33 pages 1 hour read

Ted Kooser

Abandoned Farmhouse

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1980

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Summary and Study Guide


“Abandoned Farmhouse,” written by American poet Ted Kooser, changed the trajectory of Kooser’s poetic reception with its publication in Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems (1980) by the University of Pittsburgh Press. His work up until this point had mostly been limited to small regional press publications. However, as part of the renowned Pitt Poetry series, a showcase for a diverse range of contemporary American poets, Kooser’s Sure Signs collection found a wider audience and received critical praise. It also received the Society of Midland Authors Award for best book of poetry by a Midwestern writer written that year. Kooser has won many awards since then; from 2004-2006, he served as Poet Laureate of the United States.

“Abandoned Farmhouse” is an early poem—one of the few selected for the above-mentioned collection from his first book, Official Entry Blank (1969). The poem exemplifies much of what he is best known for. It is a lyrical poem of vivid images telling a story in plain language. His character portraits have been compared to those of Edwin Arlington Robinson and The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. Like Robert Frost, Kooser is not a “regional poet” in the diminutive, provincial sense. Instead, he is a poet who draws from specific details of life in the Great Plains to create widely accessible poems exploring universal themes. “Abandoned Farmhouse” looks at loss, isolation, and perception in its cataloguing of items left behind.

Poet Biography

Ted Kooser has spent his life in the American Midwest. He was born April 25, 1939 in Ames, Iowa, and grew up in the small city. In 1962 he graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in English education.

Nebraska became his state of residence when he moved there to attend graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln the following year. Though he won a contest award for poetry from the college in 1964, academia didn’t suit him. He dropped out due to poor grades, but he continued to attend night classes and earned his master’s degree in 1968.

Kooser made a living in the insurance business despite having no training or interest in it. He only applied because the company had an open entry-level position. He took full advantage of the opportunity and worked as an executive in the industry for 35 years. He wrote poetry almost every morning from around five o’ clock to when it was time to leave for the office at seven. During his years of employment, more than six books saw publication.

Kooser retired from his position as vice-president of an Allstate subsidiary company at age 60, shortly after undergoing surgery for oral cancer. His book Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison (2001) is a collection of daily poems he wrote while recovering from radiation treatments. At least nine more books have been published after his retirement. Red Stilts was released in 2020 by Copper Canyon Press.

Kooser has won numerous awards during his career, including two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships (1978, 1984), the Stanley Kunitz Poetry Prize (1984), Pushcart Prizes (1984, 2005, 2009, 2012), and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (2005). He has received honorary doctorates from four colleges—including one from the University of Nebraska, where he taught poetry and non-fiction writing. He is now Presidential Professor Emeritus at the university.

Kooser served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2004 to 2006. As the country’s representative poet, he strove to promote poetry in all its forms. He wanted to make poetry more visible and interesting to the public. In sponsorship with the University of Nebraska’s English Department and the Poetry Foundation, he started a newspaper column: “American Life in Poetry.” It offers a free weekly poem accompanied by a short introduction. Though he has retired from writing it, the service continues to reach around 4.5 million readers via email distribution and the American Life in Poetry website.

Kooser currently lives in Nebraska with his wife. In addition to poetry, he writes essays and books for children.

Poem Text

Kooser, Ted. “Abandoned Farmhouse.” 1980. Poetry Foundation.


The poem begins by establishing a pattern: A series of objects in and around the abandoned farmhouse share details and offer inferences about the former inhabitants.

In the first line, the size of a man’s shoes says he was a “big man.” Those shoes are located “on a pile of broken dishes by the house” (Line 2). The bed says he was tall (Line 3), the Bible (Line 5) reveals he was “a good, God-fearing man” (Line 4). The first stanza ends with the fields “cluttered with boulders” and a “leaky barn” (Line 8) telling the reader he wasn’t much of a farmer.

The second stanza moves to other members of the family and offers more detail about their living conditions. The poem hints at a woman’s existence with the bedroom’s flowered wallpaper and the lined kitchen shelves (Lines 9-11). A “sandbox made from a tractor tire” (Line 12) is evidence a child had lived there, too. Preserves and canned vegetables indicate poverty (Lines 13-14). Rag-stuffed windows (Line 15) and the house’s location on a “narrow country road” (Line 16) speak to freezing temperatures and isolation.

The third and final stanza begins with the empty house saying, “Something went wrong” (Line 17). In the next three lines the narrator revisits the yard, fields, and cellar jars. They “left in a nervous haste” (Line 20), the reader is told. The last image is of the child’s toys “strewn in the yard / like branches after a storm” (Lines 21-22), and the poem concludes with a return to the phrase “Something went wrong, they say” (Line 24). A specific reason is never offered, and the mystery goes unsolved.