Garrison Keillor: Good Poems, Title Tells All

A review of Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor

Good Poems
Good Poems

When I first saw Garrison Keillor’s anthology, Good Poems, I was prepared to treat it with mild condescension. The title struck me as a little too coy, and my first glance through its topically arranged pages noticed mostly the sundry quality of its contents. “Title tells all,” I thought, as the movie commentators in TV Guide used to say, when forced to describe films like Teen Cheerleader Murders or Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. Keillor is a deft and original entertainer with a genuine literary gift, especially for a brand of satire so decorous and gentle that it blurs into nostalgic romance, but he is not a writer given to the lyric extremes of powerful emotion so often essential to poetry. I assumed that most of the poems in Good Poems would, indeed, be good poems, but probably not good enough to make the book a necessary addition to the already overcrowded field of anthologies.

I must mention here, in the spirit of full disclosure, two relevant facts that may have colored my initial reaction to Good Poems. The first is that one of the 294 poems in Keillor’s collection is mine—a situation that surely inclines a poet toward a kinder view of any anthology. But I first learned this happy fact only from a friend because—and this is the second relevant disclosure—the publisher had never sent me a copy. This unintentional oversight irked me. Poets are generally a thankless, vain, and insecure lot (at least I am), and so my umbrage canceled out my gratitude, leaving me not quite an objective observer but probably no more subjective than usual, though I had no inkling then that I would soon be asked to review the book.

Good Poems now strikes me as a perfect title—simultaneously witty, plainspoken, and gently subversive—rather like its editor, Garrison Keillor.So much for first impressions. Now that I’ve lived with Good Poems for some months—toting it in my briefcase on my travels, reading it in assorted airports, hotel rooms, coffeeshops, and time zones—my opinions have changed profoundly. Let me start with my impression of the title. Good Poems now strikes me as a perfect title—simultaneously witty, plainspoken, and gently subversive—rather like its editor, Garrison Keillor. On a library shelf groaning from the collective weight of Immortal Poems of the English Language, Great American Poets, and The New Major Poets, there is something both sensible and reassuring about a collection of dependably good poems.

Despite having been born in Hailey, Idaho, Ezra Pound is absent from Keillor’s pages for reasons, I suppose, having to do with the poet’s subsequent travels, but these lines from Pound’s magnificent and mostly forgotten “Homage to Sextus Propertius” came to mind in considering the virtues of Keillor’s approach. After complaining about the bloated literature of his late Imperial age, Pound’s Roman persona asks not for epic grandeur:

But for something to read in normal circumstances?
For a few pages brought down from the forked hill unsullied?
I ask a wreath which will not crush my head.

Keillor is quite conscious and deliberate in his intention to compile a book “to read in normal circumstances.” Good Poems, he announces in his characteristically wry but also surprisingly (and pleasingly) pointed introduction, is “simply a book of poems that got read over the radio on a daily five-minute show called The Writer’s Almanac, poems that somehow stuck with me and with some of the listeners.” He goes on to specify his editorial criterion: “stickiness, memorability, is one sign of a good poem.” The goddess Mnemosyne was the mother of the Muses, and memorability is a governing aesthetic that Horace, Dante, and Milton would have understood, though one does not hear it mentioned much today in graduate schools. Our age has more sophisticated notions of poetic merit. Yet isn’t there something quite primitive, indeed primal, about the poetic art that links it unbreakably to the power of memorable language? If one compares Keillor’s allegedly modest volume with some ambitious recent anthologies, “stickiness” appears to be a more reliable criterion than some alternatives.

It will surprise no listener of A Prairie Home Companion that Keillor’s introduction to Good Poems is smart, humorous, and gleefully unintellectual. Initially pretending to serve as a critical preface to the anthology, the piece soon modulates in the author’s sly, well-practiced way into a personal essay. The piece is so lively and funny that it takes some time to recognize how substantial and intellectually provocative it is. For all its disarming rhetoric of homely common-sense, Keillor’s introduction displays more critical acumen and editorial courage than one usually finds prefacing an anthology. In some curious way Keillor’s piece is closer to the brash and playful style of a Futurist manifesto or early Modernist polemic (by post-Idaho Pound) than the down-home comfort prose of “Letters from Lake Wobegon.” When Lutherans turn literary, watch out; they actually know how to épater la bourgeoisie, at least academic bourgeoisie.

