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Thursday, April 22, 2004

In comments on Tuesday's post, Jonathan Mayhew complains about Keillor's Good Poems that it contains "a remarkable shortage of excellent and great poems," and Jim agrees with him. They're both wrong.

Jim does offer the excuse for Keillor that poems read at the end of a short radio show must pass the "Huh?" filter, asking "Would a great poem that deserves more in depth study or contemplation work in that venue?" I'll go along with him this far: even granting (which I do not) that the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets or Graham and her spawn have written excellent poems, those poems would not pass the "Huh?" filter. However, it is not the case that only those poems which rely on the great learning and intelligence of their readers may be excellent or great. In fact, the greatest poems, however much they may repay meditative study, damned well get past "Huh?"

And just how many great poems are there in English? A few dozens per century? Fewer? Of those, how many can be read aloud in a minute or two? A few sonnets? It would be truly remarkable if the book did contain a large number of them.

Perhaps my standard for a great poem is unreasonably high. What about the merely excellent? The book is full of them, far too many to do justice by naming a few here, but I'll mention some anyway, poems I read for the first time in this anthology: the opening poem, Thomas Lux's "Poem in Thanks," Kenneth Rexroth's "Quietly," Stephen Dobyns's "No Map," Robert Hass's "The Feast," Howard Nemerov's "Walking the Dog," May Sarton's "Death and the Turtle," Roy Daniels's "Noah," Frank O'Hara's "Animal," John Clare's "Winter Winds Cold and Blea," Steve Scafidi's "Prayer for a Marriage," W. H. Auden's "Ode to the Medieval Poets" (I must have read that one before, but I don't remember having done it), May Swenson's "Bison Crossing Near Mt. Rushmore."

But Jonathan describes the book as "pure middle-brow NPR taste," and reports, "Too much Stafford, Bly, Kumin, Olds, and Collins. Flat-languaged free-verse narrative/confessional poems predominate." What really happens? Keillor presents 173 poets, if you count the 4 by Anonymous as being written by one person, in 394 actual pages of poetry. More poems by Emily Dickinson (8) than by anyone else. There's more free verse than I would have chosen, but not much flat language. There are a lot of story poems, and many of them at least pretend to be autobiographical. But confessional? Who knows? Who cares? Of the 5 poets whom Jonathan complains are too well-represented, Keillor uses 2 each from Collins, Olds, and Stafford, 3 from Kumin, and 5 from Bly. That last must be a Minnesota thing, but I would be glad to have more Kumin. Here is one of hers from the book:

The Excrement Poem

It is done by us all, as God disposes, from
the least cast of worm to what must have been
in the case of the brontosaur, say, spoor
of considerable heft, something awesome.

We eat, we evacuate, survivors that we are.
I think these things each morning with shovel
and rake, drawing the risen brown buns
toward me, fresh from the horse oven, as it were,

or culling the alfalfa green ones, expelled
in a state of ooze, through the sawdust bed
to take a serviceable form, as putty does,
so as to lift out entire from the stall.

And wheeling to it, storming up the slope,
I think of the angle of repose the manure
pile assumes, how sparrows come to pick
the redelivered grain, how inky-cap

coprinus mushrooms spring up in a downpour.
I think of what drops from us and must then
be moved to make way for the next and next.
However much we stain the world, spatter

it with our leavings, make stenches, defile
the great formal oceans with what leaks down,
trundling off today's last barrowful,
I honor shit for saying: we go on.

Pretty middlebrow, huh?

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