From the Desk of Garrison Keillor
A prolific writer, Garrison Keillor is a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines throughout the United States and abroad. To the right, you find a selection of articles published since 1989, and a few unpublished pieces.

The Poetry Judge
From Atlantic Monthly

February 1996

"There are four-hundred poems," the president of the poetry society said over the phone, "but judging won't take you that long because most of them are pretty bad." And the next day, the poems arrived in an apple carton, three bundles bound with rubber bands, and I spread them out in the squares of sunshine on my dining room table. O dining room table, dear old friend, home of my mournful mashed potatoes. Four hundred poems, a stack as big as a breadbox, by ninety-three poets who hoped to win one of four modest cash prizes. Modest to you and me, but no prize is modest to a poet. Poets are starved for prizes. Awards, with cash stipends, named after ladies with three names. And which poet truly feels, deep down in his or her heart, that he or she is not worthy of much, much more recognition right away? Not me. I won the Anna von Helmholz Phelan Prize for poetry in 1962 and am starved for another. When I took the rubber bands off the bundles of poems, I could hear a faint sucking, an inhalation of poem breath.

The president had asked me to judge their annual contest because, she admitted, she was having a hard time finding people to do it, and though I had no time at all, none, I said yes because I was angry about some awful stuff I'd read recently --- dreadful sensitive garbage, and because dreadful people have plenty of time to serve as judges, this garbage had won awards. It was a book of essays by a Minnesota guy who specializes in taking walks in the woods and looking at the reflections of sunlight on small bodies of water and feeling grievous and wounded in a vague way --- a thoughtful guy in a harsh unfeeling world with too much molded plastic furniture, and he mopes for a few pages and then resolves to soldier on as a sensitive writer. This guy's stuff reads like a very long letter from someone you wish would write to someone else, it is mournful and piteous as if he is about to ask if he can come and live in your home for a few months, but it won awards because it is pretentiously sad and is "about" something, maleness or the millennium, and that means his books will find their way into schools, his glum reflections will be disseminated among innocent schoolchildren, and they will learn that a great writer is one who can lead the reader away from the dangerous edge of strong feeling and into the barns of boredom. So the brighter ones --- even though they love to write stories! ---- will decide not to be writers, and you'll have another writerless generation like the thirty-something adolescents of today, and our beloved country will pull the shades and sink ever deeper into the great couch of despond. That is why I agreed to judge the poetry contest: to save America. Otherwise, why bother?

A two-foot stack of poems on the dining room table, the names of the poets blacked out, each poet a number, each poem assigned a letter: 1a, 1b, 1c. O Poem 1a, naked, wet, would you mind getting dressed, please, 1a?

1a was an elegy to a dead cat, with classic elegiac touches --- the gray sky weeping rain, dead flowers in a vase, bare boughs of trees, brown leaves skittering across the vacant yard where once Kitty had chased them --- but mainly the poem was a bitter complaint against Daddy.

I was your happy dancing little daddy's girl
starving for your love
but no you were too busy daddy
your stony face and angry eyes
made me the fearful self-accusing person I am
and I did your dirty work daddy
and went ahead and ruined my life for forty-seven years
and only Kitty could draw me out of the shadows
only Kitty made the world a safe place in which to have feelings
and now she is gone too

A hundred lines of this, ending with a pledge to remember the sacred cat forever. ("Kitty, you will live in me as long as I have breath/your purr will be in the wind.")

1b was a continuation of 1a and began: "The life in me frightens you and you keep/running and running away/but how can you escape your own daughter?" And 1c: "You're dead, Daddy, so why won't you go away?/Why do you still scare me?/And why am I unable to hate you?" The second poet offered one poem that began "If there's a bowling lane in heaven, then I know that Grandma's there" and the third had written an ode to Denise with whom the poet finds peace that can never cease, and the fourth took us to Vietnam, a line of grunts snaking through the steaming jungle, men who were scared, doped up on reefer, pissed off at the lieutenant, remembering the buddies who got blown away yesterday, and we come to a village and burn the hooches and a Vietnamese woman comes running screaming out of a burning hooch and your best friend lifts his M-1 and shoots her point-blank through the head, and how do you like it now, blue-eyed boy? And then poet no. 5 with a poem in which life is a sweater we are knitting and we must ever be ready to pull some stitches and redo the sleeve.

