Bus rides. Minor-league ballparks in Iowa. Laundromats. Girl Scout picnics. Skinny-dipping in the local lake. Elopements. Assignations in the cemetery. Hardware stores. General stores. Ratty towns. Town dumps. Slumped barns. San Francisco. Missoula. Boulder. Tornado time in the farmlands.
When I read such poems as a little kid, I read to learn what people's lives were like. I read to imagine the distant towns, the riding-out spaces, the hardworking lives. I read hungrily, ransacked my town library, couldn't get enough.
Keillor has made it no secret that for his daily radio feature and podcast The Writer's Almanac - on which, since 2001, he has read at least one poem a day - he prefers the unpretentious and accessible. He builds these anthologies largely from Almanac. Some of the stories in Good Poems, American Places are so straightforward they bring tears to the eyes, as in Gerald Locklin's "Un Bel Di," in which a father has his daughter for a whole day to himself, when the school has an "in-service day." They go to a movie, have candy, eat barbecue. "I am smart enough to downplay to my wife what a good day/ We have had on our own," the speaker says. And later, tucking his daughter in:
I say, "days like today are the favorite
Days of my life," and she knows
It is true.
Poems like that have a faith that our lives, spoken straight out, may find poetry just by being what they are. It's an old, romantic, in fact transcendentalist faith. American. This, the Whitman/Sandburg line, is religious in the American grain, serving the notion that in this land, in these places, we can rename, reinvent, and rediscover the divine in how and where we live.
If any of that dismays you, you're just lost. Disagree, find it pathetic. Point out that this country, which once seemed illimitable, now is hemmed in, settled, slaving to deny its self-enshallowment. Call this poetry sentimental. You can even - I can hear you now - say this "isn't poetry."
From the bottom up: This is poetry. It may not be the kind you prefer, but it's poetry, all right. Nor, for the most part, are these poems sentimental. (Let us be done with sentimental as a critical term. Overused until it means nothing, it usually signals only that the critic is uncomfortable with the type or degree of emotion in the poem. It elevates the critic's emotional static into an aesthetic.)
Nostalgia there is. That doesn't have to be self-indulgent, overdone petting of the reader. Sometimes it simply registers what stays with us. That powerful theme unites these poems. "A moment seen, forever known," as Wendell Berry writes in "V." Moments when "The heart of the world lies open, leached and ticking with sunlight/ For just a minute or so," as Charles Wright puts it in "The Evening Is Tranquil, and Dawn Is a Thousand Miles Away."
Nor are these unseeing, delusional devotionals to America. Many of these poems are hardbitten, resigned, all too aware of how crummy this life and country can be. Maxine Kumin comes along to burst our little Americana lovefest:
nostalgia over a pastoral vista -
where for all I know the farmer
who owns it or rents it just told his
wife he'd kill her if she left him and
she did and he did and now here come
the auctioneer, the serious bidders
and an ant-train of gawking onlookers.
But you do get the classic, run-down American diorama, as in "So This Is Nebraska" by Ted Kooser:
Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.
As you might expect, there's plenty of humor, from droll to silly.
And several of these poems are among the best Americans ever wrote, fairly slap us with their trenchant power:
By the road to the contagious hospital . . .
Go ahead. Knock Keillor. All sorts of people grouse about him, his shows, his taste (I heard one complaint that "the poems he chooses for that daily thing are so simple they debase the notion of poetry" - evidence that smart people can lose brain cells with each word uttered). Come join the fun!
Who else, though, has managed to create both Writer's Almanac, on which he has now read thousands of poems aloud, and a weekly radio variety show, Prairie Home Companion (begun in 1974, two decades after such shows had died out) - on which he reads poems, jokes about poets, poetry, and English majors, and has poets routinely figure in the skits? Listened to by an audience of 4 million? Which apparently understands all of it?
With sneaky mildness, Keillor has slipped among those who have created a place in popular culture for poetry, without once suggesting that his is the only way. It's not. It's one among many.
Instead of doing poetry a disservice with hidebound intolerance, go buy a copy of Good Poems, American Places, and put it by your bed. You may find it comforting, guffaw-inducing, awe-striking ("Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty / Lives in the very grain of the granite"), humbling ("it's only a movie/ it's only a beam of light"), elating ("Wheels/ and rails/ in their prime/ collide,/ make love in a glide/ of slickness/ and friction"), full of poems that strike like a moment of gratitude ("City of hurried and sparkling waters!/ city of spires and masts!/ City nested in bays! my city!").
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @jtimpane.