GARRISON KEILLOR: There is a little verse in the Lake Wobegon Herald Star every week, or most weeks, by Margaret Haskins Durber:
How lightly falls the evening snow
Through the yellow streetlamp glow
And quietly the cars go by,
The sound of tires like a sigh.
And now and then poetry may be quoted from the pulpit. At funerals, the card for the deceased has a short poem on it, usually one chosen by the undertaker’s wife from a small selection of memorial verse. There is humorous verse on plaques, of course:
The wise old owl sat in the tree.
The more he talked, the less he’d see.
The less he talked, the more he heard.
Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?
But in general adults don’t read poetry, not in Lake Wobegon or anywhere else. In the schools, children are being taught a smattering of the English classics, from Shakespeare and the Elizabethans through Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Eliot, and some poets, such as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, Sherman Alexie and Joy Harjo, within a “multicultural format,” i.e., not as poems but as cultural tokens.
PFE: We’ve read your lively introduction to poetry in Good Poems for Hard Times, but wondered if you could tell our readers a different story about how and when you discovered poetry, or about what role it plays in your life now?
GK: Nowadays, I’m just an old, ink-stained poetry hack who likes to dash off limericks for strangers, sonnets for friends on their birthdays (using the letters of their names as the first letter of each line), and lyrics for A Prairie Home Companion. I get a certain amount of pleasure from
There was an old man of Blue Hill
Who, when the church was quite still
During Christmas Eve mass,
Liked to pass gas
Toward a candle, just for the thrill.
And I wade through crates of poetry to find poems to read on The Writer’s Almanac, which is my pro bono job. But when I was 14, a student at Anoka Junior High, writing poetry was a way to excel and get attention. It was rebellious and yet smiled upon by teachers, so long as one stayed within the rules of decorum. Which were fun to toy with. I couldn’t play sports because I had a congenital heart problem, and I couldn’t be in school plays or orchestra because I couldn’t stay after school, but I could write poems on my own time, with nothing but paper and pen, and make a little splash. This was very satisfying. I was the usual sort of odd kid—glasses, nerdy clothes, tongue-tied—and poetry was an escape route from the prison of self-consciousness.
PFE: What poems are you reading to your daughter?
GK: My daughter is seven and despite a slight learning disability, she loves words, so we like to make up little couplets, like jump-rope rhymes. She loves to sing, so we sing together, usually songs she knows by heart, such as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Oklahoma,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” And Christmas carols, of course, and things like
The horses stood around with their feet upon the ground.
O who will wind my wristwatch when I’m gone?
We feed the baby garlic so we can find him in the dark,
And a girl’s best friend is her father.
PFE: What role do you think poetry could play in our culture, besides marking life’s transitions, such as weddings and funerals?
GK: Poetry plays various useful roles. Academic poetry is written for students to write papers about—poets whom I find completely unreadable but whom MFA students like to imitate. A lot of poetry is written for therapy, some of which is actually good, and is useful to the poets. I’ve attended open mike readings that were amazing, a sort of AA for the unhappy, and you’d see woman after woman get up and read Bad Daddy poems, or Bad Boyfriend poems, and people clapped for them and the poet smiled and felt vindicated.
Then there are song lyrics, some of which earn money. There is poetry written in hopes of being read and memorized and passed on. The poet may be some nobody living off in the wilds of Kansas, but she comes straight at you like a crazy relative on the phone and she really wants you to hear what she’s saying. And then there’s Billy Collins, who has a huge following. Go to one of his readings and you’ll see why. He’s very funny and personable and graceful. He’s sort of the Dean Martin of poetry. An artist disguised as a comedian.