Poets Online Archive
The Ideal Reader
August 2005

Who is your ideal reader?  Is there someone you can visualize when you are writing a poem? Does your ideal reader change according to the poem?

Ted Kooser's ideal reader in his poem "Selecting a Reader" (from Sure Signs, (University of Pittsburgh Press)is so practical that after looking into one of his poetry books, she decides to spend her money on cleaning her coat rather than on his poetry.  Still, she read his poem.

Write about your ideal reader, or the ideal reader of poetry in general.  If you are a poet who has written poems for Poets Online before, you might want to consider who you imagine is the "reader" for poems found here online.

Ted Kooser is, as of this writing, the current U.S. Poet Laureate. Born in Ames, Iowa, in 1939, Ted Kooser attended Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska. Kooser has written 10 collections of poetry, most recently Delights & Shadows, published in 2004 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. His collection, Sure Signs, received the Society of Midland Authors Prize for the best book of poetry by a Midwestern writer published in that year. His 2000 collection, Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, won the 2001 Nebraska Book Award for Poetry. He is the editor and publisher of Windflower Press, a small press specializing in contemporary poetry. He teaches as a Visiting Professor in the English department of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He is former vice-president of Lincoln Benefit Life, an insurance company, and lives near the village of Garland.


To whom and when one exposes oneself,
That's the adolescent secret debt;.
The girl who grew up in Saranac lake
Could walk in winter on Riverside Drive
With bluish hands saying, 'I'm not cold,'
Or the Hungarian refugee
Reminding me her family settled
In Chicago hog butcher of the world,
Or chain smoking Barbara
Who said, 'let's not waste time
Take your clothes off,'
Or the freshman English teacher
A few years out of World War two,
Where everything is fuck this and fuck that
Or the scholar who said,
'You should curb your Dionysian flow
And exercise more Apollonian control.'
The last was nationally known,
A saintly, white haired professor,
Who was celebrated for his kindness.
He tolerated perfectly stupid questions
From premeds about poems he'd discussed;
And looked at poems of ambitious students.

So comes the great day
With his comment,
'Ah, it's nice to see you write,'
Like the pediatrician who has learned
To say,
"My what a baby."

Edward N. Halperin


My poetry has been read
By friends who asked to have it e-mailed.
It was my early work.
Tales of the subway, of peonies.
Each was eager to explain meanings.
But of course no one was right.
Plain English was twisted into fantasies.
So I stopped sending it.
Now my poetry is unread
Except by two men,
One who is always flattering and one who is a sphinx.
And then there are the POL readers.
I like them the best.
They understand,
And often publish my poetry.

Ellen Kaplan


My favorite reader
doesn't get it.
He comes to the turn
where literal becomes metaphor and says,
"Huh? Where did you go?"
His mind is structural, brilliant,
conceptualizes whole systems,
but doesn't cross over into unspoken,
can navigate virtual reality but not fanciful.
But he tries, reads it again - and again,
looking for equivalents, keeps asking,
needs 70 words to explain seven,
challenges my explanation,
makes me reconsider, makes me revise.

Marvin Lurie


Oh it's you. Only you.
Reading my words right now.

I admit I have given to another
Who read the first draft
And a mentor who held my hand
And cut me three ways
For my own good
And then licked the wounds.

I have no excuses for what I did
With the editor who chose my words
And left the others in the pile.
And I was paid for it.
I feel like a whore now.

But you don't even know me.
You take this for what it is
And you keep reading
Without suggesting any changes.
We may never meet after this but
If we do, I will fall into your arms.
We would be that final couplet,
Rhyming and panting through the night.

Pamela Milne


You're a little bit crazy
You're most alive when the moon is overhead
and the world has gone to bed
You're a little bit crazy
You know melancholy like the back of your hand
You know the names of your veins
You're a little bit crazy
You place human emotions on inanimate things, yes
You remember your imaginary playmate from childhood
as an old friend who is but a whisper away
You're a little bit crazy
Your dreams are white lies that could pass a polygraph
There is a line you won't cross, but that's another story
You get the story, but that's in another line
You're a little bit crazy, a little bit

like me



It would be at dusk, that time in between day and night,
the transition from clear to murky, where things spring
to mind that you never asked for, where poetic lines
flit from mind to mind like lyrical bees.
You know that place, that time... you've been there
and forgotten to write something down,
only to find out later it's gone forever.

It would be then that he would open the journal that came last Monday.
He'd skim through the pages, half interested in what he sees,
his mind distracted by the phone that keeps on ringing
in the other room and by thoughts about his son
who no longer talks to him, preferring his teenaged friends.
Or maybe it would be the car's tires needing to be rotated, aligned
and balanced like words on a page of a poem he has yet to read.

In that brief time when day succumbs to night,
he would stand there in the half-lit room and glance down,
remembering what he is holding. It is open to my poem,
and he begins to read. The noises of the house subside
as he loses himself in words. This private pleasure.
He'd then go back to the beginning and start again, but this time
read it aloud, better to hear the cadence and the phrasing.
Behind his voice would be mine-he'd hear it there-our voices
reading together for the length of the poem. When finished,
he'd take off his glasses, lingering in the shadowed world,
reluctant to leave. Seduced by words; it never fails.
He loves this secret place of whispered thoughts.

