A Defense of Poetry
I can hardly blame Gabriel Gudding for his apparent desire to fart in the paper cathedral of contemporary letters. And I think it’s fairly beyond doubt that such scatological whimsy is essential to his sentiments; A Defense of Poetry contains no fewer than twenty-two references to matters bottomish. Sometimes foregrounded (“Poem Imploring the Return of My Butt”, “On the Rectum of Peacocks”, “My Buttocks”), sometimes mere gilding and garnish, the anus, the rectum, the butt, the buttocks, and all that issues thereforth are Gudding’s limitless source of inspiration. This is the poetry of scatological exhaustion; it is scatological-categorical. It is going too far, perhaps, to accuse Mr. Gudding of playing in his own shit; he is more concerned with the airier pronouncements likely to manifest from his very own region of unlikeness. The question then becomes one of whether his efforts and blastings offer delights to the reader as conspicuous as those clearly experienced by Mr. Gudding himself.
The answer is, if provisionally, yes. I demand the provision because it strikes me as impossible that any reader, no matter how predisposed to hysteria, no matter how subject to the novelty value of the word potty, could possibly compete with Gudding’s giddiness. It did prove infectious after awhile, though the vectors through which it was transmitted sometimes had more to do with force than nuance: Gudding is restless, unforgiving, positively juvenile in his refusal to abandon a joke. I’m still uncertain if he knows what purpose jokes serve, but I suspect he does, and there are moments in A Defense of Poetry (the title poem, “Infantry”, “Poems”, “The Lyric”) in which it becomes apparent that there are knives lurking behind Gudding’s smiles. He savors satire, and has a gift for it, but his realization of satire’s function—to simultaneously offend and defend, to indict a failure while exalting that which has been failed—is complicated not only by the range of what he has determined to satirize, but also by the risks concomitant with the use of wit in contemporary poetry. No, scratch that; I cannot imagine any poet who would be willing to renounce their use of, or access to, their alleged wit; this is really about being funny, which Gudding undeniably is, and what that means. In any case, Gudding is fighting on two fronts: he opposes the sacred self-regard with which much poetry is soiled, but willingly or unwillingly he must also contend with the possible consequences of freighting to and fro a sensibility that only appears to be light.
Readers who are less than attentive, or those whose ears are imperfectly tuned, may consign Gudding to that realm of the fatally affable in which one can find Dean Young and Tony Hoagland and, currently lording over the lot of them, the inexplicably persistent presence of Billy Collins. Each of these three has responded, in similar ways, to the same climate of tone-inflation that has so clearly activated Gudding’s impishness. But it is a profound mistake to identify Gudding with either this group or their noisome legion of imitators. The first essential difference is one of animation, muscle of line—the abovementioned three often adopt a toe-scuffing disingenuousness, a manner of false and baffled simplicity that, I think, masks a profound viciousness. They remind me of the frequency with which some bald men mock their own lack of hair; the redundancy of their self-ridicule cannot disguise the fact that they are jealous of those upon whom nature has gazed with greater affection. Indeed, their consistent protestations that such concerns are essentially foolish only works to reveal the degree to which they are themselves consumed by those concerns; they are “jus’ folks” whose assumed common-man status indulges a paradoxical, prosaic elitism.
Gudding escapes this trap admirably; he is a different, altogether more serious (though more successfully funny) citizen of poetry. Part of his distinction can be attributed to his charmingly naked auto-curiosity: in “My Buttocks”, he ratchets down his rhetoric long enough to note that
I am very interested in my buttocks,
because it is the part of my body I most infrequently see.
You might argue that if I were really interested in my buttocks
I would use mirrors and look at it more often.
But I reject that theory.
I am at once plainly interested in my buttocks,
at the same time that I look at it about once a year.
From there, Gudding commences to consider hermaphroditic replacements for the buttock-burdened form with which we are more familiar; this leap from the mundane to a pleasingly perverse speculation is one of Gudding’s signature styles and one of his more charming. He refuses to credit his own absurdity and is equally unwilling to abandon it; this equanimity often leads him in intriguing directions, though “My Buttocks”, as do a few other of the poems, ends when the poet’s sense of intrigue seems to wear thin. The effect of this is sometimes jarring but not always unpleasant; I respect a poet who quits a poem when they become bored with it, rather than waiting for me to suffer through that unfortunate work for them.
