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News From Lake Wobegon: Garrison Keillor Has A New Book Of Poetry

Sep 28, 2013
Originally published on September 28, 2013 11:16 am

If you're a regular public radio listener, you may hear Garrison Keillor every morning reading other people's poems on The Writer's Almanac. Now, the Prairie Home Companion host has decided to share some of his own poems for a change. In his new collection — O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic and Profound — he muses on subjects including Kansas, California, marriage, parenthood, mice, manners, Hennepin Avenue and Times Square. He joins NPR's Scott Simon to discuss rhymes, retirement and the news from Lake Wobegon.


Interview Highlights

On why he chooses poetry

I love rhymes, I love to write a poem about New York and rhyme "oysters" with "The Cloisters." And "The lady from Knoxville who bought her brassieres by the boxful." I just feel a sort of small triumph. I hear a little firecracker go off when you come up with a good rhyme.

On how rhymes are easy and fun to commit to memory

One of the reasons to write in meter and rhyme [is] because it's so much easier to remember [rhyming verse] ... than to recall more than just the first few lines of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" or the beginning of [T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song Of] J. Alfred Prufrock" which we were all forced at gunpoint to read and to study and to write ridiculous papers about in 11th grade English. T.S. Eliot put more young people off poetry than anybody else. He has a lot to answer for. ... He wrote "The Waste Land" because he was in an unhappy marriage — and we can all understand that — but why inflict it on the rest of us?

On the people who inhabit his fictional Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon

It's a very real place that's made up of ghosts — people who died a long time ago. I am so regretful that I did not find out more about them while they were still around. I was young, I was cool, you know, and so it was a little bit beyond me to sit down with elderly people in their 50s and ask about the Depression and so forth. And now I'm trying to find out about them through fiction and by putting them in this town. Because I haven't lived in a small town in many, many, many, many years — more than 40 years — and it wasn't all that happy for me living there. But I remember very happy times on my grandmother's farm and so I sort of merged that into the present. Nostalgic it isn't, exactly because I'm trying to discover the inner life of people who I knew as a child and who, as people did then, kept all the dark secrets away from children. And I'm trying to find out more about them.

On whether he plans to retire anytime soon

Well, someday, of course. But we're planning A Prairie Home Companion through the 2014-15 season, and I dare say that may be farther ahead than a lot of people in public radio are planning their careers.


Keillor shares the following poems from O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound

"That's Me"

I'm a minimalist from Minnesota,
Don't waste my time and I won't waste yours.
You are the woman I love, of course.
I'm crazy about you and always have been.
And don't make me say it again.
Cause I'm a minimalist from Minnesota,
A man of monumental brevity.
That's me.

"The Front Seat"

I fell in love in the front seat of a '56 Ford
At a drive-in movie, sliding over toward
A girl in shorts and necking a little
on a bench seat, no gearshift in the middle.

She was young and eager — it didn't take much
To slip her in gear and let out the clutch
But the beautiful bench where we performed our feats
Has been replaced by two bucket seats

And a brake lever, gearshift, and armrest
Between me and the girl I love best,
Which is sensible and safer, perhaps,
Two people restrained by safety straps,

But if safety were all that people thought of
Then who would ever fall in love?

An excerpt from the "Address to the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Sanders Theatre, June 2008"

O brave young achievers, you have now achieved the pinnacle
And forgive me if it sounds cynical
But as we gather to celebrate ya and hail ya
It is time for you to think about the benefits of failya.
Failure is essential, a form of mortality.
Without failure, we have a poor sense of reality.
It is all well and good to strive for glory,
But today's grievous mistake is tomorrow's humorous story.
And one should not be a person whose memoirs consist
Of notes from the classes you never missed.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Garrison, may I ask you to begin reading "That's Me?"

GARRISON KEILLOR: Oh, sure. I remember this poem.

(Reading) I'm a minimalist from Minnesota. Don't waste my time and I won't waste yours. You are the woman I love, of course. I'm crazy about you and always have been. And don't make say it again because I'm a minimalist from Minnesota, a man of monumental brevity. That's me.

SIMON: Talk about a man who needs no introduction. Garrison Keillor joins us to talk about a new book of poems. His own poems, for a change - not someone else's - which he reads every day on "The Writer's Almanac." He has a new collection that muses over subjects that range from Kansas to California; marriage, parenthood, mice, manners; Hennepin Avenue to Times Square. His new book is "O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound." And Garrison Keillor, who hosts a show on tonight called "A Prairie Home Companion," and, of course, contributes to The New Yorker and many other publications, joins us from Minnesota Public Radio. Garrison, thanks so much for being with us.

