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On Garrison Keillor's Good Poems:

"No Antonin Artaud with the Flapjacks, Please"

by August Kleinzahler

from Poetry


Readers may remember how the U.S. military blared Van Halen and others at the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, when he took refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City during our invasion of Panama years ago. This method of rousting the wicked proved so successful that it was repeated during the recent Afghan experience, when heavy metal chart-busters were unleashed on caves thought to be sheltering Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. The English Guardian newspaper reported last year that we were breaking the wills of captured terrorists, or suspected terrorists, by assaulting them first with heavy metal followed by "happy-smiley children's songs." The real spirit cruncher turns out to be the "Barney, I Love You" song played for hours on end. Even the most hardened, sadistic killers buckle under "that kind of hell," or so asserted a reliable source. But if that fails to work, I suggest a round-the-clock tape of Garrison Keillor reading poems on his daily Writer's Almanac show.

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Now, had Keillor not "strayed off the reservation" and kept to his Prairie Home Companion show with its Norwegian bachelor farmers and Lutheran bake sales (a sort of Spoon River Anthology as presented by the Hallmark Hall of Fame), comfort food for the philistines, a contemporary, bittersweet equivalent to the Lawrence Welk Show of years past, I'd have left him alone. But the indefatigable and determined purveyor of homespun wisdom has wandered into the realm of fire, and for his trespass must be burned.

If it were up to me, I'd suggest we borrow the U.S. military's tactics and lock Mr. Keillor in a Quonset hut, crank up the speakers, and give him an industrial-strength dose of, say, Albert Ayler saxophone solos until this "much beloved radio personality" forswears reading poems over the airwaves every morning. Ayler's music is not a particular enthusiasm of mine. The late poet Ted Joans described Ayler's solos as shocking as hearing someone scream "Fuck!" in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. But Garrison Keillor could do with a little Albert Ayler in his church, and church is what Keillor is all about. Everything that comes out of his mouth in that treacly baritone, which occasionally releases into a highpitched, breathless tremolo when he wants to convey emotion, is a sermon. The homily runs something like this: we are good, if foolish and weak, and may gain redemption through compassion, laughing at ourselves, and bad poetry badly read.

Albert Ayler could only be a tonic for Keillor — a tonic we will force-feed him as they force-feed a goose in Perigord for foie gras — because Ayler's art is opposite to Keillor's shtick. Everything Keillor does is about reassurance, containment, continuity. He makes no demands on his audiences, none whatsoever. To do so would only be bad manners. Gentleness and good manners are the twin pillars of the church of Keillor.

August Kleinzahler

Ayler is all about excess, anger, challenge, exploration, risk. Even when his improvisations fail, they fail bravely. His mission is to explode conventions and expectations. It would never have crossed his mind musically to be ingratiating or reassuring, or polite. Nor should it have done. That is not what music or poetry is for, especially in times like these. There is a passage from a William Carlos Williams poem, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," dear to the hearts of those who would peddle poetry, or the idea of poetry, to the masses. I have heard it read on NPR in that solemn, hushed tone that is a commonplace among poetry salespersons, not least Mr. Keillor:

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                I come, my sweet,
                                to sing to you!
My heart rouses
                thinking to bring you news
                                of something
that concerns you
                and concerns many men. Look at
                                what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
                despised poems.
                                It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                yet men die miserably every day
                                for lack
of what is found there.

A pretty sentiment, to be sure, but simply untrue, as anyone who has been to the supermarket or ballpark recently will concede. Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, eating, defecating, copulating, shopping, working, catching the latest Disney blockbuster, without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else. Nor will their lives be diminished by not standing in front of a Cézanne at the art museum or listening to a Beethoven piano sonata. Most people have neither the sensitivity, inclination, or training to look or listen meaningfully, nor has the culture encouraged them to, except with the abstract suggestion that such things are good for you. Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.

Garrison Keillor's Good Poems

Especially most of what Garrison Keillor reads on his Writer's Almanac, which, as a rule, isn't poetry at all but prose arbitrarily broken into lines masquerading as poetry. The typical Keillor selection tends to be anecdotal, wistful: more often than not a middle-aged creative writing instructor catching a whiff of mortality in the countryside — watching the geese head south, getting lost in the woods, this sort of thing.