I read poems for four hours straight with hardly a break. I tried to read each poem all the way to the end, but poems that start out clunky never get good, I discovered, and a judge has to conserve his strength. Some were so awkward, you stuck with them to the end, out of politeness. Like the poem about the difficulty of writing a poem.

I tried to keep my mind on work
And do the tasks assigned to me,
But somehow I could not shirk
The still small voice of poetry.

Through eight stanzas, the poet resists the call of creativity---

I did not want to feel the pain,
The aching longing for the sea,
The lonely music of the rain,
That comes to me through poetry.

Finally, in the last stanza, the poet surrenders to the demands of art.

And then at last I quit the fight
And gathering up my strength somehow,
I wrote the poem I had to write,
This poem that lies before you now.

And now my poem has reached an end,
I the poet at last am free,
And now the task is yours, my friend,
To grapple with my poetry.

Many poems competed to be the worst of the lot, but it was hard to ignore a long poem (by a guy with three names) entitled "going to my brother's wedding reception at the minikahda club after seeing a documentary about rwanda" that began "my cousins in their gleaming white tuxedos stepped over the emaciated bodies of black children and helped themselves to more watercress sandwiches/the children wailed but their wailing became a string quartet playing beatles tunes/i turned away sick with revulsion, i was covered with flies, and everyone smiled and said i had never looked better" --- the poet did variations on this riff for a page and a half, and I imagined he was twenty years old, shy, not a good dancer, a college junior from the wealthy suburbs who felt torn between becoming a lawyer and joining the Minikahda Club or becoming a poet and hating people in the Minikahda Club. But watching a PBS documentary on starvation in Africa doesn't give you a license to feel more sensitive than all the other guys in white tuxes, and why didn't he go to Africa and get over it instead of writing a windy poem about the middle-class enjoying itself on the patio?

Nonetheless, I could easily --- yes, easily --- imagine some judges who would snatch this poem out of the pile, and give it the blue ribbon or the Naomi Windham Nissensen Award for Sensitivity of Greater Than Medium Length. I know people who might read the self-aggrandizing agony of the young man in the white tuxedo and think he was quite insightful.

Teachers of creative writing who seduce their students into writing journals --- yards and yards of sensitive wallpaper!
Administrators of literary programs who keep humor alarms on their desks!
Artistic politicos and commissars who insist that Literature must express the anger of oppressed people, thus forcing oppressed people to watch TV for their entertainment
Proponents of the Pain Theory of Literature and devotees of pitiful writing---
If Flannery O'Connor were alive today, would we have to think of her as a Physically-Challenged Writer or could we simply read her books?

A Hispanic poet offered "Recuerdos de la Duluth" about his experience as a little boy when he was taken out of the classroom, along with two other boys, and brought to the Anglo school nurse and sprayed for head lice. Evidently, his life had been marked by this.

For thirty years I have carried this memory,
Never told anybody. Tried to be like everybody.
But now you know my secret:
I am the one with the head lice.
I am the foreigner.

Never mind that spraying a boy's head may have been the best way to treat his head lice back then --- to the poet, it was an act of exclusion and oppression. What will he think after an Anglo doctor gives him his first digital prostate examination? Will it too symbolize his estrangement from America?

The theme of Speaking Out After Long Silence was everywhere (I was unable to bring myself to say this until now) accompanied by the theme of You Had To Be There to Understand (How can you know how terrible it was, you who have never gone to the school nurse's office?) Hardly any poems were written for amusement, for the pleasure of language, almost all were compelled, driven, winging up out of the poet's maimed past --- grappling with painful truths, doing battle with a world that would deny the poet's existence:

I am me! I scream at the clouds
At the skulls under the earth
At the damnation
For too long have I kept the peace
Now I shout at everyone in the street:
I am me and no one can take that away!

You read the poem and think of the people in midtown Manhattan who shout at everyone in the street and wave their arms and argue with streetlights and you remind yourself not to attend the poet's next reading, should there be one.

As I read through the piles, it was easy to spot the winning poems: they were the readable ones. Some were good enough that you might have read them out loud to someone sitting nearby, the simple test of a good poem.

