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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Test of a good "Keillor-pick" Poem

Mr. Garrison Keillor, raconteur and novelist and radio man, is the door to poetry (or a particular subset of the form) for a good many people who don't read the stuff on the page but listen to NPR over breakfast or at work; I happen to be part of that minority of people who listen and read.

How do we evaluate those poems? If you are an ordinary listener with no particular background in poetry, how do you decide whether you like one of them?

The Garrison Keillor Living Memorial Poetry Test

Here's one possible direction:

Consider it without the line breaks. Does it still strike you as a poem?

Here's a poem presented on The Writer's Almanac this morning, minus the line breaks that made it appear to be--though it was not--blank verse. Why did I take out the line breaks? To see if it still was or resembled a poem without the "signals" given by breaks--to see whether it still managed to survive as poem when deprived of its "units" of verse.

To see it with breaks, go to: Archive
Listen (RealAudio)

Putting in a Window

Carpentry has a rhythm that should neverbe violated. You need to move slowly, methodically, never trying to finish early, never even hoping that you'd be done sooner. It's best if you work without thought of the end. If hurried, you end up with crooked door joints and drafty rooms. Do not work after you are annoyed just so the job will be done more quickly. Stop when you begin to curse at the wood. Putting in a window should be a joy. You should love the new header and the sound of your electric screwdriver as it secures the new beams. The only good carpenter is the one who knows that he's not good. He's afraid that he'll ruin the whole house, and he works slowly. It's the same as cooking or driving. The good cook knows humility, and his soufflé never falls because he is terrified that it will fall the whole time he's cooking. The good driver knows that he might plow into a mother walking her three-year old, and so watches for them carefully. The good carpenter knows that his beams might be weak, and a misstep might ruin the place he loves. In the end, you find your own pace, and you loose time. When you started, the sun was high and now that you're finished, it's dark. Tomorrow, you might put in a door. The next day, you'll start on your new deck.

Some further areas for thought:

Are any formal demands or any plain old demands in evidence?

Frolic, rapture, transcendence, light, energy, incandescence: any of these apply to the poem or to the reader in the act of reading the poem?

Are the words or their arrangement more than what one meets in mundane chat, or is it too comfy?

Is it approaching the condition of music, or is it actually prose?

Is it interesting? Does it provide pleasure?

Is it on the wing, or is it burdened down by the weight of message?

Has it been on the hunt for the right word, the telling phrase--for the magic and mystery of what Wallace Stevens called the finding of "rightnesses"? Even if it deliberately evades subject or is a nonsense poem, this question can still be asked. But most Keillor-picked poems are not evaders of meaning, it should be noted.

Can the poem stand, kneel, or even curl up on a pile of leaves next to an early Yeats lyric like "The Song of Wandering Aengus"? On several occasions Mr. Keillor has read that lyric alongside a contemporary poem, and I have noticed that the act is a rather severe test for the accompanying poem.

Do you want to read it again?

Read it again! Look away. What phrase from it do you recall?

Read it out loud. Again. Once more.

* * *

I have written, I have thrown away, I have made the mistake of publishing, and I have read a good many poems that couldn't pass this test...

But I think we need to start trying to remember how we tell good poems from great, bad from good, mediocre from good. It seems that we have lost the knack for telling, and we need to retrieve what's been lost.

Consider the poem and take the test. Critique the test. Add a question.

Update: I've gotten a number of interesting private letters about this one, and I've qualified the post by limiting the test to Keillor's picks...


  1. Why this poem wasn't crumpled into a ball and thrown at a recepticle, why this work was published, of all things, is a deeper mystery than any touched on by the poem itself. Perhaps that is it searching, to find the strangeness behind its mundane face. Like a serial killer, fat and banal, this poem lurks seeking to slay some poetic innocence out there. Or maybe, like the cooks and drivers and carpenters, the good poet is one who knows he is not good. And by this standard John Brantingham is fucking excellent.

  2. Thought the point was not to attack somebody but to think about how to approach the poems.

    Agreed, the taking out of breaks does make the prosaic nature of most recent poetry evident.

    Deliberate? What is it trying to do?

  3. Keep it clean, people--the Pot Boy is only a kid (see following post with Pot Boy announcement.)

    I am interested in writing something about how to take stock of any new, just-heard or just-read poem in terms that an average Joe Reader or Jill Reader use. But for now, I'll leave that to the Pot Boy.

  4. Okay,

    So I tried to leave my thoughts on poetry and the net kept kicking me off. I guess that says much about my thoughts worth probably. But here goes.

    First I think there are two questions here. 1. What is poetry? 2. What is "great" poetry and for that matter writing, as opposed to the myriad of things that get written and read.

    As to what is poetry, I look for figurative language that inspires the reader to feel the emotions and desires of the writer. And personally I like poems that use controlling metaphor.

    Then as to what is "great" writing as opposed to mundane-Well, that is like asking what makes classic literature classic. I think classic poetry, as classic prose, stands the test of time. It reaches themes, ideas, and emotions that are universal to the human soul. Classic poetry, as well as classic prose reaches deeeper into these human conditions more than most everyday writing does. I cannot help but think of Shakespeare here. How did he write all of those sonnets anyway?

    That is why I believe that most of what is out there today is not as great as the former poets, or former prose writers such as Dickens. I do applaud the attempts that people make at writing both, however. Sometimes you have to write a lot of junk to learn to dig deeper into the human condition and to write some better things.

    As to if the Brantingham poem is a good poem or not, I tend on the not side. It did raise some interesting philosophical questions, but did not touch me in the depth of my soul as the Bard can do. Or Dickinson can do for that matter.

    That said, I must say that prose and poetry, as beauty; are in the eye of the beholder.

  5. Thoughts from the Palace Library, since Donna brought up "former prose writers"--

    No matter what "kind" of poem one looks at, I think Hazlitt's idea of a vigorous relish is still useful: "Gusto in art is power or passion defining any object."

    That seems related to Walter Pater on style: "It is on the quality of the matter it informs or controls, its compass, its variety, its alliance to great ends, or the depth of the note of revolt, or the largeness of hope in it, that the greatness of literary art depends, as "The Divine comedy," "Paradise Lost," "Les Miserables," the English Bible, are great art. Given the conditions I have tried to explain as constituting good art--then, if it be devoted further to the increase of men's happiness, to the redemption of the oppressed, or the enlargement of our sympathies with each other, or to such presentment of new or old truth about ourselves and our relation to the world as may ennoble and fortify us in our sojourn here, or immediately, as with Dante, to the glory of God, it will be also great art; if, over and above those qualities I summed up as mind and soul--that color and mystic perfume, and that reasonable structure, it has something of the soul of humanity in it, and finds its logical, architectural place, in the great structure of human life."


    Hoo. That's a lot to compass. So maybe Shakespeare "stands the test of time," as Donna says, because his work bottles "the soul of humanity" and becomes part of the "structure" of "life"--which it belongs to by virtue of compass and size, gusto, variety, and that certain something that is meant by "color" and "perfume." And that is the elusive "thing that is left" after everything else has been explained.


    And I ain't no kid.

  6. This poem is absolutely excellent. This has specific human details where archaic poetry speaks of broad sweeping philosophy that ultimately does not have any meaning to the individual. If you cannot look at this poem and see a clear and touching piece of work then you are unable to read closely enough. Also, what kind of test is "removing the line breaks"? is that some kind of passive aggressive statement that prose poetry is not as valid as its verse cousin?

  7. Colonel Stiletto2:46 PM, June 03, 2010

    Yep, I guess she's unable to navigate the genius. No doubt it's her loss. You should definitely think so...


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.