and wets her sharp chin. She tastes it, she swishes it around in her mouth, she rinses her teeth with the smoke. And she closes her eyes just as those other women are closing theirs and draws the red light into her breast and holds it there, burning with pleasure, while with one hand, which in her mind is now tapered, lovely and sophisticated, she shakes the last drop of fire from the end of the match.

* * *

How many moons have I been too busy to notice? Full moons, half moons, quarter moons facing those thousands of suns, watching them bringing the years up, one piece at a time. Even the dark phases of moon after moon, gray stoppers plugged into a starry sky, letting a little light leak out around the edges. By my reckoning, almost a thousand full moons have passed above me now, and I have been too busy and self-absorbed to be thankful for more than a few, though month after month they have patiently laid out my shadow, that velvety cloak that in the moonlit evenings waits for me.

* * *

As, in the dented spaceship of my seventies (shaking a little and leaking water), I travel the endless reaches of my ignorance, all of the books I haven't read, and never will, come rolling at me out of the dark like a hail of asteroids. And now and then an entire library, with a glowing trail of checkout slips, just misses hitting me by inches. On board I carry what I know, a few thin volumes, mostly how-to books, survival guides, and, for my ancient ship, a manual of parts with no address to use in ordering. Oh, yes, and a handful of things I wrote myself, stuffed into the cracks around my window, open onto time.

* * *

Thrust through the frozen mud, these mussel shells at the edge of the lake look like the shoulders of men on some workaday errand, wearing black overcoats with patches through which white lining shows.

Where were they going that day, hunched into the wind of water, when by mistake they turned a corner into the wrong street, not even given so much as a last look back?

Kick one loose and toe it over, and you'll see that the body is gone, having been lifted away, perhaps on snowy wings, leaving a shining, immaculate brightness.

* * *

The path through any night is narrow, like walking a shining rail, and the stars are a cold wind in your face. Stop anywhere and wait a moment, and you'll feel the universe slip past, a cloud of black leaves blown in the other direction.

* * *

A single starless winter night can seem to last a century or longer, and while we sleep, some great movement like Zoroastrianism—ponderous, foggy, but quick to catch on—may rise from conjecture, flourish, fall out of fashion, and pass. Wherever we look when we waken, we see the hoar frost, white, crystallized salts from the vast tide of its theses.

In awe and in utter ignorance we walk the cold, glittering path through the garden, finding a few leaves scattered before us, the curled shreds of mysterious scrolls. While we slept, each twig, each blade of grass was touched by an age we know nothing about. Stepping lightly, we pass beneath the ancient alabaster columns of trees that hold up nothing now but time.

* * *

Not every day of the new year's calendar is an empty box waiting for fortune to fill it. A few come seeded with promise, like "Partial Eclipse," but the rest of each month stands open, a sectioned paper carton like those for Christmas ornaments, now empty. In the old year's calendar, soon to be thrown away, a few splinters of glass lie in the carton's bottom (once bright ideas), and the rusting, bent hooks of old habits.

* * *

After many years, two old friends came visiting with gifts, small packages of stories wrapped in the crumpled tissue of age, purchased with tears in our distant past.

I wadded the wrapping and tossed it aside, then held each story to the light, a perfect miniature of something gone, and we laughed, and wept with laughter, the three of us together, as if no time had passed, no time at all.

And just when I remembered a wonderful story I wanted to tell, I looked around, and my friends were putting on the overcoats of age and stepping back into the past, and some of their stories were already misplaced amidst the busy clutter of the present.

* * *

And another of my friends has gone, a woman I loved, borne on a gurney into the past, trailing a comet's tail of tubes and instruments, all of us swept up in her orbit, then falling behind, tumbling through space, reaching for something to cling to, watching the past, a vast, glittering galaxy, drifting away.

* * *

In the long, low, ivory shafts of January light, a crow, alone on the melting ice of the river, follows its shadow, pecking at it, drinking it in.



Cold stove of 4:00 a.m., black iron, the lids in place on everyone but me, and down the chimney, through the damper's pinch, the distant hoo-hoo-hooing of an owl. And soon, among the sticks of kindling in the box of words, the mouselike scritching of my pen.

* * *

At times it seems I am in a slow revolving door, like those in airports, with spacious triangular chambers, and can turn and glance back through the heavy glass where the past is assembled, crowded with people, though I am alone in the present with almost too much air and all that's behind me sweeping me forward into the bright parking lot with its traffic and flags, my heart on its little black clattering rollers, one key in my pocket and thousands of vehicles all just alike, and I must find my own among them.

* * *

Maybe we carry too much through the door from the past, propped open with a broom that has swept up so much sentiment it has bent to the shape of its sweeping—like a stiff old floor-length skirt still waltzing—then across the wide porch where those we love, living and dead, sit rocking and talking, all drinking longnecks and laughing together, none of them offering help.

Then over the grass, box after box, to the rented U-Haul that is our life, already stuffed with all we haven't been able to part with, stale with dead dreams and packed so hastily we will never be able to get to the wisdom we lugged out early and loaded on first.

Twenty-nine dollars a day is the going rate, about what a person could live on if he had to, and the past is right there in the rearview mirror, following close, painted with slogans, its springs bent down from all we ever were.

* * *

A man pushes a hand through a coatsleeve, then squeezes the air and lets it go as if to assure himself the world feels no different out at the other end.

* * *

All winter, the trees have dipped sticky fingers into the wind, collecting particles of red and yellow floating there since last fall's leaf fall, then rolling these together into buds that blend these colors into orange, hard buds still slightly sticky from the making, and all this happens while we never notice.

* * *

Walking to work today, I came upon a maple leaf, or rather, a piece of red silk cleverly cut to resemble a maple leaf, something from an artificial bouquet, or perhaps from an artificial tree. It was skimming along on the ice in front of a barber shop, so light it scarcely touched the surface. Of course, I snatched it up and held its plastic stem to prevent it from flying on. Oh, it wanted to fly, all right, but its feeble struggles were no match for a man of a hundred and fifty pounds who has been finding things like this for many years. I've kept it here on my desk all day, sensing how far it has journeyed, this leaf like love itself, more light, more bright than it should ever be.

* * *

In the ditch by the road I found a crumpled letter almost as white as the snow that held it. It was the report of a paternity test, addressed to the father. The baby is a boy. This report had lain all winter in the hands of snow, slowly unfolding, opening to light and water, and the type had faded, but not quite enough.

The bed in the guest room of people I know is kept tightened and tucked, with bolstered pillows plumped and waiting, but this upstairs room gets little use, though this evening, for three or four hours, the winter coats of a dozen guests lay here as if on a raft borne up by waves of talk from below. Now the guests have gone into the glossy black fur of a starry night, the bedspread has been stroked and patted, and the room has returned to two dimensions as seen through the frame of the doorway, a photograph from Architectural Digest of the eternal and expectant present.

* * *

I drove my friend Stewart to the airport. He was going back to New York to die. He smiled and said, "Teddy, haven't we had a good time?" and I know he had. During his last half hour, I can imagine him hurrying in and out of a door, packing his battered Cadillac with what he wanted to keep from his sixty-one years, boxes with taped-up seams jammed full of those good times, a pillow case stuffed with successes, a jam jar of ideas for art, too good to let go, and a few Hawaiian shirts for sometime later. He left his big star paintings behind to light the empty room, then closed the door, turned up his collar, cranked the squealing V8 till it coughed and started, tuned in the radio to check on the weather for the rest of eternity, then snapped in his cassette of the last of the music.

* * *

At the end, though the soul may fly out, all of the shadows are drawn back into the body—shadows of young man and old, shadows that raced away over the grass. Even the casket handle leaves nothing behind but a cold white weight in the hand.

* * *

And six months later, into the void of that absence, like one of those metal containers they load on ships, we've packed the days that have survived you, friend, most of them ordinary as wadded up newspapers, or so it now seems, looking back. Yet you would have found much to amuse yourself among them, receiving each day with those old knotted hands and holding it before you like a gift.

* * *

The afterlife is probably what the geologists call a series of aftershocks—soft, fading tremors that follow months after a death, years after, making the hearts of those who survive swing just a little on the weakening ropes of their memories: the odd gait of a stranger that reminds us of someone we knew, a voice overheard in a crowd, the life left in an old coat at the back of a closet, and those who are gone who were good to us stay good, and are sweetly remembered, while those who were bad are punished and punished and punished as long as we live.

* * *

He presses his old face to the window and tries to find a friend's name among the shoals of others swimming by. Oh, he says, it'll come to me later, and it will, as the thousands of names that he knows bump up against the end of his life and flash and turn and bump against the beginning, back and forth, until the one he has been searching for finally passes close to his face, and catches the light, and he says the name aloud and smiles, as he stands with his bowl of oatmeal going cold, peering out through the kitchen window.

* * *

A drab brown duck turns upstream and effortlessly paddles against the chill current of time, the minutes smoothing her feathers and brightening them, her clear yellow eyes positioned to see to both sides, to forward and back. Just there she holds herself. Though I watch a long while, she never lets go.

* * *

This is an old woman's final illness, and the darkness that followed her seventy-nine years has slipped inside her now and has spread with cold fingers the blinds of her ribs.

It is not easy to see Death there waiting, sitting all day by the window, but at times a small shudder rattles the slats and shakes down the dust of a cough.

* * *

Don't talk to me about the stars, about how cold and indifferent they are, about the unimaginable distances. There are millions of stars within us that are just as far, and people like me sometimes burn up a whole life trying to reach them.



Early in March, in the shadow of the abandoned Assembly of God, there's a melting snowdrift shaped like a hand whose five thin fingers reach to soothe the grass on the neighboring lawn. Each day this white hand shrinks back farther into the empty sleeve of the church.

* * *

After the kitchen had been cleaned, swept, mopped, and wiped with a rag and the rag draped over the tap, all that remained was the odor of the pilot light, a tiny blue crocus of flame that when called upon would light up all four of the burners under tomorrow. But now that too is gone, along with all of those tomorrows, its fluttery light replaced by the snap of a spark, though some of us may one day find its fragrance on a morning breeze and with a little whoosh of light the past will open like a flower.

* * *

This ant trap, this white steel pillbox with gun ports open in all four directions is not likely to draw in these tiny soldiers. They mill about the plaza of the countertop, stopping each other to ask directions. They want to take something sweet to the fat queen they love, who lies sweaty and pale in her curtained room.

* * *

In the crabapple tree by the side porch, four nestling robins, a tiny barbershop quartet, leans shoulder to shoulder, not quite ready for concert, but practicing hard, their heads thrown back, breasts puffed, beaks wide as they shape the one pitch they've been trying to get right all morning, squeezing their eyes shut over the effort. They want so much to be heard, but they have sustained that one note so long that it has lifted right out of them and vanished into the flowery crabapple shadows, leaving them gaping in silence.


Excerpted from The Wheeling Year by Ted Kooser. Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 26, 2014


    I found Mr. Kooser's thoughts on life very interesting. Like his poems, he uses short, simple words to deliver complex musings on his daily life

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