19 pages 38 minutes read

Ted Kooser

So This is Nebraska

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1980

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Summary and Study Guide


Ted Kooser published “So This Is Nebraska” as part of his 1980 collection of poems, Sure Signs, which won the 1981 Society of Midland Authors Award for Poetry. As the name of the poem and the award indicate, Kooser is a midland author. He grew up in Iowa, and he continues to live in Midwest America, having settled in Nebraska. “So This Is Nebraska” reflects Kooser’s focus on the condition, personality, and images of Middle America. Like a lot of Kooser’s poetry, “So This Is Nebraska” possesses an intimate, unpretentious, accessible voice and tone. At the same time, the poem carries bits of Modernism and Surrealism, which makes it a somewhat unique addition to Kooser’s canon. Generally, he tries to keep away from the type of intricate, confounding poetry of Modernists, Surrealists, and other avant-garde movements intent on creating head-scratching poems. Nonetheless, “So This Is Nebraska” is one of Kooser’s best-known poems, and, as a former United States poet laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Kooser has written many distinguished poems, including “At the Cancer Clinic” (2004), “An Ephiany” (1994), and “Selecting a Reader” (1980).

Poet Biography

Ted Kooser was born in Ames, Iowa, on April 25, 1939, and he grew up with a fondness for reading, writing, and cars. A member of the Nightcrawlers car club, Kooser and his friends raced V-8 sedans and hotrods. Kooser wrote a poem about one particular drag race, and A friend of his submitted the poem to a magazine called Dig. The magazine published the poem, and at 16, Kooser could call himself a published poet. “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,” admitted Kooser during a 2006 talk at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

After graduating from Iowa State, Kooser studied English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he earned 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. As publishing poetry rarely provides a stable or substantive income, Kooser, to make a secure living, took a job with an insurance company in Nebraska during the mid-1960s. He stayed in the insurance industry for around three decades and rose to vice-president of Lincoln Benefit Life Company.

Kooser’s day job established his poetry routine. Every day, Kooser woke at around 4:30 in the morning and wrote poetry until around 7:00 a.m. when he would have to go to work for his insurance company. The result of Kooser’s early morning writing schedule is more than 20 books of poetry and prose, including The Blizzard Voices (1986), Lights on a Ground of Darkness (2005), and Valentines (2008). Kooser served as the United States Poet Laureate between 2004 and 2006. . As the representative poet of the United States, Kooser tried to make poetry less intimidating to the ordinary American reader. He launched a project named “American Life in Poetry,” where, each week, Kooser published and introduced a new poem by a living American, and any newspaper in the United States could run the column at no cost.

Near the end of the 1990s, Kooser found out he had cancer. The diagnosis caused him to rearrange his life. In 1999, Kooser retired from the insurance industry, but he kept his morning routine. “You know, once you get used to getting up at 4:30 in the morning, that’s when you get up,” Kooser said in a conversation with Kenyon Review during 2007. In 2005, Kooser’s book Delights and Shadows (2004)—which features his famous poem about cancer, “At the Cancer Clinic”—won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Aside from the Pulitzer Prize and the Society of Midland Authors Award, Kooser has won a Pushcart Prize, the Nebraska Book Award, and two poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In addition to collecting prizes for his writing, Kooser paints and draws. He’s 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. “So This Is Nebraska.” 1980. Poetry Foundation.


Kooser opens the poem on “a gravel road” (Line 1), and the speaker is riding along this road at a “slow gallop” (Line 1) or an unhurried pace. In Lines 2-4, the speaker fleshes out the scene. Around the gravel road, there are fields, lots of telephone lines, and dust. In that dust, flashes of color from “redwing blackbirds” (Line 4) appear like sparks on the dry gravel road.

In Stanza 2, specific humans seem to enter the poem for the first time. On either side of the road, the speaker spots “dear old ladies” (Line 5). Dropping down to the following line, the reader discovers the speaker is not talking about older women but “loosening barns” (Line 6). These barns have mostly fallen into disrepair, with dulled windows that seem to resemble cataracts, “hay and cobwebs” (Line 7), and “broken tractors” (Line 8) that are hidden within.

Such peculiar, dilapidated sights are a part of Nebraska, or, as the speaker says, “So this is Nebraska” (Line 9). After the speaker repeats the title of the poem, they provide details about the date and time of the poem. It is a Sunday afternoon in July, so it is summer. Line 10 reveals that the speaker is driving along the gravel road, and in the next line the perspective shifts with the arrival of a possessive pronoun “your” (Line 11), as the speaker observes, “with your hand out squeezing the air” (Line 11).

Unlike the “dear old ladies” this “your” is a person—most likely, the speaker themselves—and they record many more observations as they drive through Nebraska. There’s a “meadowlark waiting on every post” (Line 12) and, in Stanza 4, behind a line of cedar trees and hollyhocks topped with “pollen bees” (Line 14), resides a rundown pickup truck examining the clouds in the sky.

With Stanza 5, the speaker brings in a personal pronoun with you, addressing the listener directly. “You feel like that” (Line 17), says the speaker, by which they mean they feel like letting themselves go to pieces and being “no more than a truck in the weeds” (Line 20). The speaker then imagines enjoying other kinds of quaint, whimsical behaviors and conditions, including running around with chickens, being “sticking with honey” (Line 21), and “holding a skinny old man in your lap” (Line 22).

Like the old man, the speaker, too, wants to wave. “You feel like waving” (Lines 24-25) the speaker says, and adds that one also feels like getting out of the car and dancing on the road. The speaker does not stop the car and dance, but they wave, letting their hand flow in the wind, which makes them feel “larklike” (Line 28) or like a bird. To the speaker, that gliding hand seems to flow over the fields and houses.