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   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.   
I might.

                                                               It’s hard   
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 . . .
Wave of Landscape

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—

Dear Lord,   
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. 


WAS said...

I like what you say about the perils of classifying things you don’t like and then finding an example of one you like, thereby changing (or at least challenging) your world view.

Except for a few accidental whiffs of Billy Collins, I’m not familiar with any of these poets you mention. I suppose it’s not news to point out that the poem you refer us to violates every traditional precept of poetry: it uses demotic rather than poetic language, it has no form or recognizable music, it has no point (metaphysical, emotional, intellectual or otherwise), and its shaggy-dog structure is so discursive you probably couldn’t even pull it off in conversation in a bar without being accused of being totally incoherent. Maybe I’m not appropriately amused, but I haven’t learned anything about prayer or being drunk or being human from this exercise other than deer look like enormous rats on stilts (which is funny enough to willfully suspend my disbelief at the utter lack of verisimilitude in the simile). Maybe I’m old school, but I want a reason to know why it’s important that elephants clean each others asses, or why someone would feel like Wile E. Coyote without even a speck of dust to mark his fall.

The danger of letting readers do all the work is that not every reader has the self-esteem and attention-span issues of this narrator. Lurching from metaphor to metaphor as a form of prayer? Isn’t this the kind of stuff that gives poetry a bad name in the first place?

Jean Spitzer said...

And if Iknow neither sports nor poetry?

It's a good story and very accessible.

Hannah Stephenson said...

YAY, Andrew Hudgins! He's an OSU professor (and is very beloved by his students).

Interestingly, he's known around these parts as being extremely skilled with form. I see Bill wasn't a huge fan of the poem included here....but consider this one from Hudgins (which kills me):

In the Well
Andrew Hudgins

My father cinched the rope,
a noose around my waist,
and lowered me into
the darkness. I could taste

my fear. It tasted first
of dark, then earth, then rot.
I swung and struck my head
and at that moment got

another then: then blood,
which spiked my mouth with iron.
Hand over hand, my father
dropped me from then to then:

then water. Then wet fur,
which I hugged to my chest.
I shouted. Daddy hauled
the wet rope. I gagged, and pressed

my neighbor's missing dog
against me. I held its death
and rose up to my father.
Then light. Then hands. Then breath.

WAS said...

OK, I got around to reading the "What is Poetry?" post and comments. It's an argument probably as old as poetry itself, exemplified by the intriguingly unresolved dialogue between B52 and Brenda's Arizona. I’m big on the hypnotic power of poetry myself, which consists precisely in the systematic repetition of rhythms and sounds, as well as an elevated (or condensed) diction that would not be appropriate for prose or speech. I'm drawn more and more to this quality because it seems more of an entrée to me into the ideas specific to poetry, which tend to be deeply felt, boundaryless and fleeting. But it is the ideas I am concerned with, not the métier; whatever “catapults the propaganda” (in George W. Bush’s immortal words) is probably legit.

“The Well” I think works because the steady rhythm and rhyme mimics the feeling of being lowered into a well. While the language itself is plain, it has a stateliness that elevates it (as much if not more than its narrative does) above the typical “traumatic childhood memory” poem growing like weeds in all the journals.

I am tempted to take a more fair-minded approach to the drunk poem now. If Hannah can survive such influences yet write so much better and differently, I should have nothing to fear.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Favorite SOA poet: Robert Frost. Favorite SOA poem: Home Burial.

Banjo, there is a lot to digest here. I fear I have to do it in increments... like good poetry, your posts aren't prose. Pure poetry...

Stickup Artist said...

I like the concept: that of Praying Drunk; my favorite part being the paragraph about the sin of despair. Maybe we've all been there? I know I have. Other than that, I can't say I am going to be a huge fan. That is to say, I don't feel compelled to track down more work by this author so as to gobble it up.

Loved the photos though; the selections, subjects, order of appearance. Especially the monks and the 2 church images. The images always enhance your posts!

Banjo52 said...

Again, some fine comments. Thank you. My responses will be my next post tonight or tomorrow.

Anthony Robinson said...

Worth pointing out here, as another commenter has already done, that Hudgins is an adept formalist, and this poem is not merely prose, but blank verse.

Just sayin'.

Dan Rifenburgh said...

Hudgins is one of our best poets, and can handle meter and forms with the best of them. Brenda thinks Frost is just SOA, but he always employs meter, and is quite formal, even when seemingly conversational and loose, no? I don't find this to be one of Andrews best efforts. I highly recommend you get his earlier books: they sre stunning.

Mark Weiss said...

Wow, the Hudgins' are awful! Basically one-liners. Once you get to them there's no reason ever to read the poems again. Would make really lousy prose.
Mark Weiss

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