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Flat, Slow and Fetching

April 18, 1993|David Kipen

Radio and poetry have long since surrendered their places in the cultural spotlight to television and prose, but humorist Garrison Keillor has fixed them up together on the airwaves for "The Writer's Almanac," and they're getting along famously.

Every weekday between 7:30 and 7:40 a.m. on KUSC-FM (91.5), a lonely piano plunks out a few bars of Dvorak's Slavonic Dance No. 8, and, over this snatch of music, Keillor's voice floats in--that enveloping voice, the one he has described as "flat and slow" and that has somehow survived many years of smoking. It is that rare thing today, a voice more recognizable than the mug that mouths it, and every weekday since New Year's it has reliably begun each broadcast: "And here is "The Writer's Almanac" for Jan. 1. . . . "

Next comes a brief rundown of events in American literary history that took place on the date in question. Birthdays and dates of death figure prominently, of course, but so does the day F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel was accepted by Scribner's, and he ran into the middle of the street to inform passersby.

The literary calendar takes up half of "The Writer's Almanac." The other half is given over to a poem, usually written by someone already mentioned in the calendar, and spoken by Keillor with that vaguely Scandinavian swing that, thanks primarily to his work, listeners around the country now recognize as Minnesotan. "One just wants to stay away from the poetry-reading voice," Keillor comments, "which tends to be like the Sunday morning ministerial voice, sort of unctuous and heavy and dripping with significance."

Some of the poets are dead and some are living, and some so obscure as to make the distinction academic to all but immediate family. Marianne Moore, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Walt Whitman crop up (the last with "O Captain! My Captain!" for Lincoln's birthday) only slightly more often than do anonymous hobo songs and hornbook doggerel. Fitting for the creator of the Town That Time Forgot, Keillor champions forgotten verse, "poems that we took up in high school English in Lake Wobegon, and perhaps are not read so much in class now."

As Keillor draws the daily selection to a close, Rob Fisher's piano swells under the last line or two, this time with a jaunty, almost camp-meeting lilt. The poem done, Keillor adds that " 'The Writer's Almanac' is compiled by Peter Stitt," his friend since the two were schoolmates at the University of Minnesota in the class of the late poet James Wright. Stitt recalls that Keillor submitted serious verse to the student magazine Stitt edited, then "the next fall came back and presented me with humorous verse." Asked what happened over that fateful summer, Keillor would only speculate: "Maybe I had sex for the first time."

Nowadays their working relationship is reversed. Professor Stitt holes up in the library of Gettysburg College, distilling lore and verse from a variety of sources. He then sends off more than they can ever use to his old contributor for an editorial winnowing that continues even in the "barren, antiseptic studios" where Keillor tapes "The Writer's Almanac" for satellite distribution to more than 100 radio stations nationwide.

In other circumstances, Stitt might actually be the unsung workhorse of "The Writer's Almanac." But as near as he can remember, Keillor has never once in his radio career spoken his own name on the air.

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