Tag Archives: Garrison Keillor

Review of Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor

Review of Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor

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.

Good Poems

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 eatenjoanna-kosinska-199279
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

This Is Just to Say
Erica-Lynn Gambino
(for William Carlos Williams)

I have just
asked you to
get out of my

even though
you never
I would

Forgive me
you were
me insane

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.

It Could Be Verse

It Could Be Verse

Reading a good poem makes you stop a moment and savor the images and emotions you just experienced.

That’s what happens to me when I read from Good Poems for Hard Times, collected by Garrison Keillor. It’s my favorite poetry book. I refer to it often, and I reread it cover to cover every few years. The Minnesota author who spellbinds us with his tales from the fictitious Lake Wobegon is a genius when it comes to selecting poems.

Good Poems

Divided into categories such as “Kindness to Snails,” “Deliberate Obfuscation,” and “Here It Comes,” the poems resonate with me. For example, here is the beginning of “Ordinary Life” by Barbara Crooker:

This was a day when nothing happened,
the children went off to school
without a murmur, remembering
their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the square of light on the floor.
And lunch blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
one of those jobs that never gets done,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch’s little scraps…

That poem launches memories of my own days as a stay-at-home mom of five. Or how about this one:

The Yak

Hilaire Belloc

 As a friend to the children
commend me the Yak.
You will find it exactly the thing:
It will carry and fetch,
you can ride on its back,
Or lead it about
with a string.
The Tartar who dwells on the plains of Thibet
(A desolate region of snow)
Has for centuries made it a nursery pet,
And surely the Tartar should know!
Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got
And if he is awfully rich
He will buy you the creature—
or else
he will not.
(I cannot be positive which.)

The combination of the rhyming, the meter, the indentations in the original (WordPress will not allow me to duplicate the formatting), and the absurdity delights me.

Drawn from works ancient and modern, serious and comic, this anthology includes poets well-known and obscure. I love the mini-bios of the writers in the back of the book, each ending with a quote:

Wallace STEVENS (1879-1955, Reading, PA) was a Harvard man, a lawyer and vice president for 20 years of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co. He wrote poems on his way to and from the office, based on ideas he usually came up with on his long walks. [Note from Andrea: I get ideas for poems on walks, too!] The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens was published in 1954 to mark his 75th birthday, and he died the following year, the same year he won a Pulitzer. “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.”

Who is your favorite poet? Why? What is your favorite book of poetry? Why do you like it? Share in the comments below.