Keillor interweaves two themes—his own changing taste in contemporary poetry since leaving the university decades ago and his informed speculations on how non-literary people approach poetry, especially poetry they hear on the radio. Needless to say, these are two subjects on which Keillor has a singular expertise. Keillor’s account of his own preferences in poetry is direct, engaged, and very funny. Compare his introductory remarks to those that preface most current anthologies, and one will be thunderstruck by his merciless candor and opinionated individuality. The politesse and meekness of Po-Biz insiders is blissfully absent from his lively assessments of American poets. Here are his remarks on Walt Whitman:

I expected to include plenty of Whitman here and discovered, reading him, a sort of seasickness at all those undulating lines of Uncle Walt’s perpetual swoon over grass and leaves and camerados. There are good poems there, and it’s a mistake to omit them, but Walt is the Typhoid Mary of American Lit: so much bad poetry can be traced back to him (and not brief bad poems, either), he gave so many dreadful writers permission to lavish themselves upon us.

Or sample this quick survey of modern American women poets:

When you compare Bishop to, say, her friend and mentor Marianne Moore, the mentor pales severely. Marianne Moore was a dotty old aunt whose poems are quite replicable for anyone with a thesaurus. . . . Her contemporary, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who played the glamorous broad and taxi dancer to Moore’s bunhead librarian, wrote more that is still of interest, whereas Moore’s reputation must be due to the fact that, in the republic of letters, there are many more Moores than Millays. From Millay it’s a straight shot to Anne Sexton, a writer of profound exuberance and wit and a hot number, and her cohort, the beautiful horsekeeper, Maxine Kumin, two women who, forgive me, make St. Sylvia look like tuna salad.

No reader of Poetry will need to be informed that Keillor’s smart-aleck commentary is not the way we are accustomed to hearing poetry discussed in polite literary society. We hear movies, rock music, television, and other popular arts discussed in this fast and funky manner, but poetry is habitually addressed in a slow and solemn way. Nowadays dullness has come to signify a poetry critic’s sincerity. Keillor’s tone is obviously designed to rile anyone who holds the conventionally high critical opinion of Moore and Plath (and the conventionally low one of Millay).

Some people will find Keillor’s pointed remarks offensive and uninformed. I found them refreshing and trustworthy. I was refreshed by his high spirits and determination to have fun, even when talking about poetry. I found his approach trustworthy, even when I disagreed with particular opinions (which wasn’t often), because I trust an editor who confides both what he likes and dislikes. No one trusts a critic who dislikes everything, of course, but only an auctioneer, as Oscar Wilde observed, admires all works of art.

In Good Poems Keillor suggests that what makes a poem good depends both on what one intends to use it for and who intends to use it. If one wants a poem for English majors to analyze in a seminar room, certain qualities are likely to be prized—complexity, density, ambivalence. But if one intends poems to reach a general audience in the ordinary business of their day, then other qualities are primary—such as expressive power, music, and memorability.

Memorability is the core of Keillor’s aesthetic, but significantly, he does not invoke the traditional mnemonic powers of rhyme and meter. On the contrary, he has a decided preference for the plainspoken free verse of writers like Raymond Carver, William Stafford, and Robert Bly. If not verbal music, then what makes language stick in the mind? Not surprisingly for such a noted raconteur, Keillor locates memorability in storytelling. “What makes a poem memorable is its narrative line,” he asserts. “A story is easier to remember than a puzzle.”

If it weren’t already clear from his introduction how radically Keillor departs from conventional literary etiquette, then even a cursory glance at his table of contents will close the case. Most poetry anthologies today are organized by author or by element. Author anthologies arrange writers chronologically or alphabetically. Element anthologies, usually introductory textbooks, organize the poems into discrete teaching units with topics like “Image,” “Word Choice,” or “Symbol.” These types of organization are obviously didactic, sensibly designed for the convenience of teachers, because few editors or publishers nowadays can imagine any anthology that isn’t being sold and read by compulsory assignment in a classroom.

In Good Poems Keillor revives the old custom of arranging poems thematically. The book contains sections with titles like “Lovers,” “Sons and Daughters,” “Music,” “Elders,” “Complaint,” and “Failure.” A section of religious poetry appears, defended by gentle irony, under the rubric, “O Lord.” Good Poems is not a volume aimed at academic pursuits but at ordinary human purposes. And it insists that poetry can still play a meaningful role in those purposes. So unambiguously dedicated to the notion that poetry is a vehicle for truth, self-awareness, and inspiration, Good Poems is a post-modernist’s nightmare in nineteen chapters.

