Garrison Keillor: “The meaning of poetry is to give courage”

Garrison Keillor performed Friday night at Bethel University as a fundraiser for Juvenile Justice. This organization works in Mexico to help kids who are jailed (sometimes haphazardly) and whose families (if they have any) don’t have enough money to visit them in jail, much less hire lawyers to defend them.

My son and his wife met me there, and we enjoyed the musicians, the sing-a-longs, and the jokes. It was great to be entertained while supporting a good cause.

Keillor’s monologue was not about Lake Wobegon, since he’s retired from A Prairie Home Companion.  Instead he waxed eloquent about the perils and insights that come with age. He’s 75 now, but he can still step into his underwear without leaning against a wall for balance, he wanted us to know. It’s important to give yourself little challenges like this, he admonished. When life is too easy, we’re not at our best. Maybe this explains why he hasn’t really retired. Whatever the reason, we, his fans, are glad.

One serious point he made was that his life has been saved several times by the type of people he used to scoff at in college, the science and math nerds. He’s grateful and has come to realize that we need to be especially appreciative of the people who are not like us. They may be the very people who can help us when we can’t help ourselves.

After the show, I bought a book and had him sign it. Above his signature and the date, he wrote, “To Tracey. Yes.”


This brief message of affirmation captures what I appreciate most about Keillor—his grand affirmation of life and of humanity and of our adventures and misadventures here on earth. Even the name of his bookshop in St. Paul—Common Good Books—highlights what he is all about: the common good. Good books are a major contributor to the quality of our common life.

The book I had him sign is his anthology of “Good Poems for Hard Times.” He didn’t write these poems. He collected them, and explains in the introduction, “This is a book of poems that, if I knew you better, and if you were in a hard passage, I might send [to you], along with a note, the way people used to do, believing in the bracing effect of bold writing.” He says, “I hope it does you some good. That was the reason for putting the poems together. These poems describe a common life. It is good to know about this. I hope you take courage from it.”

Keillor claims that “the meaning of poetry is to give courage.” And “what your life can be, lived bravely and independently, you can discover in poetry.”

One poem that inspires me is Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life.” It’s in the Public Domain, so I can share with you the ending:

“Let us, then, be up and doing
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing
Learn to labor and to wait.”

What poems give you courage?

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I am a Christian thinker, reader, and writer, who never travels without chocolate. See the “About” page for details.

2 Responses to "Garrison Keillor: “The meaning of poetry is to give courage”"

  1. Teri Hyrkas says:

    This is terrific, Tracey! .You really know how to make the most of your experiences and share them with your readers. Thank you!

    As to your question, I haven’t thought of poetry as a giver of courage, so will have to consider that… Poetry has primarily served to gladden my heart. One such poem is “Blessings Occur” by Ronald Wallace. Because it is not in the public domain, here is a link to it:

    Thanks again for your excellent article, Tracey!


    • Tracey says:

      Thanks for that poem, Teri. It makes me laugh and it also gladdens my heart. What a delightful little burst of brightness! This kind of gladness promotes courageous living, it seems to me. I’m so glad you shared it!


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