Ann E. Michael, PQ Contributing Editor
R. S. Gwynn
Measure Press, 2014
Hardcover, 107 pp
I have found that among readers of poetry perhaps the most ardent opinions involve the use of end rhyme in contemporary poems. Some readers prefer the strategy and feel that end rhyme indicates that what’s on the page is actually a poem. Others dislike end-rhyme, dismiss it as archaic and forced. They seem annoyed at the poet’s insistence upon the sort of control over the reader that end rhyme exerts. Metrical strategies evoke less resistance for some reason; perhaps, to the untrained reader, meter announces itself less obviously? I’m not sure. I do think it is likely that in a casual-contemporary culture, form equals formal, with all its connotations of fancy dress, dessert forks, and rigid conformity. How you feel about formality depends on your own encounters with your own definition of formal.
Readers with negative feelings about form in contemporary poetry, however, risk missing out on some of literature’s most interesting non-conformists, from Marilyn Nelson to R. S. Gwynn. Gwynn’s been writing for decades; his work has appeared frequently, and notably, in journals and anthologies such as Ploughshares, Poetry, The Sewanee Review, The Book of Forms and A Poet’s Craft. He has taught writing and poetry since 1976 and edited a number of anthologies used by university professors. This is to say he’s got poetry chops. But has he got street cred? Can a ballade or a sonnet speak to the current moment? Can he write quirky quatrains, add pop-culture allusions to Latin phrases, wrap a memory from the 1950s around a timeless theme while keeping end rhyme somehow fresh and interesting? Can he rhyme gonorrhea with onomatopoeia? And get away with it?
That’s a lot to ask of any poet, but Gwynn succeeds. Although the majority of the poems work even if some of the references whizz by unnoticed, anyone with a strong humanities background will get more of the jokes and allusions. A reader who bothers to do a little research will find the pleasures of these poems amplified as a result. Gwynn’s parodies are (mostly) not really parodies as much as they are tributes to marvelous literature of the past—such as the hilariously apt “A Darker Round” (Dante’s Inferno), which places building contractors in hell, and the almost painful irony of “Cruising to Byzantium,” in which “the overfed and nearly dead who sold / Siding or stocks—now board their cake-tiered ships” and “perne and gyre / The night away, still five full nights from land” despite their expanding waistlines and aching feet.
Puns, allusions, various types of wordplay—and yes, loads of rhyme—enliven these poems. The book is divided into four parts, and even the section titles divulge Gwynn’s inclinations: Tribes, Scribes, Gibes, Vibes. As might be expected, the “Gibes” section offers the funniest poems, often with knowing digs on the part of the poet (see the bizarrely imageric goofiness of “Ballade Beginning with a Line by Robert Bly”). The G. M. Hopkins send-up of Southern food is a classic:
Glory be to God for breaded things—
Catfish, steak finger, pork shop, chicken thigh,
Sliced green tomatoes, pots full to the brim
With french fries, fritters, life-float onion rings…
And Gwynn’s “Statue of Limitations” is the kind of title I imagine derives from a student’s mis-hearing / misspelling which led to poetic speculation; the result is oddly poignant.
That brings me to another aspect of Gwynn’s work: amusing as these poems are, the collection is not one long guffaw. Indeed, poems like these permit readers to recognize the breadth that humor or irony, when well-accomplished, contains. The wry observations about aging, the elegies that are memorable for their good-natured sorrow—these pieces suggest a capacious understanding of Human experience, and I do mean Human with a capital H. The title poem, a sonnet on the speaker’s father’s WWII sailing duty, quietly acknowledges luck, shock, trauma and acceptance. The chant-like “348 S. Hamilton, 27288” and several biblically-referenced pieces are thought-provoking and deeply considered; and Gwynn’s no stranger to the political poem, either, though his perspective tends to widen to include—and often accuse—all of us, which keeps these poems from plummeting into mere rhetoric or rant.
If the idea of writing a poetic homage to cartoonist Roz Chast or a re-envisioning of the Three Stooges’ Niagara Falls skit—not to mention a Gentleman’s chorus from the citizens of Gomorrah—intrigues you, you might want to settle down with Dogwatch. Even readers who think end rhyme and form limit the relevance of new poetry are likely to find that if Gwynn hasn’t changed their minds, he has at very least kept them entertained.