sometimes, of you.
Sep 10, 2012
Praying Drunk by Andrew Hudgins : The Poetry Foundation
Regulars here at Banjo52 know I’m concerned about prose masquerading as poetry. In youth, I was dunked in a vat of serious poetry flavored with Keats, Hopkins, and Yeats; I can’t shake them and don’t much want to.
So, if you know their work a bit, you can see why I have a knee-jerk suspicion about Billy Collins, Denise Duhamel, Mark Halliday, Barbara Hamby, Tony Hoagland, David Kirby, to mention only a handful of poets now writing in a chatty, easy-going manner that many readers love. It’s been called “The School of Accessibility” (SOA), and people of my orientation tend to label it cop-out, sell-out, dumbed-down pandering. But I’m here to say that’s too easy, as most sweeping generalizations are, especially the harping, negative sweeps.
(If you become interested in this topic, you could revisit my post on January 31, 2010 http://banjo52.blogspot.com There’s some repetition, but also some different samples.).
What usually happens in SOA poems is something like a prose poem, but with more storyline. There is often such a dominant narrative thread that we might wonder why the writer didn’t simply choose the short story (or “flash fiction” if he wants to grab the newest trend) as his genre.
Also, there’s usually more wit and hominess in SOA poems than there is in tighter, more lyrical work. They can be or seem too cute, merely clever. In both theme and manner, the SOA poem tends to be more obvious than traditional lyrical poetry. As the “Language Poets” (see Rae Armantrout here last March 11, to name one) have tried to be new by boiling language right down to bone so bare that it’s perhaps incomprehensible, the SOA poets might be putting extra meat on the bone to make sure we can taste its juice. The most severe critics of SOA might say it’s so much message-meat that we gag on it.
In any case, these SOA poems are broken into lines, sometimes with a discernible logic, and in the best of them, there is from time to time enough density and richness of image, thought, and emotion, along with deftness of phrasing, for the work to have earned the title of Poem with room to spare.
But at other times, the power and ingenuity of a piece are so dependent on its whole rather than stunning words, lines, short passages and ideas along the way, that the work can seem to drift comfortably, even lazily, to a bland conclusion. There’s an overall Whoosh at the end rather than a lot of Whishes along the way, perhaps in every line, as well as a big Whoosh at the end.
The traditional lyric is so condensed and crystallized that it’s a shotgun shell containing individual pellets, each of which could have blown off the top of Emily Dickinson’s head. (Hey, that shotgun metaphor is E.D.’s, not mine; and she often lives up to it).
Put all these issues together, and what rears its ugly head is slick entertainment supplanting the high art we’ve been given in the twentieth century by Stevens, Eliot, Roethke, Bishop, Williams and others (most ironic of all might be E.E. Cummings).
However, those of us who find poetry to be an important richness in our lives want others to find it so too. Maybe we have messiah complexes, but don’t we all want others to love what we love, to be saved the way we were saved? I don’t mean that sarcastically; I think it’s a pretty human orientation. And if more and more folks like and are shaken into greater awareness by this new, strolling, wandering, loitering SOA, isn’t that better than reading no poetry at all? Isn’t that more soul-enlarging than Reader's Digest?
When I like and respect an S.O.A. poem, and I often do, I feel it as a guilty pleasure. I feel and even think—if suspecting is thinking—the poet and I have both gotten away with something. We’ve had our minds and souls stirred in a way that was probably more pleasure than challenge.
To see the world anew is by definition a change, and change is threatening; a poem challenges what I thought I knew—about poetry, life, history, politics, science, you name it.
But if change menaces, it also refreshes and expands. If I allow myself to receive the poem, on its terms, I might learn something new—a way to see deer, or to kill rats, or a more scientific, less trite transformation of landscape into a cleansing wave (see Hudgins).
To my surprise, there are good SOA poems; they are not as simplistic as gossip or reading a comic book or watching porn for the same period of time. Now and then a new kind of bastard comes along and seems legitimate, which feels all wrong. It goes against everything I was taught and came to believe I believed.
Now consider how many significant topics that last sentence could fit.
I suspect that’s more than enough prep for Andrew Hudgins’ “Praying Drunk,” but as a tease I’ll also offer a few passages from the poem, which might reveal why I find the piece a shotgun shell that’s also full of pellets. Never mind that in a more traditional poem, I’d be offering single words and short phrases to admire, while it’s passages of several lines in this case. It’s still true that I like, envy, and respect the following images, ideas, and phrasings, especially the last two quotations, which offer the best new twists I’ve seen on the meaning of “religious experience” since Raymond Carver’s masterpiece of a story, “Cathedral.”
But do please read Hudgin’s whole poem; surely you want the Whoosh and not just these wonderful Whishes.
deer drift from the dark woods and eat my garden.
They’re like enormous rats on stilts except,
of course, they’re beautiful. But why? What makes
them beautiful? I haven’t shot one yet.
to kill your rats, our Father. You have to use
a hollow point and hit them solidly.
A leg is not enough. The rat won’t pause.
Yeep! Yeep! it screams, and scrabbles, three-legged, back
into the trash, and I would feel a little bad
to kill something that wants to live
more savagely than I do . . .
I’m sorry for the times I’ve driven
home past a black, enormous, twilight ridge.
Crested with mist, it looked like a giant wave
about to break and sweep across the valley,
and in my loneliness and fear I’ve thought,
O let it come and wash the whole world clean.
Forgive me. This is my favorite sin: despair—
we lurch from metaphor to metaphor,
which is—let it be so—a form of praying.
I want a lot of money and a woman.
And, also, I want vanishing cream. You know—
a character like Popeye rubs it on
and disappears. Although you see right through him,
he’s there. He chuckles, stumbles into things,
and smoke that’s clearly visible escapes
from his invisible pipe. It makes me think,
sometimes, of you.
sometimes, of you.
Posted by Banjo52 at 3:07 PM