Keillor to dreary poets: Get over yourselves

Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor, author, humorist, and radio personality, poses for a portrait in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008.
ANDREW HARRER/Bloomberg News

Garrison Keillor says that poets who think their art is an opportunity to communicate the bleakness of their lives should reconsider.

"What distinguishes us is what makes us laugh," Keillor told Kerri Miller on The Daily Circuit, "and what we enjoy, and what we love about the world. Whereas our loneliness, our grief, our blah blah blah blah blah, is all pretty much the same as everybody else's. It's just generic. Sorrow is generic.

"Poets my age are now writing poems about the illness, the demise of their elderly parents. It's such a dreary landscape. Give me a break."

Keillor recommended the work of Billy Collins, who he said "is wonderful because he has learned to be funny without being stupid. ... Any child who was brought up reading Billy Collins would be a fan of poetry for life."

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"Instead of J. Alfred Prufrock, who was wandering around in the twilight of London, wondering if he dared to eat a peach. Get over yourself."

The author of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," T.S. Eliot, continues to influence the poets Keillor hears at open-mic readings, he said. "I'm astonished at how much dismal, boring self-pity there is, and how little passion and how little praise for this beautiful world that we live in. ...

"They got it from school. They got it from reading T.S. Eliot. They didn't realize that T.S. Eliot was in a lousy marriage. He was so unhappy, so he took it out on the rest of us. But that doesn't give you an excuse to be dreary. Dreariness is dreariness."

Keillor's new book, "O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound," heads in the other direction. During the show he read samples that covered such topics as Billy the Kid's habit of sending Christmas turkeys and Paul Revere's owing of his place in history to the rhyming potential of his last name.

But he disagreed with Miller's characterization of his visit as being part of a book tour.

"I'm not promoting a book; I'm promoting an idea," he said. "And the idea, for all the people out there who are wanting to write poetry, is: Give yourself a challenge. Don't take the easy way. The easy way is to declare your unhappiness and your loneliness and that you're misunderstood. Well, welcome to the club.

"But the challenge is to write something that somebody's going to remember, and something that will make your mother laugh. If you can make your mother laugh, you're thereby forgiven for so much else that you might do."

READ: "Billy the Kid" and "Why I Live in Minnesota" from "O, What a Luxury"