The Great Poem Series: Kathryn Starbuck’s “The Shoe”

Kathryn Starbuck is far from your average poet. She was born in Iowa in 1939, but currently resides in Alabama. Originally, she was employed as a political journalist and commentator. However, she was not far from her later roots when she worked as an editor of the Milford Cabinet newspaper in New Hampshire. She was married to the late poet George Starbuck. Kathryn began writing and publishing her poetry at the age of sixty. Her original collection Griefmania was published in 2006 by the Sheep Meadow Press. Along with her own work, Kathryn has published two of her husband’s poem collections posthumously.

In the 2008 volume of Best American Poetry, Kathryn Starbuck was honored when her poem “The Shoe” was selected to be featured. Along with this poem comes an interesting story of how it was selected for the 2008 volume. The story began on the tenth anniversary of her husband’s death, George Starbuck. On this date Kathryn was personally contacted by the Harvard Review. They presented her with an acceptance letter of her poem “The Shoe”. This confused Starbuck because she had no recollection of writing this poem. She later requested a copy of the poem to be mailed to her so she could refresh her memory. At this point, Starbuck began to rummage through her house looking for her original copy. After spending hours searching through her dozens of boxes filled with poems and checking each and every computer file, Starbuck assumed that she must have submitted her raw and only copy of her poem.

All poems selected for an edition of Best American Poetry must have some significance to the prior year or may even just be a well-written poem, but the challenge is to find its significance. Starbuck’s poem “The Shoe” instantly stood out as a great poem in my opinion. Prior to taking this class, poems that stood out to me were generally filled with rhyme, but I have since learned that a great poem is much more than this. I thought Starbuck did a beautiful job while writing this poem, as her word choice drew me to picture a widow adjusting to  living alone and recollecting the loss of her loved one. Although this feeling was constant throughout the poem, the first stanza emphasized this experience when she stated, “ It is true that I’ll never have to kiss his dying hands, now dead. I’ll never have to find where he left his coffee mug, now mine”. These three lines pull me into Starbuck’s life, as I can picture her dealing with the death of her husband. Everything that was once his is now hers, and she now is independent, which may come with a sense of relief at times, like when she no longer has to find the coffee mug. Yet, the overwhelming feeling is remorse on his passing. This moment is important because everyone reading the poem will be able to relate to this at some point in their life. When death occurs, an open gap for responsibility forms that is generally left upon the widow. Or in some cases, this responsibility is passed on to their living heirs, such as children or grandchildren. Also the poem does not only have great imagery, but also emotion. Every poem has a sense of emotion that is often personal to the poet, but after reading this poem and analyzing it,a almost anyone can find a sentence with which they sympathize. I also enjoyed how this poem was written in a similar form to most poems, with easy-to-read stanzas.

Kathryn Starbuck does not make the poem as simple as its message. She uses wordplay to make the reader think deeply about her words. For example, she repeats the reference to “the shoe”. She finishes the poem with, “ I know I am an old woman. But I cannot lie in your shoe”. I asked other classmates what they thought of this line after reading the poem aloud to them. Most of them had trouble coming up with an answer immediately. Ryan Niederreither was originally confused with the repetition of the shoe. I personally thought that she used the shoe as a symbol, meaning that she can not fulfill her husband’s old role completely. In my opinion the lines where she mentioned “the shoe” were the most important within the poem. A majority of the other lines were clear cut and pretty self-explanatory. Afterwards, I explained my opinion to Ryan, and he came to agree with my interpretation.

Compared to other poems that I read in this volume of Best American Poetry, I enjoyed this one the most. The last poem I read and wrote about was “Divide and Conquer” by Alan Sullivan. I found this poem to be more difficult to understand, yet it had a more contemporary backstory. Although, I found it interesting how the two poems were both focused on a similar theme of death. I have a feeling that this theme will continue to be repeated throughout the course of this class. I believe that poets often chose to write about death because they can easily connect with readers and provoke emotion within all.

After reading the Contributors’ Notes in the back of  Best American Poetry, I found that Starbuck had a very different life compared to most other anthologized poets. Many other poets are employed as professors at universities, mainly because this is one of the few ways that modern poet can make a living. Yet, Starbuck began her successful poetry career in her sixties.

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