Tuesday, 27 August 2013

O, What A Luxury! (Garrison Keillor)

 --The blurb--
"O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound is the first poetry collection written by Garrison Keillor, the celebrated radio host of A Prairie Home Companion. Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, this volume forges a new path for himself as a poet of light verse."

--The review--
Garrison Keillor's eccentric reputation as a humorist, author and radio presenter tells us to expect the unexpected from this media personality. (This is the same man that played The Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda" non-stop as part of a live on-air protest at the radio station where he worked, and who is partly known for his controversial comments about Methodists and the gay community.) It's therefore unsurprising that his first poetry collection, entitled O, What A Luxury!, promises the eclectic mixture of lyricism, vulgarity, profundity and miserable inadequacy, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to as many people as possible. And a mixed bag is just what readers get, with the poems grouped into categories to apparently shape stories from smaller groups of poems - even though these are not always immediately understandable or apparent. This dissonant style makes it unclear as to whether the collection is for adults or children: the sometimes-profound titles of the groups of poems suggest the former, while the unsophisticated nature of the poems' immature subjects and reliance on tongue-twisters implies a more childish audience. Serious poems sadly turn silly at their end, cheapening their premise and making them bathetic rather than amusing. Ultimately, then, this dissonance is unsuccessful, with the multiple layers that Keillor apparently attempts to integrate into his poetry in the end lacking in harmony.

This lack of a clear purpose in this collection is evident throughout, both structurally and semantically. Keillor's rhymes frequently seem juvenile, right from the very first poem, entitled Unification, which debases his talent and makes the poetry at times unmemorable. Equally disappointing is the manner in which he chooses to make his political points, which is unbalanced, deploying either too much force or not enough. However, in a strange way this highlights a strength of the poetry, indicating that tone of voice may be key and that these poems may be better in performance (particularly as in the case of Nobody Loves You and Thong Song). Some poems seem to have deeper meaning (Episcopalian) but lack lucidity and an overall place within the collection, as they don't cohere well with the other poems, reinforcing the volume's lack of purpose.

Aspects of Keillor's poems, though, such as On The Road, are Philip Larkin-like, which proves that Keillor is at his best when being observational in a more serious way. However, this style is unfortunately not always sustained thanks perhaps to his over-keenness to pack the poem with unnecessary quotations from popular culture. Keillor also does well when focusing on real intensity of emotion and solemnity of feeling throughout a poem, as he does in Love Poem, which is further enhanced by truly effective imagery ("Above your head, the universe has hung its lights"), to create something that all people can sincerely relate to and which has a chance of standing the test of time. This is infinitely better than the many pages of forced 'wit' that have gone before. Political name-dropping and casual scattering of brand names across the stanzas do not improve the situation, and in fact serve to make poetry less, rather than more, accessible. Tapping into the vicissitudes of the human spirit gives Keillor more likelihood of posterity. Some sage advice in his 2008 address to graduates arguably demonstrates what one suspects Keillor had hoped to show all along - that he can combine seriousness and flippancy: "Failure is essential, a form of mortality. Without failure, we have a poor sense of reality...And learn what Harvard cannot teach you/Whether you get a bachelor's or a master's:/The fact that being a traveler means learning to weather disasters."

This mixed bag is therefore worth reading for a few hidden gems, but would be even better if it had been streamlined significantly by a more scrupulous editor, with only the best poems being published. The slightly wry tone of Keillor's work also means that fans would do better to seek him out live in action; sometimes poetry isn't written to be read in one's head, and this collection would make a far better performance on stage than book club selection.

other works by Garrison Keillor
  • Happy to Be Here (1981)
  • Lake Wobegon Days (1985)
  • Leaving Home (1987)
  • We Are Still Married (1989)
  • WLT: A Radio Romance, (1991)
  • The Book of Guys (1993)
  • The Sandy Bottom Orchestra (with Jenny Lind Nilsson, 1996)
  • Wobegon Boy (1997)
  • Me, by Jimmy "Big Boy" Valente (1999)
  • Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 (2001)
  • In Search of Lake Wobegon (2001)
  • Good Poems (2002)
  • Love Me (2003)
  • Homegrown Democrat (2004)
  • Good Poems for Hard Times (2005)
  • Daddy's Girl (2005)
  • Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2007)
  • Liberty: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2008)
  • Life among the Lutherans (2009)
  • 77 Love Sonnets (2009)
  • A Christmas Blizzard (2009)
  • Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance (2009)
  • Good Poems, American Places (2011)
  • Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny (2012)

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