16 pages 32 minutes read

Ted Kooser

Selecting a Reader

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1980

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Summary and Study Guide


The author of “Selecting a Reader” is former U.S. poet laureate, Ted Kooser, a prolific, award-winning poet from Ames, Iowa. A part of the Midwest Poetry Renaissance in the 1960s and 70s, Kooser’s writing tends to focus on details of life unique to the Midwest. Kooser's poetry employs a downhome diction that brings the people and places of the Midwest to life.

“Selecting a Reader” reflects Kooser's unpretentious, self-effacing, and humorous style. “Selecting a Reader” comes from his 1980 collection, Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. Kooser’s aversion to Modernism and to esoteric academic poetry informs the conversational and direct tone of “Selecting a Reader.” The poem is an accessible lyric poem that addresses themes of gender, economics, and stereotypes about poetry. “Selecting a Reader” is one of Kooser’s better-known poems, and he often recites it at poetry readings.

Poet Biography

Ted Kooser was born in Ames, Iowa, on April 25, 1939. Growing up, Kooser liked reading, writing, and cars. A member of the Nightcrawlers car club, Kooser and his friends used to race V-8 sedans and hotrods. Kooser wrote a poem about one particular drag race. A friend of his submitted the poem to a magazine called Dig. The periodical published the poem, so, at 16, Kooser published his first poem. “It was kind of a dumb poem, but it felt good, and I suppose I kept it up all these years because of little pleasures like that” (Kooser, Ted. ”Saving Faces: Art and Medicine.” University of Nebraska.), reflected Kooser during a 2006 talk at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

In the early 1960s, after graduating from Iowa State University, Kooser moved to Nebraska to attend the university in the state capitol of Lincoln. Kooser studied English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, eventually earning an MA in English. Kooser studied with the distinguished American poet Karl Shapiro and the University of Nebraska Press published his first poetry book, Official Entry Blank, in 1969.

To earn a stable income, Kooser accepted a job with an insurance company in Nebraska during the mid-1960s. Starting at an entry-level position, Kooser stayed in the insurance industry for more than three decades and rose to vice-president of Lincoln Benefit Life Company. His day job established his poetry routine. Every day, Kooser woke at around 4:30 in the morning and wrote poetry till around 7:00 a.m. — the time at which he would have to get ready to go to work for his insurance company. In 1999, Kooser retired from the insurance industry, but he kept his routine. “You know, once you get used to getting up at 4:30 in the morning, that’s when you get up” (“A Conversation with Ted Kooser.” Kenyon Review.). Kooser said in a conversation with Kenyon Review during 2007.

The result of Kooser’s early-morning writing schedule is more than 20 books of poetry and prose, including The Blizzard Voices (University of Nebraska Press, 1986), Lights on a Ground of Darkness (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), and Valentines (University of Nebraska Press, 2008). In 2004, Kooser became America's poet laureate. As the representative poet of the United States, Kooser tries to make poetry less intimidating to the average American citizen, and he launched a project named “American Life in Poetry.” Each week, for the duration of this project, Kooser published and introduced a new poem by a living American, and any newspaper in the US could run the column at no cost.

In 2005, Kooser’s book Delights and Shadows (Copper Canyon Press, 2004) won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Kooser has won a Pushcart Prize, the Nebraska Book Award, and two poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Kooser also paints, draws, and teaches classes at the University of Nebraska. He is married to Kathleen Rutledge, a former editor of the Nebraska newspaper The Lincoln Journal Star. Kooser and Rutledge have one son and two grandchildren.

Poem Text

Kooser, Ted. “Selecting a Reader.” 1980. American Poems.


Ted Kooser’s poem starts with the title, “Selecting a Reader.” The act of selecting his own reader is what the speaker (presumably, the poet Kooser himself) does in the poem. Kooser chooses the ideal reader for his poetry.

The poem unfolds like a mini-narrative, as Kooser details what his ideal reader looks like and does. Line 1 reveals that the reader will be a good-looking woman, as the speaker says that he “would have her be beautiful.”

In Line 2, the action starts. The attractive woman will “carefully” (Line 2) approach a volume of the speaker’s poetry. She will be by herself, and she will approach his poetry in the afternoon. The speaker establishes the mood and the setting by describing the time at which she finds his poetry as “the loneliest moment of an afternoon” (Line 3).

In Lines 4-7, the speaker offers the reader background information about the woman he imagines as his ideal reader. Before approaching his poems, the woman has cleaned her hair, and it remains “damp at the neck / from washing it” (Lines 4-5).

As for her outfit, the woman has on a raincoat — it’s an “old one, dirty / for not having money enough for the cleaning” (Lines 6-7). The woman does not appear rich as she can’t seem to afford to clean her coat.

In Line 8, the speaker adds another element to the woman’s appearance: glasses. To read the speaker’s work, the beautiful woman has to “take out her glasses” (Line 8), indicating that the woman must wear corrective lenses to improve her eyesight.

In the following line, Line 9, the speaker makes it clear that the bespectacled woman he imagines as his reader is in a bookstore. The speaker describes the woman as she “thumb[s] / over my poems, then put[s] the book back” (Lines 9-10). The woman skims the poems then returns the collection to "its shelf” (Line 11).

The woman notices the price of the book, as evidenced by Lines 12-13, when the woman announces, “For that kind of money, I can get / my raincoat cleaned.” The woman would rather spend her money on a laundering than on the speaker’s poetry. The poem’s last line asserts that this woman “will” (Line 13) get her raincoat cleaned.