If you write poetry, odds are you don’t expect your work to achieve acclaim like that of a Robert Frost or a Mary Oliver. You consider yourself most fortunate if, now and then, you find a publisher and an audience who connect with your sensibility. There are moments, many of them, when you question why you continue to write, given the improbability of your work surviving your own demise and given the plethora of poets who similarly labor in obscurity.
“Being the Song” deals with questions of what makes a poet and a poem “great” or even “decent,” who poets are, and what poetry does. Riffing on the epigraph by Rilke, Gundy frames the piece, itself a sort of sonnet – a sonetto or “little song”– with two questions. In line 1, the speaker asks whether he (and perhaps the poem itself) could be a “great song.” When the sonnet turns at line 11, the speaker introduces “a question nobody asked.” Such craft signals the reader that, despite the informality of the poem’s diction (“screws up”; “earnest guy”; “heart/in the right place”), the author is carefully constructing a piece intended to be more than “minor” as it shifts to the coda of the final four lines. His use of repetition and pattern (“chorus,” ll. 2, 10; “earnest,” ll. 7,8; “nobody”/ “everybody,” ll. 4,7; “half-forgotten”/”half-knows,” ll. 5,8), as well as his use of rhyme and slant rhyme (minor/savor; light/bright; heart/dark; earnest/protest; asked/pass) also inform the answer to how one might regard a poet’s life and work.
Four evocative images in the final couplets of “Being the Song” suggest that the real success of poet and poem depends not so much on their public reception but rather on what they are and what they do, however ephemeral these may be. The true poem and its author are at once the action of creating and creature: questioning and answer, shining and the light itself, an opening of a portal and the view, witnessing and the shape fleetingly witnessed.To anyone who dares to take on the title and practice of a poet, Gundy’s little song offers encouragement as well as a challenge by which to measure the efficacy of their own singing.
“Being the Song,” by Jeff Gundy
And I still don’t know if I am a falcon,
or a storm, or a great song.
So I could be a song. But a great song? Or a bluegrass tune
with a decent chorus and a shift to the minor to savor every time,
and a break I can almost play. Or one of those wordy obscure
Dylan tunes that nobody remembers except the fanatics,
one he’s half-forgotten himself, or drags out at the end
of the concert and screws up totally just to be contrary.
Or one of those earnest dull protest songs everybody my age
half-knows, played by the equally earnest guy whose heart
is in the right place, who can almost hit the chords and the notes
and will repeat the chorus at the end to make sure you get it.
Or not a song at all, but an answer to a question nobody asked.
Light from a hidden source, so the room seems dark
but the page is bright. Or a window filled with knotted wood
and greens, the shape of someone barely visible as they pass.
This poem was originally published in issue 82 of Image.
Jeff Gundy’s sixth book of poems is Somewhere Near Defiance (Anhinga). His fourth prose book, Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace (Cascadia), contains essays on theopoetics. He teaches at Bluffton University in Ohio, but will spend the spring 2015 semester teaching and writing at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania.