Friday, September 9, 2016

Woebegone: Ruminations of an Instructor

 By Rod Jellema                             

Garrison Keillor, photo:
Garrison Keillor said goodbye to the bigger part of his radio audience this summer. The warm and genial humorist, host, writer,  brave amateur singer and chief character- actor has left NPRs “The Prairie Home Companion.” No one has done more to rescue the medium of radio programming from the deep drifts of TV slush-blood-sheets-guts-and-gun programming than he.

We poets and teachers appreciate him even more—he has done so much to promote contemporary poetry. There were many evocative readings by poets themselves and/or by Keillor that were given valuable time on the PHC broadcasts. 

Additionally, his own inimical readings of various poems were and still are the feature of his five-minute broadcasts, seven days a week for many years, of NPR’s A Writer’s Almanac.

But somehow poetry’s best friend has slid downhill. He has forgotten where he began. Back in his student days at the University of Minnesota he lucked into friendships with poets James Wright and Roland Flint, then (respectively) a young instructor and a fellow student. Wright introduced Keillor to another Minnesotan, Robert Bly; Donald Hall, a Wright friend then at Michigan, became another young poet who excited and helped to shape Keillor’s deep appreciation for what poets were doing with words.

So how is it possible that Garrison Keillor, in a widely distributed e-mail warned:  

                     A young writer is easily tempted by the allusive and  ethereal and ironic            
                  and reflective, but the declarative is at the bottom of most good writing.

The simplicity of the declarative mode underlies all good prose writing, yes. But surely Keillor knows, or used to know, the paradox that tells us good writing is a real hindrance to the process of making poems. The poet who stops at saying things well is too quickly satisfied, ignoring the demand that a poem should make a fuller experience than he or she knows how to declare. And poets, he reminds us daily, are writers. Their reach beyond what prose writers can “say” is exactly what Garrison Keillor’s voicings so often catch. With pauses and cadences, with tonal shifts and an ear for musical sound and enjambment, Keillor eases poems from print into life.

I remember most the readings he did of some of the poems of James Wright and of Wright’s teacher, Theodore Roethke. On these, he read the poems into improvised duets with single-string guitar picker Leo Kottke. I cannot imagine poems being freer to employ irony, to meditate reflections, to cross boundaries into the ethereal, or to echo experience by way of allusion.

I cannot presume to scold, as Robert Browning in “The Lost Leader” scolded his old model, Wordsworth. Nothing like that. In late years, Garrison Keillor, now an anthologist and light-versifier, now a “poet,” may have forgotten just where he entered the deep dark lovely forest. I only want to remind some of the thousands of his grateful friends. Myself included.

Rod Jellema is professor emeritus of English and former director of creative writing at the University of Maryland and a longtime convener of workshops at The Writer’s Center. Incarnality: the Collected Poems (2010), which includes a CD, is his fifth collection. Among his awards: Two NEA Writing Fellowships, the Towson University Literary Award, 11 fellowships at Yaddo and the Columbia University Translation Prize.

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