by Joshua Mehigan
The first time a poem of J.D. Smith’s stopped me and made me mutter the word “Whoa” was nearly 20 years ago, at the West Chester University Poetry Conference, in a dorm room. Some of us had begun gathering after nightly events for what we called, with self-conscious hauteur, salons. Present on this occasion were the editor and the managing editor of this magazine, along with George Green, Michael Slipp, Catherine Tufariello, and maybe a couple of other poets, all a little punchy, all too old to be in a dorm, with nothing to drink, late at night. Someone, I remember, was smoking something for the first time, and that person set the tone by giggling and giggling at nothing in particular. Talk turned naturally to recitation of funny poems. The editor of this magazine recited a few short, original poems about items of fruit. These made Michael turn the color of a fire engine and laugh himself into silence. I recall that I said a dirty poem by Sir John Davies. And at some point J.D. (hereafter John) recited a poem in a form he devised called “the critterhew,” which is like a Clerihew except that it starts with the name of an animal. He said the poem slowly, in a flat voice, clearly enunciating every line end and phrasal pause.
Makes a terrible pillow.
Cold, hard and gray,
It keeps walking away.
Of the poems I’ve committed to memory, this is one of the few written by a living author I had not already read when I met him or her, and the memorizing occurred automatically, on the first hearing, without my knowing it. I know this because, a year later, when I wanted to tell it to someone, it was, unlike most things I want to tell, immediately handy. At the level of pure beautiful nonsense, the poem is hard to beat. It’s also oddly incongruous in its approach and apparent aims—formally compliant but also naturalistic; indulgently imaginative and yet inarguably true. It is rivetingly anticlimactic.
But I have also thought a lot about this poem, and I believe a case can be made that, not unlike Thomas Campion’s “Rose-Cheek’d Laura,” published as a conventional exercise in quantitative poetry but really an ever-perfect compression of Platonic idealism into an aesthetic, John’s armadillo critterhew is a squib that actually captures something like an epistemological insight. The first rhyme is very silly. It is so silly on its own that at first it registers as a mere linguistic novelty. But it makes good on its arbitrary-seeming satisfaction of the arbitrary constraint of rhyme. We might expect it, as a short, rhymed animal poem, to be cute. Instead, in its perfectly inevitable second couplet, it grows into an absurd but philosophically worthwhile connection between real things from different universes. It is ludicrous and unnecessary-seeming, and, all the more surprisingly for that, it comes through with the uncanniness of real poetry, pointing to the stupid imperiousness of the human will, especially vis-à-vis the natural world, and to the unparsable incompatibility of animal and human consciousness. Suddenly and with appropriate stark bizarreness, the expedient of a repeated sound becomes essential.
John’s poems have a habit of unexpectedly stopping me and making me mutter the word “Whoa.” Two others that have done this, both times in classes where we were students workshopping poems, are “Elegy,” a devastating memorial sonnet written for a toddler, and “The Killing Tree,” an effectively solemn and terrifying poem that can be read as an allegory of hatred (The Killing Tree, pp. 6 and 49, respectively). Both times, something happened that ought to happen more often but doesn’t, which is that I was moved and, as a reader, impressed. Here is “Elegy”:
We weren’t allowed the time to contemplate
What talents he in time might come to show,
What fame or wealth he might accumulate,
What love and other passions he might know.
We had, instead, the chance to see him crawl
And graduate to solid food, to take
Some wobbling steps that ended in a fall,
To hand an uncle’s dog a piece of cake.
To say more is to claim a flare’s bright arc
Could have reached high, though it had scarcely flown
Before dissolving in the larger dark.
We fall back on the facts, which stand alone.
He seldom cried. He used to point at birds.
And now he will be missed beyond all words.
There are many other poems of John’s that I love. What stands out vividly in all three of these cases, two not funny and one funny, is the combination of notable understatement with measured, skillful, naturalistic versification. If you look around, you may find a fair number of poets with both a readily accessible plain style and something to say that is worth hearing. But not many are so imaginatively and psychologically compelling or show such technical gifts, and not many are capable, certainly not at the same time, of creating the sense of such a purely vernacular American voice. John uses this combination to great effect in his ostensibly lighter verse. There, he really lets loose. There, he is often deadpan to the point of—he is more deadpan there than anything else I can think of. But if you have met John, you will recognize this as an idealized version of one of his social personae. (I was going to say “an inflated version.” Then I was going to say “a flatter version.” But I think the point is that it’s actually turned back on itself, like a cat mutely pulling its face just back from a proffered dish of mango.)
