Fair to say Garrison Keillor has his way with words. The longtime host of public radios A Prairie Home Companion is a grand storyteller, of course, but also a novelist and songwriter.
By EDWARD M. EVELD
The Kansas City Star
And now, author of a book of poetry.
Specifically Keillor is a perpetrator and advocate of light verse. The humorist comes to Kansas City on Tuesday to talk about his 99-entry volume, O, What a Luxury.
At 71, Keillors not switching gears. He and the crew are planning the 2014-15 season of his much-loved National Public Radio show. Next summer marks its 40th anniversary.
Songs and ditties a form of light verse have long been a staple of A Prairie Home Companion, along with folk music and Keillors memorable characters and tales, from the good folks of Lake Wobegon to the adventures of detective Guy Noir and the boys in The Lives of the Cowboys.
Keillor, based in St. Paul, Minn., has edited three Good Poems anthologies and has a daily NPR segment called The Writers Almanac, a five-minute item that includes a little history and always a poem from a favorite or newfound writer. (KCUR does not carry it.)
These are stories and poems that touch peoples imaginations in the midst of all the news and all the voices and the hue and cry, he says. The poems are immediately accessible on one hearing. No need for you to go study them.
Much like his book. Here are excerpts of our recent conversation with Keillor.
Q. First off, all of these poems rhyme. What the heck?
A. Ive always liked poems that rhyme. I feel a sort of triumph if I come up with a rhyme that I dont think anybody has ever done before.
Moon and June are beneath me, and really any poet. But when you do a poem about a man who doesnt have an iPhone and rhyme Schenectady with connected he, then youve really achieved something in the English language.
Its a much bigger moment for me than if I wrote a poem about an owl with a wounded wing flying out of the brown spruce tree, and there in the shadows. I wrote those poems when I was a sophomore in college. I wrote poems Id hesitate to even show you because theyre absolutely unintelligible, and deliberately so.
That was the mark of being cool, being inscrutable and a mystery to all other people. But you get over that. Youre supposed to get over that.
You dedicate the book to the masters of the house, Ogden Nash, Cole Porter, John Updike, Ira Gershwin, Roger Miller and Roy Blount Jr.
Ogden Nash was a heroic writer. He wrote lyrics for Broadway musicals as other people did, such as P.G. Wodehouse, and he kept on with this form, which for lack of a better term, is light verse, as opposed to heavy verse. He wrote for the New Yorker and other magazines on into the 1960s when this sort of verse had gone out of style.
The New Yorker of today wouldnt touch this stuff with a 10-foot pole. They abhor it, bless their hearts.
I sent a poem to the poetry editor there at the time, the title poem from the book, O, What a Luxury, and she met me in the hall and said, Oh, Garrison, you know we cant print this. And I said, Because it mentions pissing? And the editor said, No, because it rhymes and its amusing.
Where do these poems come from?
Some were written for occasions, friends weddings and wedding anniversaries, but most of them were written for A Prairie Home Companion and were done on the show. Some were song lyrics, some Ive reworded.
They were mostly playfulness, a sort of playfulness to entertain people on a Saturday night, people whove put in a long week of work and dont want to work any harder to understand your poems.
Lots of the poems are about coupling, about getting the girl, about love. Why is that?
Sure, the theme of half of all the best poems in English are about wanting her, about coupling. Edgar Allan Poe wrote Annabel Lee and he kept writing it over and over.
I judged a poetry contest once, in fact Ive judged several, and what disturbed me about the entries was not the level of skill there were varying levels and thats fine it was that there were so few poems of admiration and adoration and praise and so many poems of complaint.
Endless poems of complaint, about the false lover, the bad parents, ones emptiness about the death of Snowball the cat. And so few love poems. I was really dismayed by that.
I dont understand. Why would any red-blooded American boy write a poem if not for a girl, to impress her? That was my first reason for writing, and its still my motivation. My wife really likes this book, and Im so pleased about that.
Then there are poems about urination, of course, and poems about places including Kansas with some great rhymes and limericks. You must love limericks.
I have one poem about urination. OK, and one about urology.
And, yes, poems about Minnesota and the Midwest, kind of chauvinistic poems, I guess. And Kansas. Seattle. And a number of New York poems. I really love the city.
And I love limericks. Such a simple form, and yet you need a little bit of an ear to pick up on it. Its very precise, and when youre able to make a joke within that small space, its like working out a puzzle, a complicated puzzle.
There are winners and honorable mentions. I wrote one about a vegan: A vegan with nothing to do, picked up a sandwich to chew, and took a big bite, and cried out in fright, OMG! WTF! BBQ!
You have no idea through the first four lines what the joke is going to be. And the real joke is tossing in WTF. People sort of twitch.
No epic poems, I guess, although there are a few longer ones, over several pages.
I think the longest one is the Address to the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. I should have written a footnote to describe the scene.
There were a number of Harvard poets and distinguished professors of literature in the audience, and they were shocked, and not pleasantly so, to see who was giving the oration. And that he was going to do a long, Ogden Nash-type of poem. But the kids liked it a lot.
It was a poem that advises them to have their midlife crisis now while theyre young and not to put it off when it would do real damage to people and cause pain and confusion. If you do it now, in your 20s, you will quickly recover, so go off and do something embarrassing.
Are there a few poems out of the book that you really hope people wont miss?
I really like the three-part poem called Manners, in which Im telling people, dont stare, dont scratch your butt, dont pick your nose. Basic things people ought to know but not everybody does.
I like Cicadas, about cicada sex and how straightforward it is. And I like the poem about thongs, Thong Song.
The one that advises against wearing one.
Im just expressing the opinion of an older person, a man with a daughter. Shes 15. And thats my feeling: No daughter of mine wears thongs. Thats the bottom line.
Any new plans, projects?
I want to write a Lake Wobegon musical about this small town, but not nostalgic. I want to write a sort of surrealistic musical about a small town in which there are people who live in close proximity and sit in close proximity, in church and the café. They know each other intimately, but they dont know each other very well.
I think this is true of other people and not just me. Ive said more about myself that was very personal and intimate to people Ive sat next to on planes, things that I wouldnt or couldnt tell my siblings or people I grew up with. I think this is an American habit.
What are your hopes for this book?
I hope it will take its place on the shelf with the people I dedicated the book to, John Updike, Ogden Nash. And I hope it gives pleasure to whoever opens it.
Just pick up the book, and wherever you open it, thats the right place. If that poem doesnt please you, I apologize.
Kansas by Garrison Keillor
From Garrison Keillors poetry collection, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound, published by Grove Press.
Savannah, Santa Fe, Montana Laurel Canyon, Susquehanna San Francisco or Manhattan Eat your heart out, Im in Kansas.
Im in Kansas, Handsome Kansas In the land of long romances Fertile plants and cash finances Handsome mansions, the advance Of mans expansion here in Kansas.
Rembrandt, Cezanne, couldve painted Kansas The landscapes like the south of France is. Chopin would have written dances Had he hung his pants in Kansas.
All the saints, including Francis, Prayed that if the Good Lord grants us Second chances, could we Transubstantiate to Kansas?
MEET THE AUTHOR
Who: Garrison Keillor, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 8
Where: Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St.
Admission: $20 plus tax includes one copy of the book and two tickets. Call 913-384-3126 or go to rainydaybooks.com for details.