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.
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:
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
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.