Sep 18, 2012

Follow-up to Discussion of Andrew Hudgins' "Praying Drunk"

There's about to be some talk about elevated language, and it might not be a page-turner. It might not make your day. It might be soporific.

So, rushing in, as always, where angels fear to tread--that is, rushing to the rescue, I wonder if this video clip is this another kind of prayer (notice the girl's demeanor, as if you could avoid it), or at least a language so intense that, if someone called it poetry, I'd hesitate before arguing. But the video is also a bit of comic relief preceding a bunch more old-fashioned words from visitors and me. I'll sprinkle in some photos too.

Field Hockey, Intensity, CT, Oct. 2010

Last week’s post was another occasion for visitor comments that were too thought-provoking to get only a quick response from me. So here again is Andrew Hudgins’ poem, “Praying Drunk,” along with your comments and, in italics, my responses.

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?
September 10, 2012 4:53 PM

William, Comment #1:   The only point I might disagree with is your last one about metaphor to metaphor as prayer. A full response would take forever, and I don’t know if I could bring it off anyway. So here’s this: over the years, I’ve become more and more concerned about a widespread sense of the divine that’s too tied to received wisdom and texts.

Egret, Alarmed, Kensington, 9/16/12
My hunch—and it’s only that—is that any godhead(s) that might be there can be perceived only obliquely, indirectly, intuitively. The other choice SEEMS to be literal acceptance of the literal words of ancestors’ sacred texts, in many languages translated by many scholars, some competent, some not, in which the godhead is a great big Uncle Billy in a rocker on a porch in the sky, offering wisdom and condolence in one breath, deathly might in the next.

So, while I may have never thought consciously of the godhead or prayer as metaphor, Hudgins led me to realize that metaphor is another kind of indirection (“telling it slant”) that might be the way I’ve been thinking about divinity for some years now.

If I’m misrepresenting your point, please let me know.

loggerJean Spitzer said...

And if I know neither sports nor poetry?

It's a good story and very accessible.
September 10, 2012 5:10 PM

JEAN – Glad you thought so.  Yes, I bet most readers would find the plot, if we can call it that, at least kind of interesting.

I didn’t know it was legal to live in Texas and not know sports . . . .  I’ve never thought of this before:  maybe you artists who are not sports fans should become fans just for the color and other kinds of imagery.  (That began as a smartass comment, but there might be something to it).  I won’t assume you’re someone who’s acerbic and condescending about sports, but there surely are some, about whom I’ve often said, or thought, “You mean you don’t see the ballet?  Wow. You don’t see the metaphor for war as something to respond to?”  

But you’re being nice and mellow, not acerbic and condescending.  And I, by the way, have been acerbic and condescending about hockey.  Just a little. More than once. From time to time . . . And maybe golf just a little.

Young Buck, Unalarmed,StageNatureCenter, June 2012
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.
September 11, 2012 3:27 PM

HANNAH   Thank you!  I have a feeling that “In the Well” is one of those poems that’s immediately accessible, but will be worth many return visits for subtleties of image and idea. I’m surprised I haven’t seen it before – which probably means I’m surprised it’s not much-anthologized, it seems so classroom-friendly, so teachable.  More technically, I’m impressed that Hudgins’ rhymes are obvious and strong, yet feel natural and do not at all cause an oversimplifying sing-song effect. Thanks again for this nugget.

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.
September 11, 2012 5:23 PM

WILLIAM  #2:   I like your comments about “In the Well.”  “Stateliness” is a good word. Ditto “’traumatic childhood memory’ . . . growing like weeds.” 

In both your comments you make  a point (or is it two, or a few) about the language and ideas that are apt for poetry. I’m okay enough with the contemporary scene to worry about that, to think that most kinds of language can work – if, as you say, it reinforces what’s being said, and if what’s being said is worth being said. 

Of course the “what” there leads us to your point about “ideas specific to poetry,” and I question just how many ideas cannot be made “specific to poetry.” Very few, I’d say.

Yes, I cautioned students about their slim chances for success in a piece that apotheosized a door knob. (I also said, if you’re convinced and determined, go ahead and try. Who knows?).  

On the flip side, I’ve said two of the very best poems in the English language are Roethke’s “The Waking” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  To my ear and mind, both are elevated and musically hypnotic, both respond to your desire for “systematic repetition of rhythms and sounds, as well as an elevated (or condensed) diction that would not be appropriate for prose or speech,” and both address subjects almost everyone would find elevated and appropriate for poetry.  

