This week gives us plenty of reason to contemplate futility. So it’s probably time to turn to a poem by David McGimpsey:
‘I would never go myself because, you know, I have the internet, but I hear that Montreal’s Botanical Gardens is a nice place to visit!’
At the age of forty-five I started
teaching Canadian Literature.
My students learned to bow their heads and sing,
‘The soul of the suburbs is in my toes.’
I met all the great writers nobody
outside Canada has heard of: Burksome,
McAllister, Fatchett, Stemens and Donk.
Not a well-dressed crew but, you know, sincere.
I watched nature shows on the internet
and lived east, near the Place Versailles mall,
took afternoon coffee in the food court,
and graded papers. ‘C for Canada!’
‘Mais, vous avez un accent américain!’
I’d been to the Del Taco in Barstow,
I’d been to the Del Taco in Roseville.
It was time to retire in Montreal.
— from Asbestos Heights, published by Coach House Press, 2015. Used by permission.
No one gets away with the madness that David McGimpsey gets away with. No one tries. Partly that’s because it’s so hard to tell if he’s making fun of the whole enterprise of writing poetry, or if he’s making fun of making fun of the whole enterprise of poetry. He’s certainly making fun of a person like me trying to parse out in articulate semi-academic prose what the poem is doing. The part of me that wants to guess about who Burksome, McAllister, Fatchett, Stemens and Donk might be also feels himself hilariously lampooned for caring.
But before I think further about the tone of this poem – something that runs throughout Asbestos Heights and which David McGimpsey has been perfecting over the course of his seven-book career – can we take a minute to look at the form of the poem more closely? It’s hard to, because the fun of it and its stance toward literature is so in-your-face that it’s tempting to just argue with the speaker or laugh with him, or something. But wait, wait.
McGimpsey has been using this sixteen line form consistently since his previous collection Li’l Bastard (Coach House 2011), and calls them “chubby sonnets.” If you remember from Freshman English class, a sonnet traditionally has 14 lines of iambic pentameter (so 16 lines = chubby). A sonnet also usually includes a volta, a turn, that makes the poem a kind of mini-argument: this is true and this may be true, but this is true also. As in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” which lists a pile of ways that his love is not as beautiful as the women described in romantic poetry, but ends with the level-headed and endearing: “And yet by heav’n I think my love as rare / as any she belied with false compare.” It’s the volta that makes the sonnet work as much as the meter and rhyme.
But a poem like McGimpsey’s wouldn’t— oh yes it would. Look at the “Mais” at the beginning of the last stanza (mais = ‘but’). The turn here seems like an accusation from a French-speaking (C-earning?) student that the speaker shouldn’t be teaching Canadian lit because of his American accent. This is just one of a myriad accusations made against the speaker of the poems in Asbestos Heights (by himself and others) for why he doesn’t belong among the elite (and elitist) literati. In other poems he’s too fat, too ugly, too poor, too slovenly, too enamoured with American fast food or pop music, etc etc etc. So we might read the final three lines as an answer to that challenge: “And yet, because I have been to a host of notable dining establishments, I have earned my right to repose with confidence in a mid-sized Canadian city.” Perhaps a mockery of a volta, but a parodic volta is still a volta.
Here’s another thing about form: count the syllables. Your standard line of iambic pentameter (duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh-DUH) contains ten syllables. And how many syllables, you might ask, are contained in each line of this poem? Yep, you guessed it. They’re not iambic, but almost all of the lines of the poem are ten syllables long. The two exceptions are the two lines that include some French (line ten has nine syllables by my count and line 13 has 11). I’m tempted to give some hifalutin explanation for those exceptions (stumbling bilingualism?) but will just leave that alone for now. Suffice it to say that, while McGimpsey has made it clear throughout this poem that he has no truck with traditional poetic subjects or traditional poetic stances, he also does it in a very traditional poetic form.
Does this manipulation of form also help to answer the French student’s protest about the speaker’s place at the front of the classroom? Perhaps. But now we can also consider the tonal stance, how McGimpsey’s narrator places himself in opposition to what constitutes the “literary.” There seems to be a tension between his yearning for acceptance and approval and his outright mockery of the pathetic place that “Poetry” has in the contemporary media landscape. Does he want to be a part of the not-well-dressed crew “but, you know, sincere”? Not sure. But if he didn’t care, wouldn’t he just give his students As, no matter where he graded their papers? Why not turn his attention to writing a tv show? Why make poems at all?
You have to have such a distaste for “poetry” as a categorical construct that you want to use its forms against it, to embarrass it into oblivion; OR, you have to believe in the possibilities of poetry so deeply that you are willing to humiliate yourself to demonstrate the capacities of the poem to embrace Del Taco as a pinnacle of lyric experience. If Thomas Gray could glorify a country churchyard, and Wordsworth the MidLands, and Dickinson her garden, and Hart Crane Brooklyn Bridge, then why can’t David McGimpsey glorify the charms of the Del Taco in Barstow?
I worry sometimes about David McGimpsey. The glee with which he self-flagellates can sometimes be painful to observe. Following him on Twitter (@DaveMcGimpsey) is often hilarious but occasionally makes me want to give him a stern talking-to. (He also hates the Beatles and loves the Yankees and New York football Giants, be warned.) But as he continues to publish poems, to hone his craft and discover new boundaries that are worth breaking through (a rapidly growing oeuvre of poetic noodle appreciation, for example), it seems to me he is doing crucial work that ultimately is in the service of art, whatever series of insults he also wants to lob at it. This makes Dave McGimpsey an important and deeply entertaining voice to have around.
Two very quick final points: For those of you who have read Ben Lerner’s recently published essay, The Hatred of Poetry, let me suggest that McGimpsey’s poetic project is engaged in the exact same argument as Lerner’s about the ever-failing quest for beauty in art, and how that quest and its failure is the defining feature of our love of poetry. But McGimpsey is much funnier. I’m open to debate this topic at some length if you buy the first Fiesta Pack.
Second: I have utilized the internet to discover that there are in fact THREE Del Tacos in Barstow. And even more confusingly, there’s a Del Taco in Roseville, Michigan, AND a Del Taco in Roseville, California. Has David McGimpsey been to all of these locations? Or has he been deceiving us this whole time about the breadth and depth of his Del Taco expertise? By discovering and making public this pertinent information have I given the narrator of this poem reason to give up, or reason to carry on?