I do not intend to defend or address Keillor’s alleged inappropriate behavior that recently cost him his jobs at Minnesota Public Radio and the Washington Post.
That said, one of my favorite poetry collections is Good Poems for Hard Times, which Keillor assembled, and which led me to acquire his earlier anthology, simply titled Good Poems. And good they are.
Sometimes you need to read a poem multiple times before you can appreciate it, and many of these good poems fall into that category. But others ring from the first read through, delighting me with their cadence, rhyme or humor.
One poem haunted and devastated me: John Updike’s “Dog’s Death,” and I didn’t know why it hit me so hard. We have a little old deaf and blind dachshund, but nothing in her life paralleled the words. That poem disturbed my mind for days almost like an earworm, until I finally unburied an old memory from thirty-five years ago.
When we bought our first house, we bought a beagle puppy from a pet store. He was the cutest little thing, but one day soon after when we took him on a walk, he sat down and walked no further. I thought he was being stubborn, but my husband suspected something was wrong and eventually took the pup to a vet. She diagnosed parvo virus, and tried to treat him, but he didn’t respond, and we had him euthanized. We had been paper training him, and he once dragged himself to the paper to have diarrhea.
In Updike’s poem, the dog sustained an unnoticed injury that ruptured her spleen, and died on the way to the vet. The last stanza is what twisted my heart:
Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there. Good dog.
Keillor expertly arranges the poems in this book. For example, these two poems, sharing the same name and obviously related, were printed on opposite sides of the same page:
This Is Just to Say
William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
This Is Just to Say
(for William Carlos Williams)
I have just
asked you to
get out of my
Which led me to wonder—did the poets know each other?
One nice feature which Good Poems shares with Good Poems for Hard Times is a section at the back of the book containing short biographies of each of the included poets. I immediately found the one for William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963, but I couldn’t find the one for Erica-Lynn Gambino. I was heartbroken. Should I write to Penguin Books and tell them there’s an omission? I tried closing the book and opening it again, but still no biography appeared for Gambino. It bothered me.
Photo by Prairie Home Productions
Until I finished the entire book and read through all the biographies (I’m a little obsessive-compulsive that way) and found Erica-Lynn Gambino Huberty, b. 1969. So no, the poets did not know each other personally. Mystery solved.
The poems are interestingly organized into nineteen categories: O Lord, A Day, Music, Scenes, Lovers, Day’s Work, Sons and Daughters, A Good Life, Beasts, Failure, Complaint, Trips, Snow, Yellow, Lives, Elders, The End, and The Resurrection. Some poems would have been appropriate to more than one category, and I found it amusing that they ended up where they did.
Yes, this is definitely a good bunch of poems, but be patient with them. Some I didn’t care for on first reading, but they became more meaningful after repeated visits. And probably some won’t be your cup of tea no matter what. But it’s still worth mining for the gems that resonate.