So I think it’s risky to say that only certain kinds of elevated language and subject matter are suitable for poetry, especially from about 1900 onward, into the major democratization we’ve seen in literature. Surely hate-mongering, bigotry, bullying, cheering for battlefield gore, and some other “ideas” aren’t likely to make worthwhile poems; otherwise we might attribute to Hitler’s “hypnotic” oratory the label of great poetry.

You’ve heard my unease (euphemism noted) about too many weeds in the journal-gardens out there, so I doubt we’re too far apart. But I’ve been moved and provoked into deeper thought by some poems that I initially heard as prosaic and simplistic, so I can’t pretend a complete agreement with you. We’d probably need to compare specific poems, or even specific passages, lines and images, to see just how near or far apart we are. But I thank you for elevating the discussion here.  I hope others are drawn in . . .
Redwing, Meditating, Kensington, 9/16/12

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...
September 12, 2012 12:09 AM

BRENDA – Thanks for the compliment. I did worry about length here, both Hudgins’ and my own, but if you’re offering that I’m not a pretentious windbag, just too richly lyrical and profound to be digested quickly . . . should I decline in favor of modes posturing? Hudgins?  Hudgins who?  (But, Brenda, I do hope you return for more bites).

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!

Mid-September, SE Michigan

STICKUP -  Thanks for the support on the photos. I still never sure I know what I’m doing, or what makes a photograph good, but I’ll admit I do like some of my own. And yes, I wonder how many of us even think of despair as a sin. Doesn’t that idea deserve a pause, some consideration, hard-nosed though it is?

As for Hudgins, I say again, we can’t all love all the authors, photographers, painters we’re supposed to. That would be like lying down for the Uncle Billy mentioned above.  I’ve always thought a fun—or serious—game is to ask oneself, “Can I have a lasting friendship or romantic relationship someone who adores _________?”  (In my case, it might be Milton. Or Dryden.).  That may sound extreme and self-important, but think about it. Could I love a head-banger, or vice versa? Could I get married in a mosh pit?


WAS said...

I much preferred your riff conjuring Uncle Billy on the steel strings to that 11-year old wunderkind, who was not dropping beats so much as sounds (btw have you heard Kurt Elling's scat-take (as opposed to spit-take) on "The Waking"?).

I’m not sure I like you comparing my praise for hypnotic poetry to Hitler’s speeches. Wouldn’t his appropriation of poetry be part of this so-called post-1900 “democratization of literature”? What is that anyway, the equal right for everybody to pay exorbitant admission fees?

I agree that looking at specific poems could get us closer to agreeing or disagreeing. Off the top of my head, I can think of two poems on traumatic childhood memories written in the plain, contemporary style that offer contrasting approaches regarding the musical sense of words. “A Smile to Remember” by Charles Bukowski I'd offer up as an example of how painful memories can be rendered with a control of effect and a rhythm of music that differentiates it from prose, and connects it to what is being expressed, a great longing that can never be quenched:

we had goldfish and they circled around and around
in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes
covering the picture window and
my mother, always smiling, wanting us all
to be happy, told me, 'be happy Henry!'
and she was right: it's better to be happy if you
but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn't
understand what was attacking him from within.

my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: 'Henry, smile!
why don't you ever smile?'

and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw

one day the goldfish died, all five of them,
they floated on the water, on their sides, their
eyes still open,
and when my father got home he threw them to the cat
there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother

“Adolescence” by Sharon Olds on the other hand seems to regard musical effects as accidental. It flattens out the diction in fact to flow less than prose, and magnifies the effect with seemingly random and jarring line breaks. One might argue that this matter-of-factness is in line with reducing the excitement of the sexual act to tedium, shame and panic. But to me it only accentuates the fact that the narrator is telling her own story, where the details don't transcend the fact it happened to her:

When I think of my adolescence, I think
of the bathroom of that seedy hotel
in San Francisco, where my boyfriend would take me.
I had never seen a bathroom like that --
no curtains, no towels, no mirror, just
a sink green with grime and a toilet
yellow and rust-coloured -- like something in a science experiment,
growing the plague in bowls.
Sex was still a crime, then,
I'd sign out of my college dorm
to a false destination, sign into
the flophouse under a false name,
go down the hall to the one bathroom
and lock myself in. And I could not learn to get that
diaphragm in, I'd decorate it
like a cake, with glistening spermicide,
and lean over, and it would leap from my fingers
and sail into a corner, to land
in a concave depression like a rat's nest,
I'd bend and pluck it out and wash it
and wash it down to that fragile dome,
I'd frost it again till it was shimmering
and bend it into its little arc and it would
fly through the air, rim humming
like Saturn's ring, I would bow down and crawl to retrieve it.
When I think of being eighteen
that's what I see, that brimmed disc
floating through the air and descending, I see myself
kneeling, reaching for my life.

