A portrait of the smart-ass as an old man

By |2018-01-15T22:04:38-05:00March 22nd, 2007|Opinions|

By R.J. Beaumia

There’s too much poetry in the world today and not enough poets. I blame this on Starbucks and rap music.
Back in the 90s, there was an epidemic of chain coffee house poseurs – fueled on five-dollar espresso drinks and one too many readings of “Howl” in sophomore English – who began treating the American public to their particular form of shopping-mall inspired angst in bars and clubs. At the same time, rap music eclipsed most other forms of popular music, influencing and transforming them.
Personally, I don’t trust anyone who writes anything in a sunny space, let alone poetry in a coffee shop, and I certainly don’t want to hear it recited while accompanied by those finger-y hand gesture movement things that are so popular with the young people these days.
First, I know I’m showing my age. The last rap artists I loved were Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC, and poetry to me is “I Wanna be Your Dog” or Chrissy Hynde saying “Baby I’m too precious, I had to fuck off!”
Second, to be honest, I really can’t stand poetry that’s not written for music; I will avoid reading it like I avoid drinking “lite” beer, and I resented having to write it in college.
The one time I was forced to take a poetry class, my misery was compounded by my instructor who, according to what he told us, was a former New York advertising executive who had to leave the business because of “nerves.”
He was an older man who looked like Edmund Gwynne’s Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street,” but he was really a foul, condescending, pompous homunculus whose only reason for not taking an overdose of antidepressants was to publicly humiliate timid, well-mannered midwestern kids whose last encounter with verse was “Cat in the Hat.”
I tried to tolerate his nastiness as long as I could until, during class, he obliquely slammed a weekly film column I wrote for the college paper by accusing the paper’s staff of not being serious about writing, coming just short of calling us a bunch of hacks.
“You will succeed in life writing like that if all you want is to be a smart-ass,” he said.
I hated him for this, and still regret not calling him on his plagiarism when he read aloud one of his poems that contained a line straight out of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.”
As it turns out, I have become somewhat of a professional smart-ass, fulfilling my instructor’s prophecy. But as I look back upon what happened in his class, I can now see that his bitter sarcasm was really a manifestation of his frustration that his own career as a smart-ass was soon to be finished and, as happens to all of us, he resented his loss of relevance as he became more out of touch. And this finally gets me to my point.
Living the life of a smart-ass can be lots of fun, but one with a trajectory replete with pitfalls the longer it goes on. Just ask Garrison Keillor.
Last week the gay end of the blogosphere was buzzing when Salon.com ran a column by the writer and host of NPRs long-running program A Prairie Home Companion.
Entitled “Stating the Obvious,” the column was written in the folksy, populist style for which Keillor is famous. His idea for the piece was inspired by a newspaper story he read about the U.S. Department of Education spending $750,000 to prove that taking schoolchildren to art museums is good for them, which is “stating the obvious” while unnecessarily spending lots of money to prove it.
The gist of the piece is that things were better for children when the structure of their lives was simpler, without the constant over-analysis and distractions of modern living. However, to prove this, the column took a strange turn and became a critique of the modern family, particularly the growing number of families with same-sex parents.
“And now gay marriage will produce a whole new string of hyphenated relatives,” Keillor writes. “In addition to the ex-stepson and ex-in-laws and your wife’s first husband’s second wife, there now will be Bruce and Kevin’s in-laws and Bruce’s ex, Mark, and Mark’s current partner, and I suppose we’ll get used to it.”
He continues, “The country has come to accept stereotypical gay men – sardonic fellows with fussy hair who live in over-decorated apartments with a striped sofa and a small weird dog and who worship campy performers and go in for flamboyance now and then themselves. If they want to be accepted as couples and daddies, however, the flamboyance may have to be brought under control. Parents are supposed to stand back and not wear chartreuse pants and black polka-dot shirts. That’s for the kids. It’s their show.”
Taken out of the context of the article and knowing those passages were written by Garrison Keillor – not exactly known for being an arch-conservative and famous for using irony to take the piss out of certain forms of American hypocrisy – one might have a bit of a laugh.
That is, until he says things like “nature is about continuation of the species” and that the “standard arrangement” of different-sex parents is really best for bringing up well-adjusted children.
You have to read the whole piece and judge for yourself, but even Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan were in agreement with each other that Keillor was offensive.
Keillor apologized publicly, actually using the words “I am sorry,” a rare phrase to hear from public people who fuck up these days. He said that because he lives in the “small world” of entertainment, “gayness is as common as having brown eyes,” so he’s isolated from the larger world of homophobia. The column was indicative of how he would joke with his gay friends, he said.
I believe him. I think his apology is genuine, and I believe his column was not intended to be mean-spirited.
His problem is simply a matter of changing times coupled with the hazards of being an aging smart-ass. Keillor is an old-fashioned midwestern liberal who would be the one at a dinner party to say, “Some of my best friends are gay.” Also, anyone who uses the word “gayness,” besides a gay man or woman who’s trying to be campy, can’t be expected to be completely understanding even if he’s completely sympathetic. He can handle those of us who are “creative” and “unique” as long as we’re discretely creative and unique.
In a 2004 radio interview, Keillor said he thought the issue of gay marriage was “too costly” for Democrats in the presidential election.
“The symbolism of gay people marrying is terribly potent, terribly powerful, and we ignore this at our peril in our party,” he said, adding that allowing gays to marry should be left up to individual cities and states.
“Gays have tended to migrate from hostile places to friendlier places,” like New York and San Francisco, he said, pointing out that forcing us into becoming a diaspora in the big cities is good for commerce and culture there, and that we can never change the small minds of Missourians or Montanans anyway, so let them have their intolerance.
So, in honor of my fellow smart-ass Garrison Keillor, I sit here perched upon my damask settee with my freshly-groomed poodle, listening to my Edith Piaf records while I pine for the days when I had hair to be fussy with, an aging queen and a fading smart-ass. Baby I’m too precious, I just have to fuck off!

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.