There was a pretty good poem called "The Bravery of Irises" in which the poet, a woman, knelt in the flower beds and whacked away at dead stalks in the company of her husband, who seemed to be an okay guy, not a rapist or a murderer, not even an oppressor but simply a fellow gardener kneeling there too and with whom she conversed quietly about flowers and about Paris, which she hoped to see someday though the trip had been postponed many times because they didn't want to leave their garden. She seemed to be contented, a mood that can be hard to convey in writing without seeming smug and stupid. I thought it was a lovely poem. Like Whitman or Dickinson, this poet looked to nature as redeeming humankind from our sickness. Irises had a certain power to make her happy, and she looked back on years of iris happiness, going back to girlhood.

Our flowers come from the rotten bones of ancestors.
They had to die so this garden could grow.
Working in the garden is our homage to them.
The only reason to love gardening is that when you were little,
Someone you loved loved to garden, and
You followed them around and did as they did.
And it rubbed off. My love,
We meet again in the irises, and my love,
We have been to Paris every day for forty-five years.

I put her poem in the Winner category, a thin stack next to the heap of Bad Daddy poems, in which I also put Bad Boyfriends and one Mean Mommy ("The Duchess of Revlon"). There was a small pile of poems of Homage to the Beloved, including two lesbian poems, but none by women who loved men, a shame, if you ask me: what sort of dullard can't get off at least one good one for her Beloved? And there was a stack of poems of Mute Wonder In The Woods --- not fresh squeezed wonder, unfortunately, but reconstituted ("I lie on a summer day and look at the clouds scudding across the sky/And wonder what it means/and what do the trees mean/and the birds flying south"). And a large mound of poems about the Struggle to Be Me --- "I am a myriad of sights/sounds/feelings/songs/smells all intertwined with thoughts/stories/impressions/memories and yes I am beautiful yes/ and how shall I defend this/ beauty/wonder/feeling/yes in this world of No"; a handful of poems of Mute Wonder in the Presence of Death --- "I held the thin transparent hand/that had peeled so many potatoes/and thought of so much to say/to that thin body with big eyes that once had been/my cousin Harriet."

And there were about fifteen poems of Vietnam, all of them bloody, with mosquitoes and sweat and fear and stink in them, all of them angry about innocence violated and lives brutalized and an uncaring nation anxious to forget.

It was hard to read those poems and imagine how possibly to judge them as writing, or how the writers wished to be judged. After you have read ten Vietnam poems by ten men so haunted by the war that twenty-five years later their poems are breathless with horror, do you say, "Thank you for sharing your horror, and I choose horror No. 5 because the imagery is more vivid and it is better structured and more original"? These are true life experiences, not literary pieces, and if someone tells you how he almost died when he was eighteen, how can you deny him the prize?

Experience becomes literature when it no longer matters to the reader whether the story is true or not. Stephen Crane wasn't around for the Civil War, but you don't wonder about that as you read The Red Badge of Courage, it's all quite real on the page. Andrew Marvell could have been a Trappist monk in Kentucky and never had a coy mistress, but "Had we but World enough, and Time,/This coyness Lady were no crime" would still be a fine poem. On the other hand, if the poem, "Quang Ngai, Bravo Company" ("And he raised his gun/ and I thought hey cut it out/ and then her head blew up/ and the lieutenant turned away and puked") were written by a false veteran, born in 1962, who only knew about Vietnam from movies, you would feel cheated. The woman sorrowing for the cat who rescued her from Daddy's coldness has to be for real, or else the poem is a joke: you'd be angry at anyone inventing a Bad Daddy, just as, in your AA meeting, if someone stood up and described how alcohol had destroyed his life, and then later you found out that the man was only slumming among the drunks, you would be trembling with anger.

There was no doubt in my mind that most of the poems I read were about the poets' real lives, offered up as performances, hoping to win a prize for the quality of their suffering, like the candidates on the old "Queen for a Day" show, who told their troubles to the genial host, and audience applause determined who would get the Amana Radar Range and the weekend at Lake Tahoe.
I wanted to sit the poets down in a classroom and lecture them: self-expression is not the point of it, people! We are not here on paper in order to retail our injuries. For one thing, it is unfair to bore someone who doesn't have the opportunity to bore you right back, and for another, we have better things to do --- to defend the hopeless and the down and out, to find humor in dreadful circumstances, to satirize the pompous and pretentious, to make deer appear suddenly in the driveway.

