In his Writers Read presentation [on September 15], Gary Dop mentioned that people often act apologetic about poets who incorporate humor into their writing. He argued that this “can be disruptive” to the creative process. I found Dop’s humor to be one of the most engaging parts of his poetry. However, his use of language and social commentary in his more solemn poem was so chillingly beautiful that, as cliché as it sounds, I got goosebumps. As I listened to him read, I was struck by the incredible range of emotion that he was able to convey, with both his literal voice and the voice that came through in his poetry.
One of the poems that I most enjoyed was entitled, “Destroying a Church Potluck.” As the name suggests, the poem describes various ways to disrupt a church potluck. Instantly, I conjured up all kinds of images of loud, clanging basements and the smell of crock pots full of various brown and tan food. With his own snide twist, Dop echoed all of these images that I, and I suspect many church-going people in the audience, brought to the poem. I found myself simultaneously laughing and cringing at his piercing portrayal of this unique part of church life. This poem is so interesting to me because it only works with a very specific audience: an audience familiar with complicated church politics and the unwritten rules of church life. Dop goes through all kinds of ridiculous means of ruining a church potluck, from bringing a personal T-bone steak to a potluck to comparing the new pastor’s wife’s cooking with her predecessor’s cooking. So what makes this poem so incredibly funny and appealing? I think the very insider-ness of the topic is what has the potential to draw in (or put off) the listener. However, it’s also the mild, mocking social commentary on the ridiculous parts of church life that left me laughing and nodding in recognition. This poem mocks petty church drama and the often-incongruous nature of church life. Where else would the rate at which a dish of food is consumed matter so deeply? It’s ludicrous, but also very recognizable to a certain portion of the population.
Then there was the poem that completely shook me in a way I can’t really remember poetry ever shaking me before: “Little Girl, Little Lion.” Unlike the irreverent potluck poem, this poem deals with serious subjects: gender, the roles of a father, and the subtle messages that people receive in their lives. However, like the potluck poem, it is a sort of social commentary, although a much more serious one. This poem had the potential to lapse into the saccharine nothingness of a parent encouraging a child. Instead, it was deeply moving, original, and generally beautiful.
“Little Girl, Little Lion” makes heavy use of allusion to Sylvia Plath’s famous poem, “Daddy,” and her tragic life in general. Dop describes hearing his daughter tell him that women can’t be poets. He told us at the beginning of his reading that Plath lived a life very much not accepted by society: she was an artist at a time when women weren’t expected to be controversial artists. There’s something incredibly tragic, then, about his little girl repeating the adage that Plath, herself, must have heard. Dop, presumably the speaker in this poem, tells his daughter, “You can be whatever you need to be.” I found this phrase, which on the surface seems like such a cliché, parental thing to say, particularly profound. The classic parent thing to say would be, “You can be whatever you want to be.” The switch from “want” to “need” seems more urgent, more pressing, as though emphasizing the very importance of his daughter’s fate being different from that of Plath’s, of his daughter changing some narrative.
The last line in this poem was the part that most affected me; it made me shriek and jump up and down when telling Anali about it as we walked out of the reading. How can poetry be this perfect and beautiful and overwhelming? Dop told us before he started reading the poem that Sylvia Plath committed suicide by sticking her head in a gas oven. The ending of this poem, then, contains one of the most chilling and beautiful line I’ve ever read. After telling his daughter that she can do whatever she needs to do, he writes, “I say all this, our backs leaning against the cold oven.” And with those words, I was converted to a life of poetry reading. This connection to a former poet’s life was both beautifully obvious and perfectly crafted.
Getting to experience both the cunning humor and the poignant, reflective aspects of Dop’s writing made me realize how rare it is to find a poet who can skillfully handle such a wide range of emotion. I feel a little bit uncomfortable even attempting to critique the writing of such a skilled and moving writer. However, I’m looking forward to continuing thinking about Dop’s poetry in the days to come.
Clara Weybright is a first-year English major from Manheim, PA.