The HyperTexts

Songs of Gentlest Reflection by Joe Ruggier – Reviewed by Michael R. Burch

Joe Ruggier is a man I would admire even if I didn’t care for his poetry. Although it has become fashionable for poets to bemoan the "state of the art," then toddle off to Starbucks to indulge in sympathetic cappuccinos, Mr. Ruggier has resolutely defied both the modern poetry "industry" and the apathy of readers by selling his poetic wares door-to-door, to the tune of several thousand books. In the process of singlehandedly outselling most of this century’s theoretically Major Poets, he has embraced just about every out-of-favor aspect of poetry imaginable: meter, rhyme, form, praise, elegy, spirituality, even (gasp!) Catholicism. Talk about courage under fire.

But poets are creatures we find it hard to pin down, and Joe Ruggier is no exception. In his newest book, Songs of Gentlest Reflection, our heroic hardcore rhyme revivalist opts for free verse, and inquiring minds immediately what to know: why? In a letter I received from Mr. Ruggier, he mentioned his deep appreciation of T. S. Eliot, who was a traditionalist and a classicist, yet chose to write free verse. Ruggier went on to say: "Personally I think ... my work in rhyme and meter is superior in craftsmanship to my free form ..." (which I find interesting because I feel the same way about my own poetry). Why, when a poet’s abilities and muse incline him to form, meter and rhyme, does he employ free verse? I would venture this in the way of explanation: when what a poet has to say is more important than how he says it, free verse is a natural medium. When the muse speaks through us–-not our words, but hers–-form, meter and rhyme more often result, especially when the poet has the talent to be inspired. But a poet cannot very often say precisely what he means in form, meter and rhyme.

In prose, of course, one can say exactly what he or she means–-to the extent that words and the writer’s abilities allow. Free verse is, to an extent, a compromise between traditional poetry and prose. Poets who specialize in free verse will probably disagree (what!–me compromise?, pshaw!), but let them write their own essays of defense, repudiation, whatever. I think it stands to reason that the more a poet intends to say exactly what he means, the less he can employ form, meter, and rhyme. Great poets seemingly bend or break this "rule," but perhaps this is simply a testament to their talent, audacity and flexibility to "go with the flow" without seeming to do so. Does anyone actually believe that Shakespeare never changed poetic horses midstream when an attractive rhyme presented itself? Or, looking at things from another angle: if Shakespeare had unlimited ability to say exactly what he wanted to say in form, meter and rhyme, why did he sometimes resort to prose?

All modern poets write prose. Why am I writing this review in prose? Simply because what I want to say is more important to me than how singingly/swingingly I say it. It would be damn hard to recast this review as a cycle of sonnets while keeping its meaning completely intact. If I had any chance at all of breathing the breath of poetic life into this piece, it would certainly have to be in the form of free verse.

Is it possible, then, that what Joe Ruggier means to accomplish in Songs of Gentlest Reflection is more akin to telling than singing? I believe this to be the case. In his letter, Mr. Ruggier also made the point that "verse libre / sublime prose was the peculiar domain of the Hebrew Bible." Since divinity is a primary theme of Songs of Gentlest Reflection, free verse does seem appropriate. Onward, then.

I have come to the conclusion that the repetition of words is an underrated, misunderstood, even misapprehended poetic device. Reading James Joyce, Henry James, Archibald MacLeish, Conrad Aiken and other "repetitious" writers has taught me to distrust the monomaniacal workshop mantra against the repetition of words within close quarters. If one is to receive consistent advice from a poetry workshop attendee, it will invariably be a warning not to repeat words; repetition of words is considered a disease, nay, The Very Plague, of beginning writers, which might have come as a shock to Joyce, James and gang. I find it interesting that in the first few pages of Songs of Gentlest Reflection, words like "gentle" and "sweet" appear quite frequently, often in rapid succession. This tells me several things: that Joe Ruggier does not attend poetry workshops, that he is something of a poetic rebel, that he has an important mission which demands the setting of a certain tone early in his book, and that he’s not afraid of modifiers (as many poets are these days). It’s unfortunate that so many modern poets (A. R. Ammons comes to mind) seem to distrust words to the point of not using them for their normal purposes. "Sweet," for instance, is a word virtually abolished from the modern poetic lexicon. On the other hand, Eliot said that poetic time is relative, and Shakespeare used the word "sweet" whenever he felt the urge. Shakespeare was the most liberated of poets, and I have never understood the strong distaste of modern poets for perfectly good words. So I’m encouraged that Joe Ruggier is unafraid to defy poetic convention. Isn’t that what poets should always do?

In his opening poem, "A Poem for Saint Teresa," we find other indications that Mr. Ruggier is determined to resolutely defy poetic convention. He employs archaisms ("rous’d"), inversions ("Teresa’s gentle reassurance / my soul inspired ..."), and frowned-upon interjections ("Ah!"). We begin to despair that he will ever earn a passing grade in a poetry workshop! And the workshops have given us so many great poets; surely that is why we are at a loss to remember their names . . .

In his second, near-titular poem, "A Song of Gentlest Reflection," Ruggier tells us:

A little child’s conscience, my beloved,
is straighter than God’s Gospel.

