I first encountered R. S. Gwynn’s poetry through sheer serendipity. In 1986 I spent an afternoon reading through the many new poetry books at Manhattan’s Endicott’s, a gracious and generously stocked independent bookstore now, alas, out of business. I’ve spent many such afternoons before and since, but I remember this day vividly because I made a genuine discovery, a little light-blue volume called The Drive-In by R. S. Gwynn, a poet whose name I did not recognize. I picked a poem at random and found it cleverly amusing but took no special notice until I read the opening selection, “Among Philistines,” a singularly curious retelling of the Samson story set in suburban America.
“Among Philistines” struck me then–and continues to impress me now–as a remarkably risky poem, one that promiscuously mixes elements that should not work together. It is simultaneously lyric and satiric–a heartfelt evocation of a fallen and doomed man wrapped inside a scathing indictment of American consumerism. The language also shifts boldly from the sumptuously elevated to the aggressively crude. The poem bristles with the vulgate of television, tabloids, and advertising–the actual awful language that surrounds us nowadays–out of which Gwynn squeezes every bit of dark humor while somehow building a compelling drama of human suffering and redemption. Reading the final grotesque but visionary section of the poem, I was not reminded of anything in contemporary verse but instead of the stories of Flannery O’Connor and Katherine Anne Porter. By the time I had finished the volume I knew I had come upon one of the truly talented and original poets of my generation.
I should probably also note two other obvious qualities of Gwynn’s poetry. First, he is ingeniously funny. Second, he is an effortless master of verse forms. No American poet of his generation has written better sonnets, and very few can equal him in the ballade, couplet, rondeau, or pantoum–not to mention the half dozen new forms he has invented. But, to be honest, it was neither Gwynn’s considerable formal skill nor his wicked humor that first attracted me, though those qualities surely added to my pleasure. Instead, it was his depth of feeling and intense lyricality.
Today comic verse is a neglected art, but there are still a good number of master practitioners around, and we currently live in a period of greatly renewed interest in meter and rhyme. It remains a rare distinction, however, to use these forms and modes for powerful expressive ends. Gwynn manages this difficult but essential feat repeatedly. What captures the reader is not the form or wit but the poetry. I reread “Body Bags,” for example, half a dozen times for its heartbreaking story of three young lives destroyed in different ways by the Vietnam War before I noticed the obvious fact that it was a short sonnet sequence. Likewise it was not the humor of Gwynn’s poetry that fascinated me but the brooding darkness of his vision that was only made bearable by the humor. “Black Helicopters” is a very funny poem–and one of the few successful pantoums in English–but it is also a truly terrifying poem about American politics. The dark side of Gwynn’s imagination has grown more evident in his recent work. (His own painful bout with cancer casts its shadow across the new poems in this book.) And yet what strange joy emerges while gazing into the void. I can’t imagine anyone else today writing such an elegantly measured yet emotional poem about art and personal extinction as “Cléante to Elmire”–an extraordinary deathbed monologue spoken by a dying amateur actor to a beloved ghost, which pays equal homage to Molière and mortality.
It would be both illuminating and relevant to discuss Gwynn’s work in terms of the recent revival of rhyme and meter. He is surely one of the three or four finest poets associated with New Formalism. But it seems more interesting to suggest how he is unique among his contemporaries. If one looks at his best poems–and a short list might include “Body Bags,” “Among Philistines,” “Cléante to Elmire,” “1-800,” “Black Helicopters,” “1916,” and “Untitled”–one sees a distinctive combination of traditional form and post-modern observation. Gwynn juxtaposes styles and subjects not customarily seen together–mythic and modish images phrased in language alternatively sublime and debased–but told with such force of imagination and assured musicality that the resulting poems seem not idiosyncratic but inevitable.
It would also be easy to compare Gwynn to certain older poets like Richard Wilbur, Donald Justice, or Anthony Hecht, and there are similarities–the focused intelligence, sharp wit, and formal mastery. But what differentiates Gwynn from these predecessors ultimately seems more important than what links him. The poet whom Gwynn most resembles–not simply in the particulars of style but in sensibility and strategy–is Thomas Hardy, and it is testament to Gwynn’s excellence that such a comparison can be made without his being routed in the process. Both poets are primarily satirists, but their work usually takes a lyric form. Indeed, both poets often cast poems explicitly in the form of songs. They are also both drawn to interesting stories and situations. Gladys, the pistol-packing old lady in “At Rose’s Range,” surely must be a descendent of some couple who immigrated to Beaumont, Texas, from Hardy’s Wessex County. Both poets have a naturally democratic outlook, and they are fascinated by ordinary lives, especially when viewed at extraordinary moments. Both are deeply skeptical, even cynical observers of the human scene, who cannot mock their subjects without soon feeling a common human sympathy. Their irony cannot disabuse their instinctive compassion, and their dark humor is their only means of holding off despair. As W. H. Auden once remarked, “Comedy is the noblest form of Stoicism.”
If Gwynn’s reputation has been slow in growing outside the South–beyond a few widely anthologized poems– one reason is surely his odd publication history. He has published at least seven poetry collections, but only one of them, The Drive-In, was a full-length trade book. The other six were chapbooks–some inexpensive, fugitive publications like Bearing & Distance (1977) issued by Cedar Rock Press in New Braunfels, Texas, others gorgeous letterpress limited editions like The Area Code of God (1993) printed by Aralia Press in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Nor has Gwynn’s reception by the critical mainstream been helped by his hilariously irreverent mock-epic The Narcissiad (1981), which recounts the adventures and apotheosis of Narcissus, an ambitious but singularly untalented poet. In Gwynn’s satiric tale, American poets simultaneously realize that to gain artistic preeminence in the overcrowded field of contemporary verse, they must kill all current competitors. The Narcissiad depicts a series of outrageous battles fought by recognizable caricatures of fashionable American poets–out of which Narcissus ineptly emerges as the triumphant survivor. Gwynn’s mock-epic cannot have pleased the targets of his satire, but it has enjoyed an underground life. Enough readers have passed it on to require the book to be reprinted.
No Word of Farewell finally gathers Gwynn’s poems together for the first time–at least those the author wishes to preserve. The volume surveys a career of thirty years. His work will be new to most readers, but even his long-time admirers will discover many new poems. Few recent books of poetry provide so much sheer pleasure–though I do recall one glorious volume I came across years ago in a Manhattan bookstore. Being bigger, this new one is even better.
First published as the introduction to No Word of Farewell (Story Line Press 2001)