Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Garrison Keillor

There have been a flurry of articles about Garrison Keillor recently, but this one -- mentioned in Bookslut -- caught my attention for its unusually bitter tone. Everyone should read it, because it is a good example of the dangerous appeal of a vicious review.

First, I have not read Good Poems, nor do I have any particular attachment to Garrison Keillor, but it was still obvious to me that Kleinzahler never really scored any honest points. The only legitimate criticism of a book like this one is that the selection is lousy, but Kleinzahler never identifies a single poem that he wishes wasn't here; he appears to dislike Billy Collins, but doesn't give an example of how an included Collins poem is bad. He maintains that the poetry read on Keillor's shows "as a rule, isn't poetry at all but prose arbitrarily broken into lines masquerading as poetry" -- and doesn't provide a single example. A usual sample is "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." I would bet a fair amount that there is not a single poem in the collection that could be identified by this description. It is a lot easier to be funny than accurate.

The only poets Kleinzahler does mention are Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Burns, along with Whitman and a few other modern poets that he likes; but all in all, on the basis of no evidence, he wants us to accept that this is a "rotten collection." When he does actually quote something, he identifies himself as a reader of extraordinary insensitivity. He quotes William Carlos Williams's "To Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (the relevant line is this one: "It is difficult to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there" ) and then lays out this paragraph:
A pretty sentiment, to be sure, but simply untrue, as anyone who has been to the supermarket or ballpark recently will concede. 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. Nor will their lives be diminished by not standing in front of a Cézanne at the art museum or listening to a Beethoven piano sonata. Most people have neither the sensitivity, inclination, or training to look or listen meaningfully, nor has the culture encouraged them to, except with the abstract suggestion that such things are good for you. Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.

This is an incompetent reading of the Williams poem, which is a great deal more subtle than Kleinzahler can apparently handle. First of all, since he has decided to get news from this poem, it is worth pointing out that Williams does not specify a percentage of men who die miserably, so all those Americans at the ballpark are beside the point.

More importantly, there is a calculated ambiguity in the use of the word "miserably." The first meaning is that every day people die unhappy for lack of something that poetry can provide. But, in a sense that Kleinzahler misses completely, it can also mean that these deaths are miserable because of what they have missed, that these people's lives have been somehow wretched, pitiable, lacking in fulfillment, because they lived them with no sense of beauty or imagination. Their deaths are sad for the poet, not for the people themselves, who perhaps -- as Kleinzahler points out -- never knew or cared what they were missing. From his reading of this poem, though, I suspect Kleinzahler is missing quite a bit himself. Miserable bastard. If only he got as much out of poetry as I do.

Let me just point out one more incoherent paragraph in this thoroughly incoherent review.
Are we not yet adult enough as a culture to acknowledge that the arts are not for everyone, and that bad art is worse than no art at all; and that good or bad, art's exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console, simply entertain. And in this, Moby Dick or Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" are not different than the movie Cat in the Hat or Britney Spears wiggling her behind on stage; the former being more complexly entertaining and satisfying, but only for those who can appreciate the difference, and they are the minority.

I was thinking for a while about this phrase: "bad art is worse than no art at all." Is this really a choice that we get to make? Has there ever been a society where exclusively good art has been produced? Our only real options as a culture are a mixture of good and bad art, purely bad art, or no art at all, and the latter two scenarios are mainly created by totalitarian governments. And how in the world is reading a bad poem worse for someone than not reading one at all? They might be equivalent, but worse?

Kleinzahler is forced to make this clearly indefensible assertion because otherwise there would be no reason to get this pissed off about a collection of poems that he happens not to like, for reasons that he himself doesn't seem to be clear about -- especially when he also argues that art is merely entertainment that some people get and other people don't. It's true that for people of a certain sensitivity bad art really is offensive, but you can't defend unleashing that anger in print unless you think that it's honestly damaging people somehow. And that's the problem if you simultaneously argue that, objectively, it isn't all that important, while generating feelings of a strength that indicate that it might just be the most important thing in the world to you. Kleinzahler realizes this contradiction, I think, but to truly face it would require throwing out most of his review, so he slips out of the knot with a bad joke...
Poetry not only isn't good for you, bad poetry has been shown to cause lymphomas and, in extreme instances, pancreatic cancer, in laboratory experiments. (I'll have to dig around in my notes to find exactly what study that was....)

The only sense in which bad art can actually be bad for you, I think, is when it generates too many reviews like this, which I honestly believe stimulate malice and are bad for the character.

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