A Defense of Poetry also benefits from Gudding’s erudition and, more importantly, his ability to make excellent use of it without feeling a need to cloak or overestimate its utility. In “For Quintus Laberius Durus, Who, Because of a Javelin in His Lungs, Died Near Kent, in Early August, 54 B.C.” Gudding drolly begins with
Bored and nosing again in Caesar’s Gallic Wars
and feeling arrogant as usual about knowing Latin,
but commences to abandon almost immediately all traces of auctorial self-reference. What could have easily become a precious example of how to earn praise by appearing pathetic becomes, instead, a moving account of the futility of reading, especially the reading of history, which allows our editorial asides but can never address them. As an explicit theme, such a truth could easily become ponderous; Gudding manages its weight by sacrificing all possibility of his narrator’s self-chosen humility. Here, the poet knows that the admixture of literacy, curiosity and compassion is assurance of humiliations aplenty.
What I particularly enjoy about this technique is that it inoculates Gudding from a condition of perpetual swoon; he is rarely betrayed by his overwhelming catalogue of references and sub-references. Nothing that might obviously merit special treatment here receives it: in the poem “Richard Wilbur”, the eponymous poet is simultaneously lampooned and appreciated (“Richard Wilbur, you are my mind!”), a contradictory feat made exclusively possible by virtue of Gudding’s willingness to absorb material with undifferentiated appetite. He is in love with everything equally, equally irritated by all he has consumed.
When I consider this voracity, Gudding’s anal delight seems more a kind of awesome democracy than the pranksterism by which it inaugurates itself. Although “Fons Belli” is uncharacteristically slight for this collection, it does feature the useful if somewhat disconcerting conceit of the poet pulling impossible items quite literally from his ass; or perhaps it is more precise to claim possible objects (siege engines, appropriately enough) from an impossible anus: tormentum, robinet, fundibulum, martinet, bricole and finally a 50 foot trebuchet are all summoned from Gudding’s fund. As this partial list indicates, the one feature of the world upon which the poet is compelled to lavish disproportionate attention is its host of sounds: Gudding is delirious with word-love, and his fidelity to rhyme is not limited to aural affiliation—he rhymes cultural associations with the zeal of one obsessively compelled. To read poems such as “To an Oklahoma in Winter” is to host a whirlwind:
For your displacement
For the beaver and plover and swan
shot in the hips
for your highways your hard dawn
for your heartland
and Edward P. Murrah
for your fat dam on the Pensacola and Verdigris
your Tenkiller Ferry
for your grim wine stuffed with mung beans
your weird-headed murderess those half-wits
your coalman peppered at noon
Custer and Kiowa your Greer your seacloud skewered
over Ellis Okfuskee Adair
There is something heartbreaking about this excess, some sense, in the midst of biblical incantations and Christopher Smart and Gerard Manley Hopkins, that the poet’s rage and frustration at the multiplicity and chicanery of the world has been distilled to this one defense—to fling into a gale of insanity a tightly-wound tornado of righteousness. This strategy finds its ultimate expression in the last poem of the collection, “Requiem Cadenza”, a construction of such surpassing vigor and passion that it demands to be read aloud, repeatedly, and with the fury and legitimate woe with which it is bound.
I wonder, of course, what Gudding will do now, having established himself as such a homunculus. Like all satirists, he must return to the material the betrayal of which so sharpened his tongue and his sensibilities. I do not doubt his ability: “One Petition Lofted into the Ginkgkos” ends as follows
Imagine it all falling
into some dark machine
brimming with nurses
nutrias ex machina —
and they blustering out
with juices and gauze, peaches and brushes,
to patch such dents and wounds.
This is lovely to hear and consider, and it allows a tenderness that in no way threatens the fierce effulgence of Gudding’s more common style. Indeed, the former depends upon the latter, and I anticipate the tango the two personae will dance in contest of occupation of the same poetic space in Gudding’s future work.
Do not be distracted (not too distracted) by Gudding’s inability to resist mooning you. He is just laboring to get your attention. He sometimes overplays his hand, but it is a strong hand and often a magnificent play; generous purpose informs the gesture, and when it is executed as faithfully as it is in “One Petition Lofted into the Ginkgkos”, it deserves to be met with equal faith.