From the desk of Ted Kooser: The Author’s Photograph

TedKooser_Barn1cropTed Kooser, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and former U.S. poet laureate, is Presidential Professor of the University of Nebraska. Currently, he is hand-selecting books for his eponymous Contemporary Poetry series, which features poets he believes deserves greater recognition for their work. Below he writes about an author’s perceived image. 

The Author’s Photograph 

Karl Shapiro said somewhere that the experience of art was one of “joy, even hilarity,” but it seems that nearly all authors’ photographs show people in various degrees of distress. Few are smiling and most look as if something dreadful is about to happen or has happened only a moment before. In some, the author is looking over one shoulder, as if being followed, or pursued. In others, he or she gazes with apprehension into the distance, as if having spotted a slight movement in the foliage, like Gregory Peck watching for his Apache nemesis in The Stalking Moon.

I’ve been looking at just one of these photographs this morning, it having arrived with an email message announcing a poetry contest. This curious picture is of the young woman selected to judge this competition, a “noted poet” herself, according to the accompanying copy.

In what we can assume is her favorite author photo her head and shoulders are all that we are offered. She is wearing a thin black pullover or perhaps a leotard and is quite pretty, with, from what we can see of it, a nicely shaped face and shoulder-length hair, bronze in color and intentionally tousled. Her head is bowed and lit from above, her lips are dry and set in an expression of expressionlessness, and her wide eyes are lifted to glare at the photographer. Her eyes are in fact lifted so high that I suspect it might have ached a little to hold them in that position for more than a minute or two. Those are not muscles we’re often called upon to use.

If we came upon this picture in a family scrapbook we might conclude that this person had been surprised while cleaning up an embarrassing mess on a bathroom floor, a mess of her own making but one that she is preparing to blame on someone else, perhaps on us. But because we’ve all grown accustomed to looking at authors’ photographs as we browse the remainder shelves at Barnes & Noble we see this one as an attempt to convey a profound dedication to art even under the annoying distraction of being asked to judge a poetry contest.

(Judging a literary contest can, of course, be frustrating. A friend once called me at two in the morning to tell me she’d accepted an invitation to judge a novel contest and had six hundred manuscripts piled in her San Francisco apartment. “Two hundred of them,” she said, “are about mothers. Two hundred are about cancer. And two hundred are about mothers with cancer.”)

Author photography is, of course, all about marketing. The writer’s photo is meant to make us want to buy a book or otherwise to be in the company of the writer. A novelist I know spent an entire day at the offices of her New York publisher, being made up, dressed up, and photographed over and over again because they wanted her to look glamorous on the jacket of her first book. She would have been more appealing, I’m certain, if they’d photographed her being herself in her kitchen in Kansas, frying a chicken, wearing jeans and a workshirt. With dirty hair.

How differently American literature would feel to all of us if in that one famous photo of a darkly glaring Edgar Allen Poe he was instead laughing his ass off. Or if in a jacket photo for “The Waste Land,” T. S. Eliot was smiling broadly and showing his Earl Gray tea-stained teeth. Of the photos of the modern poets, only Marianne Moore looked like she was having fun being alive and on her way to eat peanuts at a baseball game. Her close friends, Elizabeth Bishop and May Swenson, both looked in their author photos as if they’d just been called for jury duty though they were probably going with Marianne Moore to see the Dodgers play.

Before the 20th and 21st century jacket photograph there was the steel-engraved portrait, sometimes made to the author’s specifications. Ted Genoways read Whitman’s correspondence and studied the successive editions of Leaves of Grass and discovered that The Good Gray Poet had directed the engraver of his jaunty frontispiece portrait to enhance the bulge of his crotch.

But now and then an author really looks like the person he is, or she is, with a bulge in the crotch or without one. The late Jon Hassler, a Minnesota novelist, used as his jacket photo a professionally posed portrait but one in which he wears a comfortable, natural smile, a look that conveys the true nature of what awaits us within the jackets of his delightful novels and stories, stories in which there is a little something redeeming about even the meanest of characters.  If Jon had been seen scowling at us, well, would Hillary Clinton have picked up the novels and read them and insisted to the publisher that they be put back into print, which she did?

William Stafford, who was himself a talented photographer, looks just like himself in his photographs, someone who is more interested in what he is looking at than he is in himself. There’s wonder all over his face.

I realize that some of our authors really do feel as resentful about their lives as they look in their photos. Some of them really would bite your leg off if they had a chance, bless their hearts. But in my experience most authors are generous, warmhearted, grateful people who really do wish the best for their readers, wish it for each of us, alone in our reading chairs, holding their books in our hands and looking with wonder and admiration into their faces. So here’s my wish for honest expression in writing and in the photographs of writers. Can we bear to look like the people we are, rather than people we think we’re supposed to look like? Everybody, writers and readers alike, would be a whole lot better for the honesty in that.

-Ted Kooser