Writing is a blessed life, no matter how hard it may be at times, and a person is lucky to be a writer. So go be one, I thought, having spent almost six hours reading four-hundred poems. There were five poems on my Winners pile. I agonized for perhaps two or three minutes ---
I am sorry, I mean no disrespect to Kitty.
I am glad your Grandma loved to bowl.
I am sorry for all of you poets who have been hurt by men.
I am sorry for rejecting poems that were, after all, about the moon, which is beautiful, of course.
I am sorry for rejecting poems that were about someone who, I am sure, is as admirable as you say.
I am sorry about your head lice, my friend.
War poets, you can have my car, my stereo, my books--- please don't come and shoot me!

--- then I sent my nominations to the poetry contest committee, and a few weeks later, the president phoned with the results. Two of my recommendations had won prizes, but not the poem about irises.

"It was the best poem in the bunch," I said.

She said that she had liked it too, but that the awards committee felt that other poems, though perhaps less advanced technically, deserved recognition. "I think we felt it was important to show that poetry isn't just about flowers," she said. The iris poem struck some people on the committee as a little boring. She mentioned that they had found "Quang Ngai, Bravo Company" particularly moving. They felt that it said things that needed to be said.

Okay, I said to her, that's fine,
As I took my pistol off Safety,
Easing it from the holster.
She thanked me for my work, and I said that it was my pleasure,
As I put the pistol to the back of her head
And blew her brains out,
Which didn't amount to all that much, frankly,
And cut her up with a chainsaw,
And ran the chunks through a wood chipper.
She made a little bit less than a full load.
I mixed her up well with the dirt
At the end of the flower bed,
And this fall I'll plant bulbs in her
And next spring she'll look better than she ever did as a president,
And you'll come and say how terrific the irises look,
But what do you know about what I went through
For beauty,
And you in the tuxedos drinking your gin and tonics,
How can you possibly understand any of this, you dummies?

Past Articles
  • Phil Keillor Benefit for the Tenney Park Shelter (04/17/09)
  • Bill Holm, 1943–2009 (02/26/09)
  • Happy New Year, Friends (12/29/08)
  • Talk of the Stacks (11/17/08)
  • What Makes St. Paul So Great? (09/03/08)
  • GK On Historic Preservation (10/05/07)
  • Welcome to St. Paul (09/23/06)
  • "Homegrown Democrat," Chapters 1-4 (08/10/04)
  • Sing the National Anthem—and Try it in the Key of G (07/02/04)
  • Holiday Greetings from Garrison Keillor (12/23/03)
  • Remembering Plimpton (10/01/03)
  • Crankiness in Decline, Says the Old Guy (04/19/02)
  • A Governor Works in Mysterious Ways (10/19/01)
  • In Praise of Laziness (09/10/01)
  • I Just Needed a Valve Job (09/13/01)
  • A Eulogy for Chet Atkins (07/03/01)
  • A Foot Soldier in God's Floating Orchestra (04/01)
  • Exile on Main Street (10/02/00)
  • Walking Down the Canyon (07/31/00)
  • The Mysteries of Prom Night (05/15/00)
  • How I Write (12/04/99)
  • The Christmas of the Great Flu (12/99)
  • Let Jesse Be Jesse (10/10/99)
  • The Rice, the Bat, the Baby (09/06/99)
  • Faith at the Speed of Life (06/14/99)
  • The Republicans Were Right, But (02/15/99)
  • Minnesota's Excellent Ventura (11/16/98)
  • The Dangers of Christmas (04/06/98)
  • Gasgate (11/10/97)
  • Talk Radio (10/97)
  • The Seven Principles of a Successful Christmas (09/08/97)
  • The Seven Deadly Sins—Envy (04/97)
  • You Say Potato (04/04/96)
  • The Poetry Judge (02/96)
  • With All the Trimmings (11/27/95)
  • In Autumn We Get Older (11/06/95)
  • Minnesota's Sensible Plan (09/11/95)
  • The Art of the Embrace (02/95)
  • The Voters are Angry (08/94)
  • Word Play (05/18/90)
  • We Are Still Married (12/18/89)
  • Elevator Tales
  • A Graduation Speech

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    Old Sweet Songs

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