John has for many years lived in Washington, D.C., but he was born in Aurora, Illinois. I can say from experience that the effort of trying to square a flat local manner of speech with anything like the poetry one reads in books is itself an education in the uses of rhetoric, and of antirhetoric. In much of his comic writing, John is the Tintoretto of aggressive Midwestern blandness. This combination of plainness, of language plain as a Plain, especially combined with authoritative, tactfully modulated poetic technique, allows John to carve out the perfect space in which to confront contemporary American absurdity. This constitutes a third key element of John’s comic poems: out-and-out ridiculousness. Seemingly at odds with understatement and restraint, it ultimately arises as another kind of apparent artlessness and is often fueled or partially enabled by his plainness. This also happens to dovetail with the human dimension described above that John conjures with his use of deadpan. Comedy ensues from adventitious connections that should fail but don’t, because of his unfailing tact, until they fail intentionally and marvelously. John’s non-verse writing provides some tidy examples. From a list of “Least-Feared Gunfighters of the Old West”:
From a list of “Short-Lived Fields of Endeavor”:
And from a list of “More Plant-Animal Hybrids That Could Result from Genetic Engineering”:
(Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth, pp. 27, 30, and 106, respectively.)
The inane juxtaposition might play out in John’s comic verse at a similar scale, as in “Beginning with Famous Lines” (in this issue’s feature), where it has the character of a one-liner and is consequently relatively unrisky. Or it might be more expansively ridiculous, as in “Calling Card” (also part of this feature). This type of move is supposed to be bad in poetry—certainly bad in “serious” poetry, and bad or extremely risky, even especially, in so-called light verse. But in “Calling Card,” for instance, John’s sensitivity to diction allows him, in the end, to be comically insensitive to tone. His skill with tone and diction, as well as with versification and phrase-to-phrase writing, produces an undercurrent of stability and offsets any sense of unwittingness that might haunt most such strainings. His technical confidence and casual deliberateness allow him to play off absurdities with a straight face, and, in a way that is gratifying for another poet to observe, bring them back from the verge of badness or fustian to invention. It can make you scowl with delight.
To all these approaches, there is a Trojan Horse aspect. Bathos and anticlimax are human. Flatness and plainness are also very human. Awkwardness is human. By appealing to the Line of Best Fit, John gets you to let down your guard. Once he’s inside the gate, he may even continue in the typically cautious, measured default mode of smart unassuming persons everywhere. John is his own straight man.
And then comes the obvious ridiculous stupidity of contemporary life. The measured manner takes on the character of forbearance, and also, implicitly, of optimism or even bravery, as John confronts the absurdities on their terms, bending over backwards to assume their normalcy and validity. Sometimes the manner may seem more like straightforward acceptance, as when John, in “Catalogs for Food Lovers” (in this issue’s feature) casts himself in the role of a complacently obsessive gourmet cheese and meat consumer. Tension arises between the apparently unsatirizable decadence and John’s plain tolerance of it, or personal identification with it. This is satire, maybe the only viable type left at this particular moment.
Despite the consistently mild-mannered persona and plainspoken style of John’s poems, he takes up a jarringly diverse range of subjects and themes, in a surprising array of modes and forms. He is one of the relatively few poets I can think of who write free verse and verse with equal aplomb. His frame of cultural reference is broad, even strangely broad. He adverts to John Milton, Matthew Arnold, E.B. Browning (See “Beginning with Famous Lines”), and Li Po. He shows knowledge of medieval Italian poetry, hip-hop, Robert Mapplethorpe, European painting, Spinoza, and Robert Johnson. His writing has touched on themes of love, family, war, death, and bestiality. And of course he has written of cheese and sausage and of the kinds of catalogs in which they may be purchased. This range enables John’s poems to rise to a condition of comprehending satire or plummet magnificently from the sublime to the banal in an outbreak of bathetic humor, shedding fascinating light and shadow in either direction. And, at a moment when the most powerful social forces seem to be those that exploit the standard limitations in an individual’s perspective, only to limit it still more radically, John’s poems can provide hope that there are still independent minds among us.