My Dear Sonneteer: Garrison Keillor
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Bly’s long-ago definition of the sonnet—“where old professors go to
die”—has been sorely tested lately by the appearance of some lively
and unacademic new sonnet collections. William Baer’s “Bocage”
and Other Sonnets, though the work of a professor, doesn’t leak
chalk dust, but crackles with life. Ernest Hilbert’s Sixty
Sonnets dwells in a world that takes in not only traditional art and
literature, but also e-mail and reality TV. Daniel Hoffman’s Makes
You Stop and Think gathers new and selected sonnets by a recognized
master of the form. Now Garrison Keillor, whose Writer’s Almanac on
public radio has made poetry part of the daily diet of a large audience,
and whose anthologies Good Poems
and Good Poems for Hard Times
have circulated widely, saddles up Petrarch’s winged horse and goes for
a canter himself.
In Keillor’s 77 Love Sonnets, love comes in several varieties. There are a few
erotic entries, like the steamy one called “The Beach”, detailing an
in-bed cruise up a woman’s body; and indeed, there are a couple of
sketches of nudes, and section dividers displaying the curve of a bare
backside. Nearly half the sonnets—despite the title, there are
81—portray wives or lovers, or are addressed to them. But the various
objects of love include the late John Updike, feisty old ladies, slain
warriors, a young suicide, Barack and Michelle Obama, and a Bryn Mawr girl
who pulled an early story of Keillor’s out of a slush pile of
submissions to The New Yorker.
The compactness of the sonnet form lends it to diary-keeping, and I’d guess that some of Keillor’s entries may have been written in hotel rooms and on airplane trips. For all we know, maybe he has been saving them up for years. In “So Much” we meet a lonely performer of one-night shows, on tour, doing one-night stands, watching what he eats, going to bed early. If some of them bear traces of hell-for-leather composition, such as reached-for rhymes (“odometer / born under a lucky comet or”), still, they have the verve and spontaneity of real speech.
But I will sure be pissed
If I should have been an atheist.
God: please exist.
of the unorthodox rhymes are gems: “Sauvignon Blanc / honk honk” and
“Socrates / mediocrities.”
Unsympathetic readers will charge Keillor with sentimentality, and at times that charge will be hard to deny (“My eyes get misty when I think of Julie Christie . . . ”). Still, like his persona as host of “Prairie Home Companion,” Keillor comes across as open, unpretentious, and likable, skilled in tickling our ribs and, by noticing little truths we’ve overlooked, delivering shocks of recognition. Basically, he’s an affirmer, keen in his appreciation of a lovely woman, a celebrant of humble joys such as pop music, Baltimore crabs, fresh-picked tomatoes, and coffee. How personal are these poems? Some, like “Listeners,” clearly are self-referring:
O radio listeners, I think of you with gratitude,
Tuned in, simmering tomato sauce, trying not to boil it,
Or biking with headphones, or reclining nude
the bathtub, the radio perched on the toilet.
My novel has sold well (thank you, Lord)
And made the big best-seller lists
So let’s go home and lock the door
practice being hedonists.
what about those pain-filled entries in section 6, like
“Sacrifice”?—“Your therapist said we should break up so we did.”
Presumptuous to speculate, hard not to. One advantage of a tight form is
that in it the poet can lay intimate feelings bare without looking naked
as a skinned mackerel.
think it helps to read the whole book through from cover to cover, for
various as it is, it hangs together and tells a story. After the breakup,
the speaker drops into a morass of grief, still loving his departed; he
warns her next lover, whoever that may be, to treat her well. The book’s
closing section is dark with a sense of growing old and with premonitions
of death, but ends in a kind of stoic resignation, with the hope of going
into that good night together with someone loved.
At the very least, the book proves that in this year of Our Lord 2009 the sonnet is still alive and kicking. Keillor enlarges our sense of what the old fourteen-liner can do. There is even a timely sonnet for the current economic recession (“Bad News”) that remarks on bank crises and stricken pension funds—
And if we must go on welfare and wear
Used clothes and live on angel hair and liverwurst,
Still I’ll smile whenever I see you there,
Bathing in the creek behind our shack.
love you still and hope you love me back.
many poets have so gracefully conversed with the reader in such forthright
American speech, while observing, though not slavishly, a tight-assed
form. (Only one sonnet is cast in free verse.)
So it seems that after years as a poetry impresario, Garrison Keillor has blown his cover. It won’t be possible to think of him anymore as only an engaging radio personality, a diverting humorist, an able novelist, essayist and political commentator, a friend of other people’s verse, but as a poet of force and originality himself, a fresh and yet familiar voice to be reckoned with.