Friday, November 26, 2004

WRESTLING WITH RHYME The blog will be on hiatus for the next nine days.

To tide you over, here's CONTRAPOSITIVE's first foray into poetry criticism: A review of WRESTLING WITH RHYME, by late-80s WWF star "Leaping" Lanny Poffo. (If Amazon.com is to be believed, the hard-to-find book is now back in print.)

The review, by Dan Aibel, was slated to appear in Brutarian magazine sometime in 2002. (No word on whether it actually ran.)



The style is derivative, the word choice bland, and there is little thematic breadth. Thinly-sketched characters are briefly conjured and then dropped. At times even the extravagantly simple, singsong rhyming structure devolves into chaos.

So it is no wonder that readers and critics blithely dismissed World Wrestling Federation star ("Leaping") Lanny Poffo’s 1988 poetry collection WRESTLING WITH RHYME when it first arrived.

And yet, more than a decade after its release, a careful reading of Poffo's debut reveals it to be a seminal work, worthy of our attention. RHYME is a volume not without flaws, it is true. But the tenacious eloquence at its core—-the plainspoken muscularity of Poffo's verse—-signals the arrival of an important new poetic voice.

And it is high time for that voice to be heard.

RHYME opens with "Before the Bell," a crude sixteen-line trifle. Poffo announces:
Before this wrestling match begins
I have some words to say
To fans from every nation
And throughout the USA
Even the sympathetic reader is likely to chafe at this opening gambit. Poffo's blunt, declaratory approach lacks subtlety and his phrasing is both rigid and unimaginative.
It wasn't very long ago
I had a ringside seat
My father was a champion
Who seldom knew defeat
Here the poem maneuvers into slightly more interesting territory. But Poffo clings as closely to a simple, predictable cadence as his bathing suit-cum-wrestling trunks cling to his well-proportioned hips. Inevitably, this uniformity numbs, rather than engages, the reader.

And so already, only two verses into the collection, it is all too easy to succumb to a kind of sleeper-hold submission—-to conclude that Rhyme is a work barren of value, without depth or emotional resonance. The lay reader can be forgiven for setting it aside almost reflexively.

But to discard RHYME at such an early stage is to forego staggering literary and intellectual rewards. It is to pass up nothing less than a window into the world of a unique, mustachioed young writer still in the process of discovering his poetic sensibility.

Indeed, given a fair hearing, RHYME reveals itself to be a collection that is at once witty and solemn, intimate and epic; one addressing topics ranging from faith to legacy to "Hulkamania"; one which works in meaningful references to Robert Penn Warren, James Madison and George (the "Animal") Steele.

The task of interpreting and assessing RHYME requires not so much a line-by-line analysis as an openness to the power of the collection as a whole.

Indeed, we must be willing to overlook missteps like the too-clever "Ode to Larry 'Bud' Mellman," the cryptic "Uncle Elmer's Wedding," and the earnest but ultimately saccharine "Breaking the Ice for Big Brothers," to get at the self-examination which is Poffo’s true focus.

Namely, through the collection’s better poems—-the scathing "Jimmy Hart," ("He's the scratching fingernails / on the blackboard of our lives"), the playful "Who's Been Stealing the Cardboard Hulksters?” and a minor masterpiece, "The Handshake Heard 'Round the World"—-a portrait of Poffo develops: He is Italian. He is Jewish. He comes from a loving wrestling family. His father, Angelo, holds a world record for consecutive sit-ups. He is charitable and loyal, but also vulnerable to pangs of vengefulness and hate.

He emerges, in short, as a complex, conflicted, pectorally-blessed, frisbee-wielding individual, aware of his shortcomings, but not resigned to them.

Poffo's poems are littered with allusions to faith and family, to neighborliness and friendship, and to God. In "What’s Behind the Smile" he notes, "I can feel His love around me" and in "Deliverance," he maintains, "The Holy Spirit came to me and filled me with such power."

Still, elsewhere, as in "Hillbilly Jim" he appears to set aside his religious scruples, musing:

Pro Wrestling is a battlefield
and danger signs our checks
For what they’ve done to Big Jim’s leg
I hope he breaks their necks.
The verse raises a question as fundamental as it is obvious: How does one reconcile the violence endemic to a wrestler's existence with the spiritual teachings Poffo seems determined to follow?

There is no simple, pat reply available, of course. Yet it is in grappling with this question, and in formulating his answer, that Poffo stakes out his ground as arguably the most important wrestler-poet since Euripides.

This crucial contest-—between the values of wrestling and those of religion—-is set out most starkly, and explored most fully, in "Faith," where Poffo writes:

Some say the pen can beat the sword
While others disagree
To hedge my bets I carry both
As you can plainly see
Here the poet is acknowledging—-coyly, and in symbolic terms—-what it means to live a cerebral life in a world of pain and sorrow and body slams.

But the verse also has a more serious undercurrent: We find Poffo (in a poem titled "Faith" no less) unable or unwilling to put his trust in justice (the pen) alone, but instead compelled from within to "hedge [his] bets," by maintaining the sword’s threat of violence.

And so, beneath the work’s droll surface, what Poffo is doing here, ultimately, is delivering a grim lesson about the contradictions inherent in the human condition, about the importance of faith, but also about its limits: Who among us has not felt the tug between our ideals and more practical concerns? How many of us have embraced lofty moral principles, only to find our better angels hemmed in by darker impulses?

It is worth pausing for a moment here to reflect on the meaning and essence of Poffo’s primary art itself. Namely, what is wrestling but an effort to physicalize and externalize the titanic internal struggle between greed and goodness, vanity and humility? What is it, really, but an effort—with the aid of bright lights, loud music, and men in curiously high boots—to dramatize and contextualize the battles between desire and discipline that animate our daily existence?

Indeed, what is the wrestling ring itself but a kind of proxy for the human soul?

And what of poetry? Is it not a means (as in "Faith") to distill those very same struggles down to their barest, silent essence? To flesh them out and render them intelligible? To find, finally, a language within which to referee the wrestling matches that rage inside us all?

If RHYME does not answer these questions, it at least directs the reader to them. All the while, it underscores the profound psychic link between a Bruno Sammartino, for instance, and a William Blake; between a Koko B. Ware and a Langston Hughes; between a Greg (the “Hammer”) Valentine and a John Keats. Certainly the task of exploring this vital nexus is not complete. But we can thank Poffo, at least, for starting us on the journey.


CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.