Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I rather like you, and don't have any mean thoughts about you, the way some people do. You are a nice man and can talk about important things to people who might not think so often about them without you. You are well-known in the world, and I am not. To boot, one of my children adores Guy Noir with a great adoration, and so I often hear your voice, telling stories, introducing songs. But I just don't get Writer's Almanac a lot of the time. I'm saying this despite the fact that an e-pal of mine recently had a poem chosen for inclusion. I congratulate him, though I am still bemused.

Recently I mentioned that someone wondered if we had lost the ability to tell a joke from a poem. This was after he had heard a poem on Writer's Almanac. It was not a funny poem. It was not light verse.

This morning he said that he wondered if we had lost the ability to tell an anecdote from a poem. So I looked up today's poem on the NPR site. I'll link to a chance to purchase the book. This is the fairest kind of a deal for today's poet, I think, because no doubt there are masses of people out there who will be amused and not bemused, as I am bemused. NPR informs us that it is TUESDAY, 25 APRIL, 2006. They give us the chance to Listen. They tell us How to listen. And here we can buy the book containing today's poem: "A Girl in Milwaukee and a Girl in Brooklyn" from Eavesdrop Soup. © Manic D Press (buy now)

Here it is without those all-important line breaks:

A Girl in Milwaukee and a Girl in Brooklyn
My wife is talking on the phone in Milwaukee To her girlfriend in Brooklyn. But, in the middle of all that, my wife has to go pee.And it turns out that the girl in Brooklyn,At the very same time, also has to go pee.So they discuss this for a moment,And they're both very intelligent people.They decide to set their phones down and go to the bathroom(This was back when people set their phones down).So they do this, and now we have a live telephone line openBetween Milwaukee and BrooklynWith no one speaking through it for about two minutes asA girl in Milwaukee and a girl in Brooklyn go to the bathroom.

And here it is with line breaks:

A Girl in Milwaukee and a Girl in Brooklyn

My wife is talking on the phone in Milwaukee
To her girlfriend in Brooklyn.
But, in the middle of all that, my wife has to go pee.
And it turns out that the girl in Brooklyn,
At the very same time, also has to go pee.
So they discuss this for a moment,
And they're both very intelligent people.
They decide to set their phones down and go to the bathroom
(This was back when people set their phones down).
So they do this, and now we have a live telephone line open
Between Milwaukee and Brooklyn
With no one speaking through it for about two minutes as
A girl in Milwaukee and a girl in Brooklyn go to the bathroom.

I look at this poem without line breaks. I look at the poem with line breaks. Somehow I am wholly unable to find a poem in either version. This is a grief to me. It is probably even more a grief to me than it would be to the author, because somehow it feels to me like the end of the world.

Mr. Keillor, this may be a greater grief to me than seems warranted by one small passage called a poem, by a person who is naturally pleased to be given national and even international airspace. Somewhere in Nepal, somebody heard that poem and learned about American poetry. Somewhere in China, somewhere in Iraq. Astonishing, really: the power of the human voice, wafting through the air.

But could this poem possibly be about less than it is?

Could it matter less?

Could it be tasteless in a sillier way?

Could it be more devoid of music?

Is this what poetry has come to--an anecdote devoid of all the beauty and truth of poetry, a poem that does not dare to sit at the same table with a lyric like "The Song of Wandering Aengus"?

I wish that you would write me and explain. I wish that somebody would write to me and explain. Because I simply do not understand, and I feel faint with despair of ever, ever understanding.

*******
The notebook pages showing women and children at Borders bookstore were sketched by Laura of Laurelines. That makes three of her pictures in a row. Thank you to Ms. Frankstone! Interesting that not one blessed book is in sight...
http://laurelines.typepad.com/my_weblog/.
Creative Commons License.

12 comments:

  1. Now I'm really depressed, too. I'd never have noticed any of this if it hadn't been for you and it makes me think, as I often do in these recent times, of Yeats' poem, 'The Second Coming,"---'The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.' Add to that the notion that shapeless mediocrity is foisted off as poetry by the likes of Garrison Keillor and others, and you've got Us, right here, right now. Somebody grab the Polaroid.

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  2. Oh, and thank you again for showing another of my drawings. Will it make you feel any better to note that this drawing was done at Foster's Cafe, and not at Borders, as the other, colored one from that day was? The absence of books is, then, not as dispiriting a fact as you'd thought. This is a small something, but a something nevertheless.

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  3. Oh, that's good!