Downstairs the dog would be barking and the evening news
proclaiming the worst, but before he enters the brightly lit kitchen
where his wife will ask him to make vinaigrette for the salad,
he would close the journal and stand there in the stillness
as my words grow fainter like the soft rustle of tissue paper
until no sound is left. Time to go downstairs.

Twilight has gone. Only darkness remains.

Mary Kendall




It is like the pirate

Hunting for hidden treasure.


He surfs the net

Looking for that turn of phrase

That catches a moment of life forever

And wrenches something within

To make him sigh

With wonder and amazement

How someone else

Can touch him

Through words

And make his heart beat faster

Or bring a smile to his lips

And find that spot within

That eludes most.


He is happy that he

Receives this treasure

For free, though he did

Spend his precious Time.


 Abha Iyengar


Not a big fan of poetry
Thinks it’s a waste of time
Glimpses the first line of this one
Ends up reading every line
Gets caught up in the rhythm of it
Doesn’t even care what it means
Just feels the need to continue reading
Absorbing each word as it’s seen
Not a big fan of poetry
Not something they’ve ever read
Just caught this one by accident
Now can’t get it out of their head
Repeating the words like a mantra
Over again in the mind
“How come this poet knows what I’m thinking?”
They ask for the hundredth time
Not a big fan of poetry
Well, never used to be
Now they are constantly looking
For a new poem to read
It might seem a little pretentious
To think I can reach someone
But even if you read this and hate it
At least you’ve begun.

Tamsin Elizabeth


He comes along with a lazy step,
the kind that doesn’t miss a thing.
His small brown dog keeps pace
on a length on clothesline.
He travels light. If he possesses
a library, it’s in his head.
Here in the alley he stops
to check a dumpster. His dog
investigates with a dainty nose.
From the mess of trash the man
pulls out a book. No, it’s just
the literary rag that took a poem
about my old dog Pepper.
Someone thought it poor enough
to throw away. He tucks it
in his belt, moves on to the end
of the block; sits down on a stoop
in grateful shade
and reads my poem to his dog.
The dog listens.
Perhaps they’ll put the thing
to memory, a light load.

Taylor Graham


When he was Seventeen,
He didn't read Tarkington,
Undercover, with a flash light,
he passionately paged
God's Little Acre.

When he was twenty-two
he tossed away his buttondowns
ripped off his chains
ran from his tight ass mother.

He buried sorrows -
escaped death by smothering.

Like a red maple leaf
trapped in heavy winds
he tumbles from day to night
into any four poster.

He goes to Confession in too tight wingtips.
His expectations are wrong sized too.

With a wet finger
he pages my "Out of My Mind"
returns it to the bookshelf,
to buy instead a yellow Peace rosebush
for his father's grave.

The person who reads my poems
ain't no saint, honey!

Gloria Rovder Healy



In sampling, new poetry titles don’t help much
but the first four lines give a key
for deciding if a poem deserves ownership
as shopping readers hastily judge the full book
by one poem’s first verse or equivalent
subconsciously looking for validation of
what fits their ingrained values.
Like planning a trip from point A to B
they gather sample lines
here and there
seriously reading a poem up front
and if it’s good enough
another in the middle
encouraging perhaps a third in the back
and as the author’s work takes hold
suddenly deciding that ownership is a must
hearing a built-in reader meter
crackle and buzz while
zooming all the way up to - Buy It!

F. William Broome

It's a young person, a popular, plastic figurine, brought to life by the demands of the social zoo
Dressed expensively, probably a girl, no, a young woman
Into the second hand book store she removes her dark glasses
Hoping against hope she will see no familiar faces, not for the first time, not for the last
The bell chimes her arrival and she winces and shakes her head
She would have preferred a stealthier approach
Everyone turns, everyone being the senile old man at the counter
She browses and finds a small folio
Nothing special
Nothing pretty
She reads the first line, then the second and the third, the first poem
She reads the second poem and is halfway through the entire folio when the man barks at her, "Closin' time darlin'."
She says, "Sure, one sec'."
She turns as if to replace the book but slides it into her Versace coat and hurries from the store
The bell chimes her exit
And the senile old man at the counter winces and shakes his head
He would have preferred a stealthier exit

Hannah Fanto


Frank loves everything I write.
I don't see him during the day,
So I present my offerings at dinner time.
Frank loves everything I cook.
"Ah, it smells delicious," he says
as he walks through the door.
Seafood scampi sends its garlicky aroma
through the house.
"Read this," I say.
"Yes, yes. Oh you do have a way with words.
Are you going to make the potatoes with
the onions?"
"Do you understand the irony?" I ask.
"Irony, ah yes, wonderful irony.
What's for dessert?"

Frank hates my nightgowns.
Plain cotton.
Nothing that itches, scratches, or entices,
The uniform of someone who is serious
about a night's sleep.
Maybe I should show my poetry to Frank at bedtime.

Susan Martin


A young man He would be
And a thoughtful man
Willing to read,
And by reading to soar -
And at once upon a Dream
To be borne,
A Dream
Once raped
In a tale of quiet violence,
And then restored
Through rough redemption.

For when he reads,
Ever so slowly,
Ever so languorously,
He'll be born again,
And again
To sing sad
Songs of sound,
Of flight,
That hum on wings of mad cacophony,
Words that will twist and turn
Upon his tongue.
And through his brain
In a plaintive voice that will sing
One song once so simple,
In his youth so very simple,
So longing to be heard
In a flight
From the night black letters
Of the page.

Christopher Bogart


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