KEILLOR: Good to be here.

SIMON: You have so many avenues of expression. What makes you write a poem?

KEILLOR: Mmm. I love rhymes, I love to write a poem about New York and rhyme oysters with The Cloisters. And the lady from Knoxville who bought her brassieres by the boxful. I just feel a sort of small triumph. I hear a little firecracker go off when you come up with a good rhyme.

SIMON: Do poems, rhymes stay with us in a way blank verse doesn't?

KEILLOR: Yes. That's one of the reasons to write in meter and rhyme because it's so much easier to remember, you know. Far away in a kingdom by the sea there lived a maid named Annabel Lee. So much easier to remember that, and to remember there's was an old man of Khartoum who was filled with grief and with gloom and anxiety in 1893. He is dead now, I presume - than to recall more than just the first few lines of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" or the beginning of "J. Alfred Prufrock," which we were all forced at gunpoint to read and to study and to write ridiculous papers about in 11th grade English.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Another poem I wanted you to read - page 90. This is "The Front Seat." This is one of those poems where you're laughing and then it turns on the dime.

KEILLOR: It's a sonnet. My goodness. What was I thinking?

(Reading) I fell in love in the front seat of a '56 Ford at a drive-in movie, sliding over toward, a girl in shorts and necking a little on a bench seat, no gearshift in the middle. She was young and eager - it didn't take much, to slip her in gear and let out the clutch, but the beautiful bench where we performed our feats has been replaced by two bucket seats. And a brake lever, gearshift and armrest, between me and the girl I love best, which is sensible and safer, perhaps, two people restrained by safety straps. But if safety were all that people thought of, then who would ever fall in love?

SIMON: Boy, that's true, isn't it?

KEILLOR: Did Ralph Nader ever date?

(LAUGHTER)

KEILLOR: Do we know?

SIMON: I think I've read a couple of references over the years. How real is Lake Wobegon to you?

KEILLOR: It's a very real place that's made up of ghosts - people who died a long time ago. And I am so regretful that I did not find out more about them while they were still around. I was young, I was cool, you know, and so it was a little bit beyond me to sit down with elderly people in their 50s and, you know, ask about the Depression and so forth. And now I'm trying to find out about them through fiction and by putting them into this town. Because I haven't lived in a small town in many, many, many, many years - more than 40 years - and it wasn't all that happy for me living there. But I remember very happy times on my grandmother's farm and so I sort of merged that into the present. Nostalgic it isn't, exactly because I'm trying to discover the inner life of people who I knew as a child and who, as people did then, kept all the dark secrets away from children. And I'm trying to find out more about them.

SIMON: I sent the word out over on Twitter inviting questions for you. I think it's safe to say overwhelmingly the one question I got is ask him if he's going to retire any time soon.

KEILLOR: Well, someday, of course. But we're planning "A Prairie Home Companion" through the 2014-15 season, and I've come this far in winning the real distinction in broadcasting, which is to have been fired. I've never been fired. And at this point, I'm not sure there's a way. Can you think of anything?

SIMON: Well, I suppose you could say something so incredibly indiscreet or offensive. If there's something that's been lurking that you'd like to, you know, you'd like to just kind of get it off your chest, please feel free. That's why we're here.

KEILLOR: Oh, good. OK.

SIMON: Let me get you to read another bit of verse, if I could. This is a segment of the address you gave to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

KEILLOR: My, they were alarmed.

(Reading) Oh, brave young achievers, you have now achieved the pinnacle. And forgive me if it sounds cynical, but as we gather to celebrate you and hail you, it is time for you to think about the benefits of failure. Failure is essential, a form of mortality. Without failure, we have a poor sense of reality. It's all well and good to strive for glory, but today's grievous mistake is tomorrow's humorous story. And one should not be a person whose memoirs consist of notes from the classes you've never missed. Would the Prodigal Son's dad have killed the fatted calf if the boy had graduated with an average of 3.99 and a half? No. Nor would Job have grown so wise in the Lord's ways had his only tribulation been one or two Bs in a whole long string of As. In a nutshell, my advice is: go out and have a crisis.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, Garrison, it's been delight talking to you. Thanks very much.

KEILLOR: It's been fun talking to you, Scott.

SIMON: Garrison Keillor's new book, "O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.