John Ash, writing of the brilliant, fellow English poet Roy Fisher, speaks of Fisher's "rage, his refusal to be politely depressed." There is a virulent strain of the "politely depressed" in American poetry. There are other, equally obnoxious and resistant strains, but the "politely depressed" is a pertinacious little bugger, and Garrison Keillor is only helping to spread it.

Poetry not only isn't good for you, bad poetry has been shown to cause lymphomas and, in extreme instances, pancreatic cancer, in laboratory experiments. (I'll have to dig around in my notes to find exactly what study that was....) I avoid Keillor's poetry moment at nine a.m. here in San Francisco as I avoid sneezing, choking, rheumy-eyed passengers on the streetcar, lest I catch something. But occasionally, while surfing for the news, I get bit and am nearly always sickened, if not terminally, for several hours.

Keillor means well. Of course he does. That's his problem. His execrable Almanac begins with a few bars of hymn-style piano. And how could it be otherwise? We are in church. Garrison is ministering culture. A series of four or five capsulized, and trivialized, biographies of writers born on that same day follows: "Emily Dickinson was born on this day in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. She wasn't a picture, God knows, and was reclusive in her ways. She wrote small, puzzling poems that no one read until she was dead." Keillor then proceeds to read a poem, of Ms. Dickinson's, if we are lucky, or of one of his stand-bys like Billy Collins, if we are not. It doesn't really matter. Keillor embalms whatever poem he reads within the burnished caul of his delivery, a voice one friend of mine describes as "probably taken out at day's end and left to stand all night in a glass of bourbon." Keillor then signs off: "Be well, do good work, keep in touch." You bet, Garrison, I'm right on it.

I have little doubt that a Keillor staffer picks the poems for the show, a superannuated former M.F.A. from the Iowa Workshop would be my guess, one familiar with Keillor's appalling taste, sentimentality, and the constraints of format. Keillor will deny this, as will his staff. But there's no way he'd have the time, either to read poetry or even sift casually through volumes current and old, to choose an appropriate poem. He not only has his weekly radio show, he's busy producing rotten books on what seems an almost seasonal basis. Also, judging by the introduction to Good Poems, a selection of poems from five years of those read on The Writer's Almanac, Keillor is infatuated with the idea of poetry but knows and cares little or nothing about the art, what's good, what's bad, and how it's made. But that doesn't stop him, oh no. Keillor is all appetite, irrepressible, the hardest working "thoughtful person" in show business.

In his introduction to the collection, Keillor warns us:

The goodness of a poem is severely tested by reading it on the radio. The radio audience is not the devout sisterhood you find at poetry readings, leaning forward, lips pursed, hanky in hand [?!]; it's more like a high school cafeteria. People listen to poems while they're frying eggs and sausage and reading the paper and reasoning with their offspring, so I find it wise to stay away from stuff that is too airy or that refers off-handedly to the poet Li-Po or relies on your familiarity with butterflies or Spanish or Monet.
"So I'll be feeding you mostly shit," is what Garrison could well go on to say. No Antonin Artaud with the flapjacks, please.

Actually, Good Poems isn't as bad as one might think had one been listening now and then to Keillor's morning segment over the years. Its principal virtue is that one doesn't have to endure Keillor's poetry voice. But the range of the selections suggests more variety than the show customarily offers, and there's a healthy dollop of Anonymous, Shakespeare, Ms. Dickinson, Burns, Whitman, et al. There are surprising and delightful choices I would never have credited Keillor in making (he probably didn't) like Anne Porter, an excellent and little-known poet published by the now extinct Zoland Press. And the volume contains enlightened selections of the work of well-known contemporaries; I'm thinking here of a particularly good C. K. Williams poem. Of course, on balance, it's a rotten collection I wouldn't recommend to anyone, but it's not so bad as it might have been.

Keillor is not the first to offer the masses reassurance and diversion through poetry on the radio. Edgar Guest (1881-1957) broadcast a weekly program on NBC from 1931 to 1942, and his topical verses were syndicated to over 300 newspapers throughout the U.S. in his daily "Table Chat" column. Known as the "poet of the people," Guest published more than twenty volumes of poetry and was thought to have written over 11,000 poems, almost all of them fourteen lines long and presenting "a sentimental view of everyday life." Guest's Collected Verse appeared in 1934 and went into at least eleven editions. "I take the simple everyday things that happen to me," Guest wrote, "and I figure it happens to a lot of other people and I make simple rhymes out of them."

