Remembering Edgar Guest and some thoughts on the state of poetry today

When I was a child we had a small, slim, blue, book of poetry in our house. The title of the book was It takes A Heap o’ Livin’, and it was written by Edgar A. Guest. The book, published in 1916, was one of Guest’s most popular. If you have not heard of Guest, here’s the brief bio: He was born in England in 1881 and died in Detroit, Michigan in 1959 – in the course of his 77 years, he would hammer out over 11,000 poems which would eventually be collected into over 20 poetic volumes.

Guest started out as a newspaperman, first working for the Detroit Free Press where he would quickly rise through the ranks from copy boy to reporter. Somewhere along the way he started writing poems and published his first in the aforementioned newspaper on December 11, 1892. Guest would go on to become a naturalized American citizen in 1902, and he quickly developed an earthy poetic voice, steeped in local dialect that would captivate rural America.

Guest’s poems were usually sentimental, sometimes inspiring, always rhyming, and most often corny, but they were written for mass consumption, and Guest certainly knew his demographic. Guest published almost all of his work in newspapers – the internet of the day. You needn’t be an MFA grad student, or an ivory tower English professor to understand his verse. He was a simple hard working poet, writing for a simple hard working audience, in what were, undoubtedly, simpler times.

Not to say that Edgar A. did not have his detractors. Dorothy Parker said of Edgar:  “I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test than read the poetry of Edgar Guest.” But we all have our naysayers don’t we. I will leave the link in place for those of you who might not know what the Wasserman test entails — enough said.

I mention Guest only because he authored the first poetry book that I remember reading from cover to cover. It was not the most sophisticated verse, but I believe exposure to poetry at an early age instilled a desire in me to play with words and put them together in an order that would make people want to read them – or maybe not…

Later in life I would go on to discover poets with a different voice, particularly the beat poets, Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg and my all time favorite (quasi-beat) poet, Charles Bukowski – a gentleman who is perhaps the anti-Edgar A. Guest of poetry (more on Bukowski in another post).

So why write about Edgar A. Guest and old folksy poetry? It is probably because I have been reading more poetry lately, thanks to the many new friends that I have made on Twitter and Facebook. Over the past few weeks, many of you have passed along links to your websites and I have been looking at as many as I can, with the limited time I have. What I am discovering is some really high quality work. Some people have sent me links to some masterfully produced websites, with truly professional content. Thanks to all!!

An acquaintance of mine, a gentleman who has been fortunate enough to have a couple of publishing credits under his belt, growled to me in an email the other day that the internet was filled “with rubbish”.

He went on to repeat a line in his email that I have read somewhere else, although I can’t remember where, that ‘when everyone becomes a writer, no one is a reader’. Now my acquaintance can be a bit condescending when it comes to writing, not because he has a graduate degree from a very well known East Coast Ivy League university hanging on the wall of his study, and not because he has a publicist that calls him to schedule signings at distant Barnes and Noble bookstores, no — he was quite like that before he’d published a line. I do not entirely agree with him.

I fired an email back saying: “reading a great poem online right now”. I sent along the link…so far no reply.

Frankly, I am seeing some really good work on the internet by some very talented writers. So, if you have anything you’d like me to link to from my little blog, please just ask and I will be more than happy to do so. Just don’t be surprised if I ask you to link back, and maybe in some small way we can all help each other.

So that’s it for this Tuesday. I think I will close with one of the greatest (undeniably corn ball, but nonetheless uplifting) motivational poems ever written:

You can do as much as you think you can,
But you’ll never accomplish more;
If you’re afraid of yourself, young man,
There’s little for you in store.
For failure comes from the inside first,
It’s there if we only knew it,
And you can win, though you face the worst,
If you feel that you’re going to do it.

— Edgar A. Guest (from Secret of the Ages; 1926)

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