Here and in the following lines, Ruggier is closer to Blake than to Eliot, and Ruggier displays something of the forthright moral indignation of Blake whenever children are mistreated or unappreciated. As an admirer of Blake, I find this commendable. In lines like:

Kneel down and ask a child to teach you judgement;
pray to the little ones for vision;

Ruggier falls somewhere between Blake and the teachings of Christ himself; then his poem resolves to something original yet familiar:

beseech the little ones to tell you a beautiful lie,
and never believe anyone else’s.

Here, I hear echoes of Blake’s "little lamb, who made thee" and Jesus’ "suffer the little ones to come unto me." Ruggier compels us to delight in the innocent wisdom of children, while simultaneously presenting himself as their staunch advocate. As a result, we see the moral potential of poetry. I’m not a fan of organized religion, but I am a fan of this poem. Ruggier is very persuasive here, and bad poetry is almost never persuasive, unless it persuades to run away screaming.

Another thing we find often in good poetry, but seldom in bad poetry, is wisdom. In Ruggier’s next poem, "Child, the Gentlest Loving Faults," we find pearls of wisdom:

let no one rile thy funny bone. Despite
is of the devil; priest’s acrimony a far
more wicked sin than gentlest loving fault.

And later:

let no one judge you, child, nor rile your conscience
with a priest’s foul interest in sin alone,
or a neurotic saint’s last night’s hangover!

As he demonstrates In "Lucifer," Ruggier can sound not only like Blake and Eliot, but also like Milton:

                                                   Behold my Heart
of green debris and crooked, wrinkled Hatred,

And again in these lines:

                          Lucifer saw
how in Thy splendor, God,
Thou didst not crush him all completely!

In an interesting poem, "Eucharist," Ruggier draws a parallel between the communion of poetry and holy communion. Readers honoring verse "honor but sincerity made of paper" while people taking the sacrament "honor but a crumb, a drop of wine." This is the insight of a poet, that "dead poets and living men ... / hearts upon each other’s lips, / honour the exquisite Fake." I come to poetry for such revelations. I have often thought of poetry as a form of communion between poet and reader. I’ve even ventured a poem or two on the subject. So I find this parallel fascinating.

There are other poems in this collection that fascinate me. For instance, in "Lord Joe of the Rood," the speaker (whom I take to be Joe Ruggier), pulls a Job, albeit with a bit of cranky humor:

I cannot say,
great God, you have been callous; I forgive
You all, for all the many gifts you made me!


I prayed. Lord, I prayed to suffer. You did but take,
and never stopped, and what You gave, You gave
with one hand taking, and nothing have I done
but suffer. Halt! I say. Thou Rascal, stop!
Breathe upon me, if you must, a loving breath!

If there’s a God in heaven, he must be wincing and chuckling after that tirade! These are peculiar lines, the better for their peculiarity. But what about these lines from "Divinest Mary:"

Mary, heed me not
if I bitch and loathe myself
for bitching, and then a Woman-God like You.
Slap me hard once, but forgive me.

After railing at God, our hard-beset poet asks to be bitch-slapped by the Virgin Mary! What can one make of a book like Songs of Gentlest Reflection? I am at a loss to say exactly, but I will say this: if you like your poetry smooth and creamy like cappuccino, this book may not be your cup of java. But if an eclectic mix appeals to you, I recommend that you settle down with this book for a heart-to-heart encounter with a poet like none you’ve encountered so far. Joe Ruggier is not a poet we can easily classify. His poetry leaps from archaism to inversion to modern English and back again. If he were not a poet of considerable talent and insight, I might be inclined to suggest that he settle on one century’s language or another’s, but then I’m reminded of the title of a book edited by Annie Finch, A Formal Feeling Comes, and of a book of poems by A. E. Stallings entitled Archaic Smile. There are certain subjects which lend themselves to otherness, to unique, oblique or antique modes of expression. When it comes to "things religious," sometimes a less-than-modern tongue seems, as Goldilocks exclaimed, "just right." Every day, English-speaking people all over the world pray in a language something like this: "O Lord, we implorest thou that thou wilt be with the space shuttle astronauts as they prepare for reentry into the earth’s atmosphere." So perhaps Ruggier’s language in Songs of Gentlest Reflection is entirely appropriate. He speaks about timeless issues, why should he pin himself down to the particularization of a single moment in time or language?

When I have finished reading a book, my impressions of it are often quite different than when I first picked it up. When I started reading Songs of Gentlest Reflection, I was a bit put off by what I saw as the flip-flopping of the language from one century to another. But the more of the book I read, the more I put aside my childish, workshop-ish ways, and began to see the book in the light of what I call "the rightness of words." When children are insulting each other on a playground, they use a different language than the one they use when asking their parents for allowance money. When construction workers who curse every ninth word enter a church, they immediately don a new language, as easily as they doff their hardhats. In Songs of Gentlest Reflection, Joe Ruggier writes elegantly and passionately in a language we all understand: the language of prayer and communion. And he speaks powerfully and compellingly for children; not, as so many writers do, from the standpoint of how they must be shielded and protected, but from the standpoint that they must be acknowledged for their uniqueness, for their unique way of knowing and accepting things that seems so alien to us, their parents.

So when we read poets, it’s important for us to relax and not let our inhibitions get in the way of their words. Robert Frost said "Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom." As readers, we have to again learn to surrender to the delights of poetry. Songs of Gentlest Reflection is a good place to start. It will help you smile and wince your way to wisdom surprisingly like a child’s, coming from so erudite a poet.

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