Jean Spitzer said...

You can relax. I actually like many sports, watching and doing. But I am not knowledgable about them, in a player/statistic sense.

And I think the damage done to young bodies by football is appalling. Which probably makes me a heretic, here in Friday night lights territory.

Hannah Stephenson said...

This is so fun! Comments about comments about poetry. Is there anything better?

What a wonderful discussion. We need to hold a conference!

Jean Spitzer said...

I forgot to say, I love the photo of the egret. Just amazing.

Birdman said...

I'm taking that image of the wave on the crest of the hill 'in my pocket today'. I've seen it many times. It sends shudder through me. My dad at times struggled with the bottle. It reminded me of blurred talks we had. Over your shoulder... the dark wave.

Banjo52 said...

William— I haven’t heard Elling’s version of “The Waking.” Is it on YouTube? How many aspirin will I need afterward?

I certainly didn’t mean to associate you with Hitler. In addition to acknowledging the power, if not skill and substance, of his oratory, I feel vulnerable as a (sort of) New Critic. If it’s only the art product we care about, could Hitler or a chimpanzee end up being a “great” poet? Similarly, haven’t we had elephants painting pictures?

I agree that the Bukowski is more obviously musical than the Olds, and B’s last two stanzas might be the first thing I’ve ever liked by him. I’d add, however, that what gets to me in both poems is their building from prosy, nuisance-necessary information to some kind of crescendo in the last several lines of each. In that, both remined me of what I was trying to say the other day about Accessibility poems; the whole is much more important than any of the parts, the details. I suppose that’s true of all works of art, but I’d also like to admire details along the way.

Having said that, I think Bukowski’s goldfish and saddest smile are powerful and memorable images, but so are Olds’ flying diaphragm and that hell hole, music or no music.

Her line breaks have always made me uncomfortable. A student once offered that Olds (and others these days) might think emphasis and drama are more appropriate at the beginnings of lines than the ends, so Olds puts weaker words like conjunctions or prepositions at the ends of lines to get more BOOM at the beginnings. I thought that made sense, though I still can’t get used to it.

These are two very fine poems I didn’t know at all. Thanks, William.

Jean #1— If you don’t know sports stats, what in the world are you doing in your spare time? More seriously, the new attention to injury in football is a long time coming, and I’m glad it’s arrived. Even the millionaire pros don’t deserve lifelong damage to limbs and brains. There should be a thousand psychiatrists at every game to medicate those fans who are there only for the violence. There’s so much more to see.

Hannah— Thanks. I hope it keeps going. Once upon a time, there was a small town doctor from southern West Virginia who liked to say, “We’re only here to serve.” He was a good guy.

Jean #2— Thank you. I did some of the prescribed things for catching birds—stood there for quite awhile, focused, arms braced, finger on the trigger, waiting for him to do something interesting. Even so, I wasn’t sure I got that moment till I saw the pic—and felt more lucky than proud.

Birdman— I had the same sense of recognition of a ridge as a dark wave, even felt annoyed that I hadn’t thought of it myself. That’s a very nice touch you add about your and your dad and “blurred talk.” Thank you.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I'm with Hannah - I love comments on the comments on the poetry.

A conference would be COOL! Would any of us ever 'shut up'? Or would we bounding off the walls with ideas and comments and remarks and poems?

Stickup Artist said...

I'm kind of a headbanger ;-)

Kitty said...

I'm glad you posted readers' comments to this poem, since I rarely read other comments. I liked William's comment about the author relying on or trusting that the reader will do the work to understand the poem. True.

I like that there are surprises in a poem. A poem might make you confront things you might not want to, or you're not prepared to deal with. Not to say that other writing doesn't do the same. And to suddenly read someone else's prayer of gratitude immediately makes you sum up your own situation and feel grateful, too.

Things can always be worse! (of course, things could also be better, too. That part I always seem to forget).

Hope you're doing well, Banjo!

rental mobil jakarta said...

Very nice photo shot, thanks for sharing.

RuneE said...

I must admit that I missed the original post on this one, since it was very interesting for a non-US citizen to read both the poem, the comments and your answers to them.

I may be called an agnostic on a good day, and maybe one must be one (or at least not a fundamental Christian of the rocking-chair-grandfather-in-the sky type) to appreciate both the humour and the seriousness in this poem. The "Drunk" is obviously a very intelligent man who knows much about himself and much about the world around him - and wants to know more. He hates denial of reality (at least when it is not in cartoon form). And he dislikes those who prevent the spreading of knowledge. And he is a humanitarian.

Or am I totally on the wrong track?

In any case: It was extremely interesting to read. As was your photos to see.

Lovers' Lane