Wednesday, April 13, 2011


In The Guardian, Sam Leith unpicks the nature and meaning of a long-running spat between avuncular lakeside raconteur (and Kevin Eldon’s attic picture) Garrison Keillor and sometime lumberjack, teacher and poet August Kleinzahler, who several years ago kicked several shades of sarcasm out of one of Keillor’s poetry anthologies. Now, I have no domestic animal in this particular scrap. My usual response to to Keillor’s work is that for some reason I always used to get him mixed up with Spalding Gray; and as for Mr Kleinzahler, I only discovered his existence when I first read Leith’s article. (I assume he’s not one of Keillor’s own creations – GK doesn’t strike me as someone who’d go all postmodern on his readers’ bottoms.)

But I did follow the link to Kleinzahler’s article, and he makes some sound points, not least that poetry is a minority pursuit and probably always will be. As he puts it:
Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, eating, defecating, copulating, shopping, working, catching the latest Disney blockbuster, without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else. 
And he’s very funny as well, characterising Keillor’s tastes thus:
The typical Keillor selection tends to be anecdotal, wistful: more often than not a middle-aged creative writing instructor catching a whiff of mortality in the countryside – watching the geese head south, getting lost in the woods, this sort of thing.
But Leith is right that Kleinzahler overstates his case, retreating into a state of “Olympian scorn” at the notion that poetry might even aspire to be popular. His reaction to the poet’s notion “that bad art is worse than no art at all” is simply “Nobody sensible can think so.”

Leith is too restrained. Kleinzahler is more than not sensible in speaking up against bad art: he’s actively sabotaging his own identity as a poet. Good art needs bad art as a benchmark, to quantify its quality, to reassure its practioners and its fans of their superiority. In his extended diss of Keillor he throws up references to the poets Roy Fisher and William Carlos Williams, and spreads his net wider, to the music of Bach and Albert Ayler, and the theatre of Artaud; he even says “fuck”, the wee scamp. It’s as if he’s putting up a series of signposts of artistic integrity, but these people don’t exist in a vacuum. We don’t really understand the goodness of Ayler and Artaud unless we have the badness of Kenny G and We Will Rock You with which to compare them. Ultimately, August Kleinzahler needs Garrison Keillor, but Garrison Keillor doesn’t need August Kleinzahler.

It’s really just an aesthetic variant on the Cleese/Ronnies class sketch, but with brows standing in for socio-economic groups. And yes, the picture above is of your author, half as old as he is now, reading some of his poetry that would probably be classed as upper-middlebrow, not clever enough for Kleinzahler/Cleese, but at the same time too unpleasant for Keillor/Barker. No geese ever went south in my verses. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the piece I was offering at that very moment was called ‘I’d Never Join The Young Conservatives For You’. Happy days.


Vicus Scurra said...

Garrison Keillor
Wrote verse no viler
Than that of Keats or Blake
But from my point of view goes on a bit too much about the Wobegon Lake.


Sylvia said...

Hans off the Keillor!!! With a voice like that, he can read anything out loud. And sometimes it's not about being aggressive or sneering about people....

And my husband can't stand him - another reason to love him!

Tim F said...


Garrison bored
Harrison Ford.
He preferred archaeology
To an anthology.

Sylvia, it's *always* about sneering.

Anonymous said...

Link please.
To I’d Never Join The Young Conservatives For You