The book Good Poems most closely resembles is Hazel Felleman’s once ubiquitous and now unspeakably unfashionable Best Loved Poems of the American People (1936), which sold 1.5 million copies to our parents and grandparents. Felleman divided her book into “Love and Friendship,” “Inspiration,” “Home and Mothers,” “Memory and Grief,” and other straightforward categories—assuming that people would generally consult the book according to their moods and situations. My working-class mother had a well-worn copy on the bookshelf next to the almanac, and she literally did love a great many of the poems that Hazel Felleman provided. She read or recited them so often when I was young that I learned to love quite a few myself. I suspect that Keillor, no mean purveyor of book titles, understands that old-fashioned notion implied in Felleman’s claim of “Best Loved.” One finds a great deal of learning and intelligence in contemporary anthologies, but not much love, not even as a section title.

Keillor’s book has an admirable mix of familiar and unfamiliar poems. The classic shortcoming of anthologies is that they habitually reprint the same poems from the same poets. This tendency may seem difficult to avoid in historical collections. One, after all, expects to find “Lycidas” and “To His Coy Mistress” in an anthology of seventeenth-century English verse. But predictability has become a great limitation in anthologies of modern poetry. It often seems that some anthologies, especially textbooks, are compiled almost entirely from other anthologies. I suspect many of them are.

What greatly impresses me about the contents of Good Poems is the quality, freshness, and diversity of the work included. The book is full of discoveries. I have never, for instance, seen reprinted either W. H. Auden’s wonderfully wicked “At Last the Secret Is Out,” or his “Ode to the Medieval Poets.” The same can be said for Donald Justice’s “The Pupil,” a poignant description of childhood piano lessons, Howard Moss’s wistful “Shorelines,” David Wagoner’s “Lost” (which I remember clipping out of a magazine thirty years ago), or May Swenson’s knock-out travel poem, “Bison Crossing Near Mt. Rushmore,” which ends:

The bison, orderly, disciplined by the prophet-faced,
heavy-headed fathers, threading the pass
of our awestruck stationwagons, Airstreams and trailers,
if in dread of us give no sign,
go where their leaders twine them, over the prairie.
And we keep to our line,
staring, stirring, revving idling motors, moving
each behind the other, herdlike, where the highway leads.

But what impresses me most about Good Poems is the intelligent inclusion of neglected writers. How nice in a book that includes Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to find Gerald Locklin, Kay Ryan, Vassar Miller, Tom Disch, Edward Field, Anne Porter, Robert Phillips, and Joseph Stroud. A perfect example of Keillor’s generous independence from the modern poetry Top-Forty playlist is his obvious fondness for May Sarton. Not a major poet or a stylistic innovator, Sarton cultivated the intimate personal lyric. Her verse often seemed slightly old-fashioned, reminiscent of poets like Elinor Wylie or Sara Teasdale from an earlier generation, especially when she wrote in form. Sarton was the sort of poet who, despite the popularity of her memoirs and novels, rarely made it into the anthologies. Yet there is something genuinely moving about her best poems. Keillor obviously agrees. He includes four of her lovely human-scale lyrics. Among women poets only the unbeatable Dickinson (eight poems) and the often neglected but worthy Lisel Mueller (six poems) get more entries. Bishop gets three poems, including the irresistible “Manners” and that notorious taxi-dancer Millay only two.

It is a truth universally acknowledged—at least it should be—that an anthology is a book that omits your favorite poem. There seems little point in examining Keillor’s exclusions in Good Poems, some of which are surprising. Any volume of only 294 poems will inevitably exclude more writers than it contains. Instead it seems proper to savor his equally surprising passions. How many mid-sized anthologies include four poems each by Howard Nemerov and Charles Bukowski, or three each by Howard Moss and Kenneth Rexroth? Truly East meets West in St. Paul, Minnesota, the capital of Lutheran catholicity.

Ultimately, Good Poems left me grateful for Garrison Keillor, whose Writer’s Almanac has probably done more to expand the audience for American poetry over the past ten years than all the learned journals of New England. He understood that while most people don’t care much for poetry, they do love poems, provided they are good poems. He also understood that most people would rather hear a poem than read it, though they harbor a sensible suspicion that anyone who reads them one poem aloud may be dangerously capable of going on for hours. Presenting only one poem a day at the end of Writer’s Almanac, Keillor has engaged a mass audience without either pretension or condescension. A small victory perhaps, but one that restores faith in the possibilities of public culture.