Are we not yet adult enough as a culture to acknowledge that the arts are not for everyone, and that bad art is worse than no art at all; and that good or bad, art's exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console, simply entertain. And in this, Moby Dick or Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" are not different than the movie Cat in the Hat or Britney Spears wiggling her behind on stage; the former being more complexly entertaining and satisfying, but only for those who can appreciate the difference, and they are the minority.

Let me quote from a lecture the British poet Basil Bunting gave in Vancouver in 1970:

Poetry is no use whatever. The whole notion of usefulness is irrelevant to what are called the fine arts, as it is to many other things, perhaps to most of the things that really matter. We who call ourselves "The West," now that we've stopped calling ourselves Christians, are so imbued with the zeal for usefulness that was left us by Jeremy Benthem that we find it difficult to escape from utilitarianism into a real world.

In America, usefulness is indissolubly wed to profit, increased capital. Poetry is no exception. It is worth reflecting during National Poetry Month that creative writing, over the past forty years, has subsumed American poetry and become a 250-million-dollar industry, a rather seamy industry, and an off-shoot of the rather seamy Human Potential Movement industry. American poetry is now an international joke. And not just internationally: American novelists, nonfiction writers, scholars, the enlightened general reader who a generation ago read poetry as a matter of course, for pleasure, rarely attend to it anymore. Poetry is seldom, if ever, reviewed in mainstream journals like the New York Times, the New Yorker, Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly, and when it is reviewed at all, it is reviewed in a cursory or inept manner.

Publishers will cheerfully volunteer — at least last time I checked — that poetry has never sold so well. Surely, never have so many written it and sought to publish it. I have every expectation that Keillor's Good Poems is doing land-office business. It's that kind of book and has the editor's broad public appeal behind it. I expect Mr. Keillor's morning show has legions of faithful listeners as well, who feel nourished and broadened by his daily reading of poetry, as countless Americans once felt about Edgar Guest and his more homely product.

But I, for one, have never in my lifetime seen the situation of poetry in this country more dire or desperate. Nor is the future promising. Cultural and economic forces only suggest further devastation of any sort of vital literary culture, along with the prospects of the very, very few — it is always only a very few — poets who will matter down the road. What little of real originality is out there is drowning in the waste products spewing from graduate writing programs like the hog farm waste that recently overflowed its holding tanks in the wake of Hurricane Isabel, fouling the Carolina countryside and poisoning everything in its path.

Let me put it starkly: the better animals in the jungle aren't drawn to poetry anymore, and they're certainly not tuned in to Keillor's Writer's Almanac. Just as the new genre of the novel drew off most of the brilliant young writers of the nineteenth century, movies, television, MTV, advertising, rock 'n' roll, and the internet have taken the best among the recent crop of young talent. Do you suppose for a moment that a spirited youngster with a brilliant, original mind and gifted up the yin-yang is going to sit still for two years of creative writing poetry workshops presided over by a dispirited, compromised mediocrity, all the while critiquing and being critiqued by younger versions of the same?

Boosterism of the sort Garrison Keillor participates in on The Writer's Almanac will succeed in shifting more than a few books of poetry, not least his Good Poems, and in encouraging countless more people to write. But there exists a surfeit of encouragement of this kind in America at the moment, and there's very little to show for it. The merchandising of poetry, or at least the slick, sentimental idea of it, is the problem, not the solution.

Allow me to conclude with a poem called "National Poetry Day" by the Scottish poet Gael Turnbull, which is timely and also reminds us that this sort of foolishness, though endemic in the U.S. of A., is not altogether unique to it.

"Transform your life with poetry"
the card said, and briefly I fussed
that this overestimated the effect
until I remembered how it had thrust
several old friends,
plus near and dear,
into distress and penury,
how even I, without the dust
of its magic, might have achieved
peace of mind, even success,
so maybe the advice is just,
not to be ignored, a sort of timely
Health Warning from the Ministry
of Benevolence
at the Scottish Book Trust.


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