    I've gotten emails about that post from writers and poets, since I sent a link to a few friends. And I find much of what they had to say inspiring. So perhaps it was a good thing to do. I was rather leery of even mentioning it, as I have a deep-seated Southern reluctance (a genetic form of mental illness, I suspect!) to hurt anybody's feelings.

    Yes, I thought about "The Second Coming" as well. It is apt.

    It all translates into the visual arts as well. Art students who aren't taught drawing and don't know their tools. A ladybug in a styrofoam cup sold for a high price, as high art. Canned merde, complete with a label and price tag. Floating organs. What an age!

    Oh, yes, I enjoy seeing your daily sketches. Such encounters are the best thing about the internet! I'll be sad when you quit your 2006 regimen and don't put up a picture every day. And are the paintings recent-to-earlier, or the other way around?

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  4. Yes, the prosey story, however cute (which this one isn't) disguised as poetry is something I fret about as well.
    (and, before Laura noted that the sketch wasn't done at Borders, I very meanly thought "well, of course. The cafe--they always have cafes...and no books. Damn chain bookstores" and went snarling out to look at my freesias in bloom.)
    I don't think that reluctance to hurt is a Southern trait (or else somehow there was major genetic drift, as I also deal with it)

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  5. That's all right--go ahead and snarl at the poor innocent freesias. It's going to frost tonight, just when the Japanese magnolias are finally out in all their pink and white frivolity. Typical reproving Yank weather.

    Perhaps a pronounced reluctance to hurt just looks excessively strange in our current landscape...

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  6. So we are again at the question, "What makes poetry, poetry?" and "What makes poetry good?"

    What strikes me about the "prose/poem" that you have posted is a lack of figurative language, including any similies, metaphors and the like. So is that what irritates you about the piece? Or is it something different?

    Another thing that strikes me about this piece is it is rather vulgar or perhaps crass is a better word, in it's subject matter. It does somewhat offend my nobler sensibilities as well. I have either picked up some of the southern gentility since I have been here, or I was just bred differently than some of the people I have come to know recently. Anyway I think perhaps the crassness of the piece tends to lead to the "mundane" nature of the poem.

    And, have you tried to get this to Garrison Keilor to see his response?

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  7. 1.
    Trivial. What we in the kitchen call pablum.

    2.
    Crass, you say? Poets and pot boys, wash your hands after a trip to the toilet. "It's the law and common decency."

    3.
    Uninterested in any of the resources of poetry as we kitchen singers and pot-thumpers have understood it in the past thousand years or so--rhythm, sound, structure, substance, shapeliness, figures, etc.

    4.
    Tin ear.

    5.
    No visible difference between this and your workaday washpot prose.

    ***

    Each to his own. I'm sure he or she is perfectly swell, maybe even another Pot Boy like me. But when it comes to kitchen ballads, I prefer the Palace of Hard Scrubbing over the 'Castle of Indolence' (tip of the hat to Thomas Disch and all the little dishes.)

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  8. It is dark in the palace at this hour. I am in one of the back hallways looking for a clock, and I hear instead a late-night cry. It is poetry dying.

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  9. How de Chirico! I like that description, though I don't like the thought, of course.

    The time is out of joint. Will we be able to keep it aright?

    Is that Howard-my-penpal, in print on the web? If so, I am astonished. If another, greetings.

    Blog queen, I think you've already been answered by the impertinent Pot Boy. But no, I haven't tried to send that post to Mr. Keillor. I can't imagine that it would ever reach his ear, really. You see, I am just a little rabbit in the grass, though Stevens says than even a little rabbit can be King of the Ghosts and scare a cat. Because the light is a rabbit-light, and all things are given to the rabbit, and the world is full, full of the rabbit... And you can go read "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" if you need to know more.

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  10. I remember reading this when you first posted it, and I'm surprised I never left a comment. I am never really too concerned about how a given piece of writing is categorized -- poem or prose -- but i am annoyed by writing that that is the intellectual equivalent of junk food. This particular piece saddens me too because I think it's a wasted opportunity. I am tempted to steal the story as a framework for a poem of my own, just to demonstrate what's possible with an image like that.

    I'm definitely not offended by the pissing - that's a non-issue for me. If anything, I'd like to see more of a move toward Rabelaisianism in contemporary poetry. Our view of the body tends to be restricted to hands, eyes, faces, and bodies are seen, if at all, as objects of desire rather than as vessels for food and excrement. It gets a little boring after a while.

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  11. Edit: "Our view of the body tends to be restricted to hands, eyes, AND faces..."

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  12. Halloo, Dave--

    Well, I'm with you there. Don't think that I care what a poem is about--only that it makes the leap to being a poem.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.