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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bullies, Addicts and Losers: A Poet Loves Them All

A couple of years ago, writing in Poetry magazine, August Kleinzahler lighted a string of firecrackers under Garrison Keillor and his “Writer’s Almanac” segments on National Public Radio.Mr. Kleinzahler criticized the “anecdotal, wistful” poems Mr. Keillor often chooses to read — poems he summarized as “middle-aged creative writing instructor catching whiff of mortality in the countryside.” Mr. Kleinzahler wasn’t very nice about Mr. Keillor’s “treacly baritone” either. Ultimately Mr. Kleinzahler boiled his case against Mr. Keillor down to these three-and-a-half sentences: “Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.” It makes a certain kind of sense, then, that Mr. Kleinzahler’s career-spanning new book of poems, “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City,” features on its cover a nighttime photograph of a White Castle hamburger franchise. Like White Castle’s pint-size hamburgers, Mr. Kleinzahler’s poems are of uncertain if not dubious nutritional value. And while there is nothing made-to-order about them, his poems arrive salty and hot; you’ll want to devour them on your lap, with a stack of napkins to mop up the grease. Mr. Kleinzahler is an American eccentric, a hard man to pin down. Born in New Jersey, he writes poems that have a pushy exuberance and an expert recall of that state’s tougher schoolyards — of bullies with names like Stinky Phil and of “fire trucks and galoshes,/the taste of pencils and Louis Bocca’s ear.” And he writes with elegiac insight about life’s losers, the people he calls “strange rangers,” the addicted, insane or destitute. Bullies, Addicts and Losers: A Poet Loves Them All


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