December 24th, 2009

Written Before I Started to Read Rhode Island Notebook, Which is Brilliant

A Defense of Poetry / Gabriel Gudding / Response Paper / Jeff T. Johnson


I’d like to say I’d never encountered the word butt in a poem before I read Gabriel Gudding’s A Defense of Poetry. I hope that’s true. And maybe there’s something refreshing about a poet who for the most part meticulously crafts his poems, while peppering them with scatological references, some sophisticated[1] and some puerile[2]. But I hope I never see the word butt in a poem again. Yes but, as John Ashbery wrote in “No Way of Knowing,” there are no ‘yes, buts.’

This is to say I appreciate Gudding’s obvious skill (see the deep slant rhyme and surprise/killer closing lines of “Bosun” (p. 28, 29)), and I can dig his irreverence (as when he interrupts the sentimental journey of “Wish” (p. 35) in the second line, “back into my fucking childhood”), but Gudding's compulsion to intentionally shoot himself in the foot (the line “Then I will dismount my heart-car” is such a clunker it dispels the pleasure of “Wish”[3]) heavy bores and bums me. (To be fair, “BOSUN” does not stoop to take aim at its shoe; it’s one of the few uncompromised successes of the book.)

            Importantly, the book is called A Defense of Poetry, not The Defense of Poetry. That’s modesty for you. It also says, There are many defenses of poetry, and here’s one of them. It also sounds like A Defensive Poetry. Hmm. Gudding loves to take the piss out of serious poetry, right? Why can’t we say butt in our poems? he asks again and again (not in so many words, of course—in more words, and different ones, but mostly the same one, butt, but also in its proper synonyms, like anus and rectum and asshole). Look, he says at the top of “My Buttocks,” Wallace Stevens says your buttocks! He’s talking about my buttocks (and yours!), and so am I, because poetry does in fact talk about butts! You think it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) but it does! It does! But his ploys sound kind of defensive. Gudding's strategy of undermining his well-crafted poems with scatological references and butt-talk is actually a critique of poetry, which is to say a critique of his own poetry.[4] It’s self-conscious. This is not uninteresting, but it is kind of annoying. What would happen if Gudding dropped the potty talk[5] and just went for it with his poems? Would he be just as tiresome, but in a more conventional way? I suspect this to be his concern: Poetry is a contrivance, and poetic sentiment can be a yawner. “Bosun” could come off as sentimental, but Gudding does a lot of work to earn his surprise ending. At the same time, maybe the harsh, fantastic imagery that precedes the last two lines is a defense mechanism to preempt criticism of the potentially sentimental ending. Maybe the defense mechanism is over-elaborated to demolish potential criticism: The end of the poem can’t be sentimental if it sits next to this giant, forbidding ship. Hey, did you notice that Gudding talks about parts of the ship (anchor, bows, deck, etc.) but never mentions the ship as a whole? It’s a good poem, even if it’s an elaborate defense mechanism.


Gudding's endnote on “The OED” is revealing: acknowledging a factual error in the poem, he says “I would rather change history than change the meter” (p. 88). It’s a stubborn, winning sentiment that makes you want to root for him, but it’s also defensive.

“A Defense of Poetry” carries the Charles Bernstein epigraph, “The test of such poetry / is that it discomfits,” which applies to the book as a whole. More than “Statement” (p. 83), which suggests that “I” is lodged up a butt (which is perhaps to say that the lyric I is indrawn, self-involved, stuck up its own asshole), the epigraph of “A Defense of Poetry” is the book’s statement. Or perhaps it is the book’s warning: this poetry is such poetry, a poetry that discomfits; that discomfiture is an aesthetic, and a polemic. This poetry aligns itself, in evoking Bernstein, with Language Poetry, which (among other things) seeks to counteract seriousness in poetry. Gudding defends poetry by seeking to offend purists who don’t want to see butts in poetry. Again, it’s easy to root for Gudding in his battle against clenched butt cheeks. But the cheering is interrupted by a wince at a throwaway insult like



Yes the greatest of your sister’s

facial pimples did outweigh a

Turkey. (p. 1)


Hooray for poetry that doesn’t take itself too seriously; boo to poetry that plays the clever fool or the sake of provocation.

            Even still, the project is intriguing. A Defense of Poetry was published in 2002, and its final poem, “Requiem Cadenza,” reminds us of the stultifying U.S. atmosphere at the time. “I shall never blame America” (p. 84) recalls the clampdown on free speech, and even free thought, that we put on ourselves immediately after 9/11, as we tried to figure out who to blame for the attack (answer: anyone but US). In this context, Gudding bravely defends the right to be irreverent in a time when we weren’t sure it was appropriate to be funny or silly, when we were busy licking our wounds and disappearing up our own assholes. After spending the book showing his ass, Gudding shows his hand in “Requiem Cadenza”: He’s pissed.

            Theodor Adorno said to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Lyn Hejinian argued, in “Barbarism,” that after Auschwitz, poetry itself must be barbarian, “taking a creative, analytic, and often oppositional stance, occupying (and being occupied by)  foreignness—by the barbarism of strangeness.” After 9/11, Gudding took a similar approach, opposing self-repression with his own lack of restraint. This is admirable, even if, in practice, the poetry regresses to childish, self-amused declarations like “For you are a buttock.”[6]


[1] “The anus is a kind of larynx of the nether region: it is the only cord unattached to the lungs” (“On the Rectum of Peacocks p. 17) recalls William S. Burroughs’ talking anus (the one he described in Naked Lunch; I can’t say whether WSB was able to converse with his own asshole), and seems to do more, in terms of language and sense, than take the piss (or shit, as it were) out of the poem.

[2] “Poem Imploring the Return of My Butt” (p. 12), with its “Dear Sir—I have lost my butt,” is silly and flat-assed, a joke with a sub-Silversteinian punch line.

[3] Yesterday during a conversation about good and bad gratuitous profanity in poetry, I presented “Wish” as an example of good gratuitous profanity. Unfortunately, my friend’s eyes fell to “heart-car” and my point was lost. As 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon might say, if a poem contains the phrase “heart-car,” it’s a deal breaker. Even if the poem has a nice fucking ass.

[4] Gudding's poems may sometimes seem like doggerel, but he’s no hack; he can be lazy and self-defeating, but he is usually cunning and ambitious.

[5] “Bird” brags “I am the King of my potty” (p. 79).

[6] The ambiguous you of “A Defense of Poetry” first appears in the statement “you have the mental capacity of the Anchovy” (p. 1). Among other possibilities detailed in sections 16-19 of this appealingly laid out poem, you might be:

a)     poetry

b)    readers of poetry

c)     people who don’t read poetry

d)    a buttock

e)     poets

f)     Gabriel Gudding

We might sympathize with the I of the poem and project Gudding into the you when we read: “Thus with you I am fed up” (p. 4). But we are also aware of the other possible yous, and sure, we’re fed up with them too.