Garrison Keillor has edited poetry collections and regularly recites poetry—on his weekly live radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, and on The Writer’s Almanac, a brief daily NPR segment—but until now he has never published a book of his own verse. O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound carries a dedication to “the memory of Ogden Nash, Cole Porter, John Updike, Ira Gershwin, Roger Miller, Roy Blount—Masters of the House.” It is a fitting house for him to honor, for like those he names, Keillor writes verse that is comic and approachable, and his poetic voice is quintessentially American.
The book’s title functions as a reliable key to the collection itself: this is a book of “verse”—Keillor is careful not to elevate his own humorous work to the level of the true poems he chooses for The Writer’s Almanac—and the angst-ridden English major’s use of “O” rather than “Oh” is a signal that what follows will surely be satire. Indeed, each poem offers enough of the promised “vulgar” and “pathetic” to get a reader relaxed and laughing so that Keillor can get away with the “lyrical” and “profound.” The title poem definitely leans toward the vulgar:
To feel your bladder just go free
And open like the Mighty Miss
And all your cares go down the creek
To pee, to piss, to take a leak
Like the humor of Keillor’s much-loved “News from Lake Wobegon” segments in each week’s edition of A Prairie Home Companion, many of these poems are mildly naughty in a Midwestern schoolboy sort of way, but they can also pivot into deeply human realms of love and regret. A poem about San Francisco, for example, ends with these lines:
No wonder people from Indiana, Ohio, North Dakota, and Illinois
Come here to waken their old romance
In a park of flowering plants
Under a Pacific Sky,
How could one not be in love, even if you’re not sure with whom, or why?
The book is divided into eight sections that address such topics as celebrity, love, and place. One section is dedicated to the limerick, with several entries that especially recall one of the names on Keillor’s dedication list: Roy Blount Jr. Aside from being the only one who’s still alive, Blount is also different from others on this list in that he has become well known for his political commentary in verse—often as a guest on Keillor’s show. In O, What a Luxury, Keillor enjoys skewering political figures with poetry, too. Consider the opening lines of “Newt”:
Wears an Extra Large suit.
His hair shaped like a parachute.
A grand old Republican galoot.
The poem ends, several lines later, with
He knows what politics is all about.
Never had a moment’s doubt.
Here’s the handle, there’s the spout.
Cash goes in and the steam comes out.
Such poems suggest that the world would be a happier place if all cable pundits were required to do their name-calling in iambic pentameter. But some of the book’s funniest lines are neither political nor bawdy, instead taking the form of mash-ups. “T.S. Eliot Rock,” for example, is what happens when Chuck Berry crashes into “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in St. Louis:
The night was young and the moon was gold.
I was eating a peach with my trousers rolled,
I had no particular place to go.
Hail, hail rock’n’roll, deliver me from the days of old.
A Midwestern wistfulness and whimsy infuse all of Keillor’s work, from A Prairie Home Companion to his novels, memoirs, story collections, and the script for the 2006 film based on his show, directed by Robert Altman and starring Meryl Streep. Fans of his work in other genres and anyone who enjoys the tradition of light verse will find much in this book that will make them chuckle—and then surprise them with a tear.
Garrison Keillor will read from O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound on October 28, 2013, at 6:15 p.m. at the Nashville Public Library. The event, part of the Salon@615 series, is free and open to the public.