“A Heap o’ Livin’” Review

3-star rating
"A Heap o' Livin'" book cover

This 1916 book could just have easily have been titled “A Heap o’ Preachin’” or “A Heap o’ Homilies,” given its content. But author Edgar A. Guest knew his audience, and wrote for them.

His readers from over 100 years ago expected the simple ka-thump ka-thump ka-thump rhythm patterns of the poems they may have read as children, and Guest delivered. They expected the simple rhyme patterns (such as ababcdcd or aabbccdd) of those same poems, and Guest used them.

They expected poems on the themes that resonated with them—honesty; integrity; humility; generosity; the values of hard work and work for its own sake; the joys of boyhood, manhood, and fatherhood; faith in a Creator and His ultimate plan; patriotism; bearing up without complaint in the face of life’s trials; and so on—and that’s what he wrote.

Women hardly figured in his poems, and when they did, they filled the traditional roles of wife, mother, housekeeper, and cook. They were forgetful and poor drivers and money managers. Today we’d call them stereotypes; at the time, that was the image both men and women often held of them.

Guest was, in other words, a man and poet of his times. (Interestingly, he did manage to sneak a couple poems into this book—“The Peaceful Warriors” and “Spring in the Trenches”—that feel like anti-war works.)

This approach worked for him. According to his Wikipedia biography[1], his 11,000 poems were syndicated in some 300 newspapers and collected in over 20 books. He had his own radio and television shows between the 1930s and 1951.

Guest was no T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, and the “sophisticates” of his era looked down on him. Again according to Wikipedia, Dorothy Parker once sarcastically imitated his style, saying, “I’d rather flunk my Wassermann test[2] than read a poem by Edgar Guest.” Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker recited some of his poems on All in the Family. British comedian Benny Hill parodied Guest’s poem “It Couldn’t Be Done.” Yet it was Guest’s popularity—something that Eliot, Pound, and Parker could never touch—that drew such criticism and mockery.

For what Guest meant his poems to be, and for the audience he intended them for, A Heap o’ Livin’ is a fine example of his work. Just don’t expect it to be “high art.”

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Guest

[2] The first test for syphilis. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wassermann_test

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