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An Excerpt From 'Good Poems: American Places'

Paging through the unreadable work of various highly honored poets, one longs for a little humor and humanity, a little attention paid to their surroundings. Some grit, some spark, maybe an ode to the old hometown, to the marble majesty of Colburn-Hilliard Men's Clothing and the bounty of Benzian Furniture and Amidore's Appliances, the sweet solace of Shadick's Soda Fountain, and the old ladies trying on black slacks in Dedrick's Department Store, rather than a soliloquy on the astonishing brevity of life. Mortality is pretty much the same for everybody — The end comes too soon! Too soon! — and Shakespeare's sonnets set a high standard here, do they not? So one is grateful if the poet turns his/her attention to the astonishment that awaits on a particular fall day in Missoula, Mont.

There are handsome monastic poets who write from seclusion, often about the sacred ineffable, and there are street poets who pick up shiny objects, some of them plastic or cellophane, and in this book you'll find the Milky Way and snow and also Dr. Pepper, Milk Duds, Wal-Mart, Winn-Dixie, Baryshnikov, a Cherry Queen in northwestern Ohio, Velveeta, Avenue C, a 1937 Chevy pickup, the town of Conception Junction, a blue neon insect electrocuter, chainsaws, Nancy Drew, Voyager II, and the Cowgirl Luncheonette in Seattle. There are daffodils too (a few) and moonlight and generic sunsets, but also the Dodgers, Tina Turner, a seal named Earl, the Russian Tea Room, Minnehaha Falls, and the dishpan bell of the yellow trolley.

In the classic tradition, poets strove for universality, and so Emily Dickinson did not tell us if the Horses whose heads turned toward Eternity were Percherons or Shetland ponies, nor if the narrow fellow in the grass was a black snake or a garter. Nor did Robert Frost have a specific boy swing on those birches, wearing U.S. Keds and blowing Fleer's bubblegum while singing "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Serious poets did not step in the mundane for fear it would date them, diminish the universality, and perhaps also because — well, because America was rather vulgar with all those asphalt parking lots and shopping malls — and poets felt obliged to rise above the vulgar immediate, up to the distant ideal.

The upward-striving poets are happy enough to drop European places into their work — In a café in Verona, I suddenly thought of my father — romantic places (Rome, Genoa, Venice, Paris of course) being preferable to Sweden or (arghh) Germany — which paid off twice: (1) you immediately elevated yourself by placing yourself in Paris, smoking a Gitane, sipping Pernod, walking in the footsteps of legends, and (2) you could write with a freer hand, knowing your American readers could not hold you so closely to account as they would if the poem were set in the middle of Kansas. And maybe the Upward-Strivers hoped their work might be lionized in the Times Literary Supplement — so, better to leave out the reference to one on, two out, in the bottom of the ninth.

Excerpted from Good Poems: American Places, by Garrison Keillor.
Copyright Garrison Keillor, 2011. Used by permission of Viking. Read an interview with Garrison Keillor.