Ted Kooser: “The Blizzard Voices”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

For my dear friend Jennifer Soule, whose birthday marks the anniversary of the Children’s Blizzard

Every year at this time, I am reminded of the Children’s Blizzard. On January 12, 1888, an Alberta clipper swooped down from the north suddenly and unexpectedly onto the Great Plains. “What made this storm so deadly,” says one source, “was the timing (during work and school hours), the suddenness, and the brief spell of warmer weather that preceded it. . . . People ventured from the safety of their homes to do chores, go to town, attend school. . . . As a result, thousands of people – including many schoolchildren – got caught in the blizzard.” Omaha.com features a wealth of information about the blizzard, and David Laskin’s 2005 book, The Children’s Blizzardgoes into great depth to tell the story.

This year, in doing a bit of research about this historic event, I learned that former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser has written a book of poems on the topic. First published in 1986 and reprinted in 2006, The Blizzard Voices is based on stories told to Kooser as a boy in Iowa and as an adult in Nebraska as well as local histories that feature the blizzard. Of particular help to Kooser was W.H. O’Gara’s 1947 book, In All Its Fury.

The result is Kooser’s crystallized distillation of shards of memory. Told in his trademark spare, straightforward, accessible style, The Blizzard Voices alternates short snippets from women’s voices and men’s voices. “These poems,” says Kooser, “are wholly mine, trimmed and shaped and imagined by me. I took the straws snagged on the fence and froze my own stories around them.”

One of the women in the book – a teacher – describes walking with her pupils, “holding each other’s hands.” “It was impossible to see,” she says, “but we followed a row / of dead sunflower stalks / all the way to a nearby farm. / I never see a sunflower now / that I don’t count my lucky stars.”

A man tells of walking home from school with his older brother, Billy. Unable to make it home, they dug down into a drift. He recalls that Billy

died in the night. I thought he
was only asleep. At dawn,
I dug out, finding that we
were in sight of the home place.
They had to cut my feet off.

Another man relates his teacher’s decision to keep her students at the school. “Through the night,” he says,

we kept that cannonball stove
as red as a cherry
by burning coal and corncobs,
while the little children slept
covered with coats on benches.
The teacher told us stories
and read from the Bible
until our parents came for us.

The book has also been made into a play and an oratorio (performed at Carnegie Hall). Kooser writes in his introduction to the 2006 reprint edition that one of the highlights of his poetic career was attending a performance of the play and hearing audience members reminisce afterward about the Children’s Blizzard memories passed down to them. He says:

Somehow my poems and a handful of talented actors had set memory free, and as I walked through the crowd . . . I overheard things like, “Well, my grandmother told me . . .” and “Great Uncle Harry once said that. . . .” [W]hat I’d written was being put to service, and a community was awakening to a history they’d misplaced until those costumed figures in lantern light showed how to find it again.

The slim volume is definitely one you’ll want to have in your collection. I was incredibly fortunate to find a copy at Boulder’s Innisfree Poetry Bookstore, one of only three bookstores in the U.S. devoted exclusively to poetry. Brian Buckley, the store’s owner, gave me a fist bump when he heard that there was a perfect match between my urgent need for Kooser’s words and the book that was just waiting on his store’s shelves for me to come along. If you’re in Colorado, stop by Innisfree, now located in Buchanan’s Coffee Pub on Pennsylvania Avenue on the Hill (just across Broadway from the University of Colorado).

Want to learn more about Ted Kooser? His website is rich with poems and numerous interviews. Many other websites – such as the Library of Congress, Academy of American Poets, and The Poetry Foundation – feature his poetry. The Library of Congress even has a video of a conversation between Kooser and American singer/songwriter John Prine. As Poet Laureate, Kooser started the “American Life in Poetry” project, which provides a free weekly column to newspapers across the country, each column featuring a poem. The project is still going strong. Finally, if you’re an aspiring poet (or any kind of wordsmith), you’ll want to check out Kooser’s 2006 book (cowritten with Steve Cox), Writing Brave and Free: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing, and his 2007 book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets.

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Watch:Watch Ted Kooser read the powerful closing poem from The Blizzard Voices. The video runs just under two minutes.

Image Credit: Omaha.com features this picture of sheet music of “Thirteen Were Saved” or “Nebraska’s Fearless Maid.” According to the website, the song “was written and recorded by William Vincent and published by Lyon & Healy. The piece tells of Minnie Freeman, who saved her students by tying them together and leading them to her boarding house in Mira Valley, Nebraska.” One of the poems in Ted Kooser’s The Blizzard Voices is told from Minnie Freeman’s perspective.