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Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Thanks to the New Poetry list, I've known for a few weeks that the April issue of Poetry had essays by Dana Gioia and August Kleinzahler on Garrison Keillor's Good Poetry. I wanted to read the essays—I own and like the book; I've admired Dana Gioia's poetry and criticism for a long time; though I don't kow Kleinzahler's poetry at all, I remembered being affected (but not how) while reading his week's journal at Slate—but since I didn't renew my Poetry subscription 3 years ago, and the closest store that carries it is 50 miles north of my bachelor pad by the Navy base, I was resigned to missing them.

Poetry Daily to the rescue. Go read them, Gioia here and Kleinzahler here.

Both men came to the book with considerable skepticism, but Gioia, at least, appears to have actually read it and been surprised and pleased by what he found. He recognizes Keillor's introduction for the spiky and confrontational thing it is, and correctly recognizes that the book's organization by theme signals that this is not a teaching anthology, but rather an anthology of poems which people might actually turn to for insight, a good story, amusement, or, anathema!, comfort.

Kleinzahler, on the other hand, appears to be so violently affronted by Keillor's mere existence that he couldn't bring himself to do much more than glance at the table of contents. He doesn't comment on the selections except to say that he has "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" and that the book "isn't as bad as one might think had one been listening now and then to Keillor's morning segment over the years." He sneers "Its principal virtue is that one doesn't have to endure Keillor's poetry voice." Here's his summary of Keillor on the constraints imposed by reading poems on the radio:

"So I'll be feeding you mostly shit," is what Garrison could well go on to say. No Antonin Artaud with the flapjacks, please.

Kleinzahler insists that "art's exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console, simply entertain," and it's clear he doesn't believe there's much chance that anything could possibly improve, nourish, or console such vermin as human beings are. After reading his essay, I remember how his journal affected me, because the persona in both is a mean-spirited jerk and a poseur. He may be a wonderful uncle to somebody and he may be a fine poet, but I'll be damned if I want to find out after reading (and re-reading, in the journal) his vitriolic spew.


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