Reading his “The Writer’s Almanac” for Saturday, Jul. 26, 2008, one is delighted to discover that W. H. Auden’s old chestnut “Musee des Beaux Arts” has been revivified with a creative-destruction misprint, the sort for which Keillor is becoming famous since his misquote of Emily Dickinson:
"The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
which received the first annual Manglish Award of The International Brotherhood of Sloppy Typists back on July second of this year. Today Garrison Keillor causes us to ask ourselves, “What part of a horse is its 'innocent' as in,
“Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life [lives? agr.] and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind a tree.”
One is forced ineluctably toward the further question, If the hypothetical horsy body part is called an “innocent,” why must the beast hide “behind a tree” to scratch it? What is the horse ashamed of? In fact, CAN a horse be ashamed, or even embarrassed? One doubts it.
After some considerable time contemplating the Audenesque Keillorism, one inevitably concludes that something is missing from the Auden poem as quoted here, something crucial to our understanding it.
What missing [body?] part, if inserted, would enable us to see the sentence as something less than shameful? Ah! At last it occurs to one that the body part is, in fact, already present and our misprision is that we have been mistaking an adjective [“innocent”] for a noun, and a noun [“behind”] for an adverb. Intense cogitation reveals a small word, a preposition, is missing: ON!
One must step back and admire Keillor’s amazing feet…er, feat, for he has, with merely two letters, completely destroyed Auden’s peom…pome…POEM! Here is how the three lines in question should, and in fact, do read:
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
Of course, now one must ask oneself, What other kind of behind could a horse have? Hairy, yes; brown (or some other color), yes. But could it have a “guilty” behind, even if it belonged to a torturer? Only a horse’s ass could think so.
But one must rein in one’s conjectures, saddley, or be spurred further into the mare’s nest of literary criticism which ought to be conducted at flank speed or not at all. Readers would bridle at the awkward attempt and likely would go off hoofing and poofing, nostrils flaring. They would rather experience a hayday than read further pedanticisms. Unfortunately, we must consider one other Keillor construction before we leave this page. He writes in today’s column also,
"It's the birthday of Carl Jung, born in Kesswil, Switzerland (1875). He was the founder of analytic psychology. He noticed that the myths and fairytales from all different cultures contained certain similarities, which he called archetypes, and he believed that these archetypes came from a collective unconscious that is shared by all human beings. He said that if people could get in touch with these archetypes in their own lives, they will [my emphasis] be happier and healthier."
Should not that last sentence read, “He said that if people could get in touch with these archetypes in their own lives, they would be happier and healthier”? Hypothetically speaking, of course. But we have devoted too great an amount of time to such considerations. Let us be done with this discussion with a brief reminder of a short series of Clerihews written by Wesli Court for The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics:
“The clerihew, a particular type of epigram, was invented by E. Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956). It is a quatrain in dipodic meters rhyming aabb, the first line of which is both the title and the name of a person:
When his ego
Sailed to Montego.
Became more annoyed
When his id
Fled to Madrid.
Grew most annoyed
When his superego
Tried to Montenegro.
Was nearly destroyed
When his alter-ego
Showed up in Oswego.
Found himself among
Of various stripes.”
— Wesli Court
Actually, I make so many typos myself that I don't dare blame others for theirs! All of my books have at least one; fortunately, for the most part they're easily recognized as typos -- but not always, and of course when they're not they're embarrassing as hell.
Poor Keillor was particularly unlucky in making one in a line that contains the word "behind." He must have felt awful about it when he spotted it himself, poor man, and especially in a poem by Auden, whom he obviously admires greatly.
I was giving a reading at SUNY Potsdam in 1970, from my then new book The Inhabitant. I was reading the second poem in the book, “The Hallway,” when I came to the line that should have read, “Let him proceed; let his footfall say clum, silence, clum.” Unfortunately, the word “footfall” had been transformed by the printer into “football”! I fell apart. The reading came to a dead halt for…I don’t know how long. Unlike Garrison Keillor, who can have his webmaster fix his error immediately (as he did the Dickinson goof), I had to wait thirty-seven years to fix mine.
Funny stuff. Oswego
into the wild blue yonder.... However, Keillor means well.
If you've ever seen the hilarious HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (about the real creator and writer of "Seinfeld"), you might have seen the one in which Larry David (protagonist) writes the obit about his wife's lovely aunt. When he comes home to every family member in his living room, they are all pissed at him and show him the obit with the typo:
"... love wife, and beloved cunt...." My favorite typo.
For me, the issue is the kind of poetry Keillor pushes. People say he's doing such wonderful things for poetry without adding that he doesn't in the least honor the diversity of poetry. If you think all poetry sounds like a Lake Wobegon monologue, then Keillor's your man. If you don't, then he's not. I wrote this in my article on the Gioia/Kleinzahler debate over Keillor (the full article is in my book, The Dancer & the Dance; also available online at
One can ask: Is what Keillor's doing genuinely "expanding the audience for poetry"? Or is he merely expanding (or cementing) an audience for Garrison Keillor and for the kind of writing Keillor chooses to call "poetry"?
For Keillor clearly espouses a kind of writing. "I find it wise," he says, "to stay away from stuff that is too airy or that refers off-handedly to the poet Li-Po or relies on your familiarity with butterflies or Spanish or Monet." Adds Kleinzahler, "’So I'll be feeding you mostly shit,' is what Garrison could well go on to say."
Certainly Garrison Keillor's Writers Almanac is not the place in which "hard practical questions" about the survival of poetry will take place. Keillor doesn't even begin to suggest the imaginative possibilities of poetry on the radio — not least because the only voice Keillor presents is his own. (And it is not even "his own" voice; it is, as Kleinzahler says, his "poetry voice.") Garrison Keillor does have an audience, however, and it may be that poets are so desperate for an audience that they are willing to take Keillor far more seriously than he deserves to be taken. Why can't poets be American Idols too? If Keillor's were the only understanding of poetry available — and for some people it is — woe for the art of poetry. But, happily, it is still possible to stumble upon something else, something better.
Note, by the way, that Keillor could honor the diversity of poetry and still remain in the realm of the "popular"; evidently, he has no wish to do this.