So This Is Nebraska is a poem set in Ted Kooser’s home state of Nebraska. The poem is an account of a drive along a gravel road through the landscape in summer time. The reader becomes a fellow passenger in the car driven by the speaker.
The title suggests that, finally, here is a true representation of the state of Nebraska, the Cornhusker State, whose motto is Equality Before the Law and whose seal has a picture of a settler’s cabin and sheaves of corn.
So This Is Nebraska, the state which is very much reliant on agriculture for its identity, especially the growing of cereal crops. Lots and lots of cereal crops. Picture endless green or golden fields, part of the Great Plain.
This is confirmed in the poem which starts off on a gravel road and ends up with a hand hovering over wheat. In between come barns, tractors and pickups and a feeling of time having stopped to let the weeds grow, to let a skinny man stare out at nothing.
Ted Kooser, one time poet laureate, is a Nebraskan through and through. Known as a down to earth poet with a conversational style, his ‘pure American voice and clear-eyed observations’ are key to his expression.
So This Is Nebraska has an atmosphere about it perhaps only a native with true insights could procure. The speaker is out for a leisurely summer’s drive, something they’ve done loads of times it could be said. But on this one occasion things turn out different.
They see once familiar things turn into the exceptional; the landscape is heightened, deepened and made more dramatic. It’s as if the blinds have been drawn and new light shed on old territory.
First published in 1980 in the book Sure Signs, So This is Nebraska is a formal looking poem, seven fields of observation, a pleasurable enough drive with a result that more than meets the eye.
The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.
On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.
So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.
Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.
You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,
clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like
waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.
So This Is Nebraska is a straightforward free verse poem with seven neat stanzas arranged down the page.
The narrative starts off as if the speaker is looking through a rear window mirror of a car, observing what happens in the wake of the moving vehicle. The action of the vehicle reminds the speaker of being on a horse – the gravel road must be humpy.
There’s a neat descriptive of the birds as they fly away – sparks – indicating flashes of bright silver or yellow or red.
The dear old ladies metaphor conjures up contrasting images – barns versus skinny grannies, with loose limbs (loose wooden boarding and planking). The metaphor is extended to the eyes, cataracts formed by hay and cobwebs, with tractors hiding under the skirts.
Does this metaphor work? Some argue that barns should be male.
There is a change here. The title is mentioned, a discovery the speaker might think a revelation. The present participles so far reflect the here and now, the immediacy of being on a Nebraska gravel road. This is further enhanced by the speaker referring casually to ‘your hand out squeezing the air’ meaning the hand of the speaker.
More birds – meadowlarks on posts. It’s a laidback atmosphere, there’s nothing to do but drive and take it all in.
More observation with a mix of literal and figurative language. There are trees and bees plus a pickup which ‘kicks its fenders off’ to read the clouds. Note the personification and reinforcement of the relaxed pastoral scene.
There’s a definite shift in emphasis now. The speaker starts to reflect on the effect all this countryside is having. Summer’s day slow drive, hand out nice and relaxed, birds everywhere, a neglected pickup….
It’s enough to send you a bit haywire. The speaker feels like letting go of everything, surrendering to the benign if disturbingly abandoned environment.
A comma after the last word of the last stanza indicates that this feeling gathers momentum. Here now are chickens, honey and a skinny old man (to match the old ladies) who is waiting, one imagines all day, all week, all season long, for someone to bring some interest into his life.
Enjambment carries the sense of stanza 6 into this final stanza. The speaker feels like waving back at the old man, going further – stopping the car and then dancing in the road. Wow. That old skinny man sure merits some attention. Either that or the speaker has gradually gone doolally during the last three stanzas.
But sanity rules in the end. The speaker doesn’t stop to dance. There is only the hand out of the window, gliding, and the wheat carries on, as do the houses. Well, at least there’s life, a community, out there in Nebraska the Cornhusker state.
There are several literary devices at work in this poem:
When words are close to each other in any line and begin with consonants they are said to be alliterative. This adds a little interest to the sounds. So :
road rides…loosening barns, their little…cataracts of hay and cobwebs…while he watches…
Similar to alliteration except that vowels take the place of consonants. Note :
road rides with a slow…either side, those dear…pickup kicks its…chickens or sticky…holding a skinny old…man in your lap...
Many lines are enjambed in this poem, which means that the lines are not ended with punctuation but continue on into the next line, carrying sense with them. One stanza – stanza 6 – is also enjambed.
The reader is expected to flow with the momentum, not pause abruptly, and read on to capture the full meaning.
This lack of punctuation reflects the drive and the ongoing journey, with just occasional rests (at commas, end stops, and semi-colons).
If I say, ‘I am like a local cheese’ that is a simile. If I say ‘I am a local cheese’ then that becomes a metaphor because I have been totally replaced by a cheese. In the poem:
the barns become…..those dear old ladies
hay and cobwebs become….cataracts
When a thing is given human traits it is said to be personified. So :
the loosening barns….hide broken tractors
a pickup…kicks its fenders off and settles back to read.
If words or phrases are repeated it reinforces the meaning :
You feel like that; you feel like/like letting/like being…
You feel like/You feel like/over the wheat, over the houses.