Early in 1939, writing in the Saturday Review, an academician by the name of Arnold Mulder of Kalamazoo College complained to the world that, although Carl Sandburg had recently established legal residence in Michigan, “We haven’t a single poet who is to Michigan what Robert Frost is to New England or Robinson Jeffers to California.” For sheer quantity, lamented the professor, “we have to fall back on ’Eddie’ Guest.” Such a statement typifies the general critical reaction (although one is hard put to discover any critical reaction at all) to Edgar A. Guest’s poetry, both during the height of his public acceptance and after his death.
Instead of poetry as the academics practiced and preached it, Guest wrote simple rhymes touched with “humanness.” In easy, lilting verse, he described to his readers the specifics of his wife canning pickles, baking raisin pie, falling prey to the glib tongue of a door-to-door salesman, and being afraid when alone during a thunderstorm. Those same readers browsed through the open book that contained domestic events within the Guest household: saw the daughter’s new bonnet, heard her lisp her prayers, watched her turn aside a sparkling new doll at Christmas and run, instead, to her old ragged model. Through the poet’s devoted eyes, those same readers watched the growth and development of a son, another Edgar Albert Guest, nicknamed Bud, from colic to college. Included in the family activities, and in turn transferred to the pages of the nation’s major newspapers, were the garden and the joys of watching plants grow; tulips, for example, turned Guest from an observer of life to a backyard philosopher: “If it’s fellowship you sigh for, learn the fellowship of daisies./ You will come to know your neighbor by the blossoms that he raises.”
One can well imagine the professional legions rising in fits of apoplexy after being fed a dose of such rhyme, but “Eddie” Guest went forward, unmindful of any and all criticism. In fact, with such lines about the benefits of gardening, he expanded his audience to include scores of home gardeners, from those who tenderly coaxed their window boxes to fruition to others who ruled over an acre or more. Guest discussed with them, and sympathized with them, about their weeds and the stubborn yellow clay that he once mistakenly threw into a nearby alley, and again donned the philosopher’s toga: “I believe in laughter and I believe in love,/ And I believe the daffodils believe in God above.” Little wonder, then, that garden clubs all over America began and even ended their monthly gatherings with invocations and benedictions from the collections of Guest.
One cannot analyze Guest’s verse within the context of traditional critical criteria; one can only compile lists: examples of his singsong rhythm (“The groom is at the altar, and the organ’s playing low,/ Young and old your friends are waiting, they are sitting row by row”), of his end-rhymes (play-away, sight-right, room-bloom, sleep-deep, face-commonplace, alone-unknown, springs-things, fools-tools, text-next, world-curled, few-new, live-give), and of his obvious attempts to emphasize the colloquial elements of American English (“a heap o’ livin’,” “sun an’ shadder,” “Afore ye really ’preciate,” “with ’em allus on yer mind,” “gradjerly,” “cornerin’ life’s riches”). In fact, one may even avoid reading the poetry entirely by simply compiling lists of titles by category; thus: “A Boy and His Dad,” “A Boy and His Stomach,” “The Boy and the Flag,” “Boy o’ Mine,” “Boy or Girl?,” “The Boy That Was,” “Boyhood Memory,” “A Boy’s Hope for the Future,” “Every Boy’s Chance,” “If I Were Sending My Boy Afar,” “Father and Son,” “Father to Son,” “It’s a Boy,” “Little Master Mischievous,” and so on through the alphabetized tables of contents of a dozen or so collections. The titles serve as splendid synopses of the poems themselves.
Guest has a just claim to a place in American literary history. Simply on the basis of sheer volume and wide public acceptance, he deserves some rank among the minor poets of twentieth century America. He left his mark on American popular culture, and for that reason, his poetry will continue to be read.
Aside from the meter, the rhymes, and the language, Guest’s poems are simple descriptive sketches, trite even for the times in which he composed them. For example, “The Joy of a Dog” begins with the mother’s concern for scattered germs and dirt and hair upon her carpets, then moves to the moment when, as he well...
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