16 pages 32 minutes read

Ted Kooser


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


Ted Kooser’s “Tattoo” is a 15-line poem that was published in Poetry Magazine in 2003 when Kooser was already well-established and well-respected as an American poet and nonfiction writer. “Tattoo” has been widely anthologized and is indicative of the type of poetry Kooser most often creates. The close observation by an unknown speaker of the man with a tattoo at a yard sale is typical of Kooser’s ability to offer sharp detail and poignant subject matter in a conversational manner. “Tattoo” was included in the collection Delights and Shadows (2004), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 and sold more than 50,000 copies, making it both a critical and popular success. Shortly after, Kooser was named United States Poet Laureate, serving from 2005-2007.

Kooser is considered a poet of the Midwest and was part of the Midwest Poetry Renaissance, a movement which started in the late 1960s and went until the early 1980s. This movement featured poets whose works were centered in the rural regions of the middle states of the United States. This includes the upper Midwest (Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin) and the Great Plains (Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, the Dakotas, and Kansas). Kooser himself, however, resists identification as solely a regional writer. His long career has included works that most often center on universal topics, including love, memory, aging, and loss, as well as family and social dynamics.

Poet Biography

Theodore (“Ted”) John Kooser was born to Theodore Briggs Kooser and his wife Vera (née Moser) Kooser on April 25, 1939, in Iowa right after the Great Depression. A younger sister, Judith, was born in 1942. Kooser grew up in Ames, where his father worked in a department store. He attended public schools and credits his high school English teacher for encouraging him to write.

In 1957, Kooser enrolled at Iowa State University in the architecture program but realized he wasn’t suited for the mathematical rigor and switched his major to English Education. He received his B.S. in 1962, and married his first wife, Diana Tressler. He began a graduate program in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1963 under the poet Karl Shapiro. However, he neglected his other classes to write poetry and dropped out within the year.

He eventually returned, and by taking night classes, earned his Master of Arts (M. A.) degree in 1968. As an introvert, Kooser didn’t initially enjoy teaching. Realizing he needed to provide for his family he took a job in the insurance industry in 1964. While rising in the ranks of the insurance industry, Kooser wrote poetry on the side and started to be widely published in journals and anthologies. His only son Jeffrey was born in 1967, and in 1969, his first book of poems, Official Entry Blank, was published.

Kooser and Tressler divorced in 1970, and Kooser went back to teaching part-time at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He edited several small journals, contributed work to various anthologies, and published his second book, A Local Habitation & A Name (1974). Lucien Stryk published him as a part of the anthology Heartland II: Poets of the Midwest (1975), which helped to establish his reputation as an important emerging poet, and part of the Midwest Poetry Renaissance. In 1976, Not Coming to be Barked At was published. In 1977, he married Kathleen Routledge, a journalist, who became the managing editor of Lincoln Journal Star.

In the 1980s, Kooser was made a vice-president of Benefit Life Insurance and published three more collections of poetry. Sure Signs appeared in 1980, One World at a Time appeared in 1985, and The Blizzard Voices was released a year later. In 1994, the collection Weather Central was published. His work was generally well received, although some critics found its quotidian nature dull. Four years later, Kooser contracted throat cancer, and this left his unable to speak. In 1999, he retired from Benefit Life Insurance to take care of his health and began working on a series of short poems in the form of postcards to his friend, writer Jim Harrison. These poems, detailing his recovery, were collected in Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison (2000).

Returning to University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a visiting professor, he entered an extremely productive period. Along with Local Wonders (2002), he would publish the collection Braided Creek (2003) with Jim Harrison and produce the collection Delights and Shadows (2004), which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. That same year, he was appointed US Poet Laureate at the same time his selected poems were published in Flying at Night. During his term as laureate, he launched American Life in Poetry, a free weekly column featuring contemporary American poems. He also published The Poetry Home Repair Manual (2005), a poetry handbook that received acclaim. Kooser published nonfiction as well throughout his career.

The poetry collections Valentines and Splitting an Order both appeared in 2007. With the birth of his grandchildren, Kooser also created three children’s books during this decade. His latest books of poems are Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems (2018) and Red Stilts (2020). He retired from American Life in Poetry and became Professor Emeritus at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Kooser currently resides in Garland, Nebraska with his wife, Kathleen.

Poem Text

Kooser, Ted. “Tattoo.” 2003. Poetry Magazine.


“Tattoo” is a 15-line poem in which the speaker observes an old man at a yard sale. The speaker sees that the heart and dagger tattoo the man once got to show the world he was heartbroken is now barely recognizable, having faded with time. The man’s aging skin now merely looks bruised. The speaker imagines what the man was like in his youth, drawing conclusions that the betrayal or heartbreak was because the man was arrogant and possibly violent. The man is compared to a male horse noted for its aggressiveness. Even though the air is cold, the man’s sleeves are rolled up to exhibit the tattoo, making the speaker conclude his vanity never went away. The man moves through the sale, examining the used tools, but they are all broken and he puts them down. At the conclusion, the speaker assumes the man’s heart remains broken and bruised as well.