O, What A Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound

By Garrison Keillor

Grove Press

192 pages, $20

By Michael D. Langan


Garrison Keillor, the genial host of “A Prairie Home Companion” since 1974, is a genius if there ever was one.

His new poems touch upon the human condition with their gentle humor and offbeat perspective.

Keillor’s verses – lyrical, vulgar, pathetic and profound – have found febrile ground in perversity disguised as old age.

I am seventy years old.

The forecast is for snow and cold.

Things go from bad to worse

Except if you’re perverse.”

His title ode to micturation, “O, WHAT A LUXURY” is a whiz of urgent doggerel that is sadly a wee bit too colloquial to quote in full here.

Ogden Nash comes to mind with “LUXURY’s” bladderlike urgency. You remember Ogden Nash (1902-1971). His poems ran in The Buffalo Evening News 60 years ago. Once, Nash famously wrote,

I would live all my life in nonchalance

And insouciance

Were it not for making a living, which

Is rather a nouciance.

In fact, Keillor dedicates his verses to rhymers with whom he affects to conspire: Ogden Nash, Cole Porter, John Updike, Ira Gershwin, Roger Miller, Roy Blount.

Keillor also might have included Irving Berlin and Dorothy Parker.

It may seem a mystery that Keillor’s poetic genius can be so reflective and occasionally earthy. But, on balance, why shouldn’t it be? Sometimes, that’s the way life is.

At least one listener to “Prairie” over the past few years has noticed a more pronounced lustiness that was only hinted at in earlier radio years. (Or maybe it’s just a loss of discretion in the elderly host.)

In Keillor’s defense, ancient poets like Ovid and moderns like Archibald MacLeish have seen the world similarly.

There are divisions in the content of Keillor’s poems, but they don’t signify very much.

It would not have been a big mistake to just run Keillor’s poems in no especial order.

Decide for yourself: How’s this for a Table of Contents: 1. Was Ethel Merman A Mormon?; 2. A Major Faux Pas Prohibited By Law; 3. I Live In This Desolate Spot Because You Do Not; 4. Beneath Their Shiny Domes They Contain Your Chromosomes; 5. Thanks Be To God For Keeping Us Small; 6. Secondary Neurons of the Cerebral Promontory; 7. A Republican Lady of Knoxville and 8. The Planet Revolving on Its Axis.

Forget the publisher’s attempt to put a frame around Keillor’s creativity. There are plenty of great lines in this anthology. I enjoyed the following:

In a poem titled “NEWT,” Keillor writes about Newt Gingrich, observing that “He’s a big balloon with a very slow leak, What you’d say for a minute, Newt can say for a week.”

Or, how about this verse giving Mitt Romney and Rand Paul new job options?

We’ll grab hold of Mitt Romney by his shiny satin tie

And get him a job cleaning toilets at the Y

And as for that pretentious midget Rand Paul,

He can work security at the mall.

Some of Garrison Keillor’s work reminds one of Hilaire Belloc’s (1870–1953) children’s verse. Belloc wrote, “There was a boy named Jim, whose friends were very good to him. They gave him tea and cakes and jam, and slices of delicious ham.”

Here is Keillor’s poem, “A QUESTION.” It has the same jaunty rhythm.

His wife said, “Please be careful,” and he smiled patiently

And said, “Hey, don’t worry about me.”

And he buckled right in with a confident grin

And his screwdriver touched a live wire.

And he let out a cry and proceeded to die

In a shower of sparks and fire.

And the people who gave the eulogy

Spoke of honor and love and ambition.

They spoke well of the dead, and nobody said,

“Why didn’t he call an electrician?

There are plenty of odes to the skills of the common man. I like “THE PLUMBER,” which finishes up with this verse that praises the luxury of basic systems working properly.

In your happy youth, beauty, justice, truth,

Seem to be what life is all about,

But when the facts are faced, you realize life is based

On water coming in and going out.

It is fine to love Chopin, but when It hits the fan

The plumber is the man who saves them all.

Michael D. Langan is the former headmaster of Nardin Academy and a frequent News book reviewer.