Good Poems for Hard Times: A Love Letter to Garrison Keillor

In a preaching class in seminary we were all told to go around the room […]

Sarah Condon / 7.17.15

keillor3In a preaching class in seminary we were all told to go around the room and tell everyone our name, where we were from, and who our favorite preacher was. While I knew it probably wasn’t the right answer, the truest answer for me was that my favorite preacher was, and still is, the magnificent Garrison Keillor.

To say that I loved Garrison Keillor with all my heart would be an understatement. I grew up on Public Radio in Mississippi. Which means that as a child I heard loads of classical music and Morning Edition. And while this was likely good for my developing brain, I found it to be mind-numbingly boring in actual practice. My one saving grace was Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. For some 40 years, Keillor has hosted a seemingly old timey radio show that feels forever fresh and relevant. He tells cowboy stories and parodies detective noir. The show boasts the broadest range of music you’ll ever hear from one source. And PHC is best known for Keillor’s stories about the fictional and quirky town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.

I can map my life through Keillor’s narrative of Lake Wobegon. As a child, I remember hearing the show one Christmas Eve, and while I cannot remember the story Keillor told, I vividly remember crying because it was so beautiful. And his introduction of Pastor Liz as a character has had obvious significance to me as a clergy woman. In Keillor’s narrative, Liz was called to serve as the Pastor for the Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. I have often found the antics of characters like the Vicar of Dibley unrelatable (and frankly silly). But Pastor Liz is just so normal. Keillor will often tell her stories through the lense of that week’s gospel reading, or talk about how her parishioners have noticed her boyfriend falling asleep during worship. She is a clergy woman and a real person. Imagine that. In one of my favorite descriptions of her character Keillor wrote:

“Pastor Liz simply believes that the Holy Spirit has called her to serve the Lutherans of Lake Wobegon. If that’s what you call nuts then the New Testament was written by and for crazy people.”

With all of that said, this isn’t a piece about A Prairie Home Companion or Pastor Liz, while I could wax poetic about them both. This is about Keillor’s collection of poetry Good Poems for Hard Times. It is a staggering collection of poetry that I return to again and again. When I write, I often keep a copy of the Bible and Good Poems for Hard Times on my desk. It has been that life giving for me. And like Keillor’s PHC, this collection of poetry has become its own map for the way I view life. I bought my first copy a year after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. After spending several months living and volunteering down there I needed something that could speak to my experience. In the midst of the awful aftermath, and by God’s Grace, I met my husband at a relief camp. I was struggling with the pain I had seen and the great love I had found all in the same place.

Garrison1097sTo be honest, what made me buy the book was not Keillor’s name on the cover. In a review printed on the first page of the book, attributed only to the famous Times Picayune of New Orleans, a staff writer observed:

“If I could choose only one book to give every inhabitant of post-Katrina New Orleans, it would be Garrison Keillor’s remarkable and wide-ranging collection of Good Poems for Hard Times. What a lovely, consoling book, perfect for reading for these days when everyone is struggling with something…the 185 poems in this collection do help.”

Honestly, I want to share quotes from more of these poems than space allows. But I’m going to share a few of my favorites and implore you to buy your own copy.

Perhaps the poem I think about most is one I try to read aloud each year to my husband on our wedding anniversary. Because it says so much about being married and raising children together. This comes from Barbara Crooker’s “Ordinary Life,”

“We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
No bickering or pokes.
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
Along the sofa’s ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
Tasting of coffee and cream.”

While most nights in my household are not nearly this quiet or idyllic, I know in my memories, this is how they will feel.

One of the things I love most about poetry is the way that it can playfully express many emotions with few words. James Fenton’s “In Paris With You,” is funny and sexy and sweet:

1101851104_400“Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris,
The little bit of Paris in our view.
There’s that crack in the ceiling

And the hotel walls are peeling
And I’m in Paris with you.

Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris.
I’m in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I’m in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I’m in Paris with…all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I’m in Paris with you.”

And while Keillor has included these romantic gems in his collection, the religious experience is never far behind. In fact, the genius of Good Poems for Hard Times, is that Psalm 51 and a Jim Harrison poem (appropriately called “Easter Morning”) are alive and well in the same book. By far, the most treasured poem that Keillor has taught me comes from John Donne’s “Hymn to My God, My God in My Sickness.” Donne, who was born in 1572 to a wealthy Catholic family, converted to Anglicanism and became a priest. In the fifth stanza of this poem, Donne names the Christian life in a nutshell:

“We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.”

Keillor’s uncanny ability to make the old speak to the new, whether through a radio show or a poet long dead, is remarkable. He reminds us that the human experience of struggle and hope is not unique to our current condition. And exposes us to a creative and consoling Grace that is beyond ourselves.