Archive for April 19th, 2011

Garrison Keillor, August Kleinzahler, and the perils of one-sided fisticuffs

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011
Share

A polished schtick (Photo: Andrew Harrer)

Sam Leith at the Guardian revisits August Kleinzahler‘s 2004 Poetry magazine “full-frontal assault” on Garrison Keillor’s “appalling taste”.

The occasion was the publication of Keillor’s anthology, Good Poems.

Kleinzahler wrote this:

Now, had Keillor not “strayed off the reservation” and kept to his Prairie Home Companion show with its Norwegian bachelor farmers and Lutheran bake sales (a sort of Spoon River Anthology as presented by the Hallmark Hall of Fame), comfort food for the philistines, a contemporary, bittersweet equivalent to the Lawrence Welk Show of years past, I’d have left him alone. But the indefatigable and determined purveyor of homespun wisdom has wandered into the realm of fire, and for his trespass must be burned.

Full disclosure: I was asked to review Keillor’s poetry anthology some years back (was it for the San Francisco Chronicle? I can’t remember) and I gave it a pass.  I’d seen nothing in the vaunted Prairie Home Companion to convince me that Keillor’s tastes would make his anthology worthwhile reading (and I gave the same pass, for the same reasons, when Camille Paglia‘s anthology came out).  So as far as aesthetics go, I’m probably more along the Kleinzahler end of the spectrum, except for the ire.  Of Kleinzahler’s long-ago review of Keillor, “No Antonin Artaud with the Flapjacks, Please,” Leith writes:

I looked it up: a dismissive review that took two and a half thousand words in the dismissing. It’s been said that criticising P.G. Wodehouse is like “taking a spade to a souffle“. This was something similar; and if you hit a souffle with a spade, you get egg on your face.

Keillor’s taste in poetry may differ from Kleinzahler’s, and his understanding of what it’s for may differ – caricaturally, he thinks it does the soul good, and that makes Kleinzahler wince with embarrassment.  … But it strikes me as odd that the response is not indifference but active rage …

Leith continued:

The divide isn’t actually between people who want to stitch rhymed verse into samplers and sell it in tourist shops, and those so high-minded they think Basil Bunting was a sellout. It’s between people happy for both views to co-exist, and people for whom it isn’t enough to play in the Premier League – you have to be energetically affronted by the existence of Sunday league.

In a calmer moment (Photo: Poem Present)

It isn’t elitist to think that Four Quartets is chewier, profounder and more artful than If or The Song of Hiawatha: it is simply common sense. Indeed, it is so obviously common sense that to be shrill in asserting it makes you look . . . well, weird. Is poetry so sickly that Geoffrey Hill catches a cold when Pam Ayres sneezes? Is the whole project of making high art threatened by the existence of low art? Nobody sensible can think so.

So the Keillors – the live-and-let-live brigade – will always look bigger than the Kleinzahlers. They are in a position to extend what you might call repressive tolerance. As it happens, to view Keillor as a dim, benevolent sweetie-pie – a manatee ripe for harpooning – is to be naive in any case: it is to mistake him for his persona. Nobody who remembers his caustic review of Bernard-Henri Lévy‘s book about America in the New York Times could make the mistake: Keillor skewered Lévy as “a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore”, and ended: “Thanks for coming. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

But for Kleinzahler, who swallows the persona in one gulp, Keillor is prepared to kill with kindness. His response, years after the attack, is one of superbly malevolent benignity: “I believe in vigorous free speech. Does no damage whatsoever that I can see. Bless his heart. I wish him well.”

I remember well Keillor’s scalding review of Bernard-Henri Lévy – “On the Road avec M. Lévy” – when I was briefly in the Frenchman’s thrall. It’s a classic.

Otherwise, however, I could never quite “get” the charm of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. Too often I, too, have swallowed the schtick in one gulp  – though I shouldn’t have needed Leith to remind me.

The only part of Keillor I ever really enjoyed was the song below: