Sometimes the greatest tragedies come quietly.
Today marks a week since the passing of The Writer’s Almanac, one of the few modern examples of true literary culture edging – just slightly – into the American mainstream.
The Almanac has been around for 24 years. Hosted by its creator, Garrison Keillor, each daily program included vignettes about authors and other noteworthy people whose birthdays or significant events coincided with the date of the particular program. There were also interesting excerpts of important events in history.
The program continued with one or more poems usually chosen and read by Keillor. The show ended with his traditional sign-off, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” The theme music was a version of the Swedish song “Ge mig en dag”, performed by Richard Dworsky on piano.
Keillor has recently been accused of ‘inappropriate conduct’ by a co-worker at Minnesota Public Radio, which has the distribution rights to the show. He has been summarily removed from all his connections to the station, and, among other actions, the Almanac is no more. The details are murky. It isn’t clear what was committed; from crimes against humanity to repugnant boorishness to internecine office politics. But the Almanac is gone. That we know.
This loss is a terrible thing. The Almanac goes quietly, ‘with a whimper,’ but the magnitude of the demise cannot be understated. Thousands of writers, poets especially, saw a small sliver of light fall across their obscure desks because of the Almanac.
Ever heard of Athena Kildegaard? I hadn’t. ‘Till A Mother’s Poem showed up in my email the other day. Same for the poetry of Anne Sexton, Paul Hostovsky, David Romtvedt, Ogden Nash, Janice Moore Fuller, Dorianne Laux and hundreds of others. Each post in the Almanac included links to buy the works of these poets, which I’m sure was a huge benefit to them. Ever tried to sell a poem? Ever tried to keep the heat on in winter with income from your wordcraft? Give it a shot. Have fun.
Another casualty: The Poetry Foundation. Long fighting a valiant Thermopylae-esque battle for the attention of the American public, this beleaguered institution will crumble further into obscurity. Many of those who attempt to live by the spoken or written word will feel the effects of this ignominious end.
I think of all the people who made their living from the show too: The Almanac was written by Betsy Allister, Joy Biles, Priscilla Kinter, Heather McPherson, and Holly Vanderhaar, the program was engineered and edited by Thomas Scheuzger, Noah Smith, and Sam Hudson. Production assistance was by Kathy Roach and Katrina Cicala. I don’t know any of these people, but I presume they’re now using those fabulous writing skills on their resumes.
This is a blow to the English language itself. The Writer’s Almanac invited Americans to spend time with those who are excellent and exacting in their use of English. This, in turn, pushed those of us with lesser skills to be better with the craft. To avoid sentence fragments, for example. And fight the urge to grow wary when in fact we were weary. Great English avoids misconfusing conjunctions. And doesn’t use nouns to modify verbs (e.g. ‘travel safe’ is, ostensibly, a thing, ‘travel safely’ is a well wish). Great English makes whimsical and witty use of alliterations (you be the judge with that one).
But to my way of thinking, the greatest effect of the loss of the Almanac is to the American mind. I’ve long been suspicious of just how well the average American thinks, myself included. I’m dubious that we as a people place a high enough standard how and at what point we decide something is True. America today seems to be a land of sports spectacle and activism, neither of which lend themselves to nuanced and charitable thinking. Intellectual certainty abounds. Justice may rarely roll down like water these days, but arrogance about one’s opinions certainly does.
Poetry tends to avoid absolutes. It remains one of the few places where the dress could be blue, or gold, or both…and still be considered valid. And valuable. A poet once told me that a good poem has two completely different meanings, depending on how it is read – a great poem has three. Poetry demands of us the ability to find both satisfaction and fascination in such unkempt intellectual complexity.
I met my future wife over Faulkner, but things really heated up when Cummings and Frost got involved. To say I owe my marriage, and all the glories that have resulted thereafter, to poetry is both overstatement and understatement. I mean, words…what can they really do for us? No doubt it was actually those relentless brown eyes. Then again, perhaps it was the waves, which did something to the shore that water never did to land before.
It may be that shutting down the Almanac was necessary; the justice of sins come home. Perhaps it is the victim of McCarthyist purges. Either way, the loss is incalculable. The exit of a Today Show anchor or a Hollywood movie producer barely rends the cultural fabric of America. But the loss of The Writer’s Almanac shreds it. All are bereft of so much more than can ever be said. Except, perhaps, by the poets, who are now even more quiet than they were before.