notes on the poem Ggfddfg



— Joseph Doyle



by brian doyle


It is the quasi-Welsh motif sounded tersely in the opening line that rivets me first in this recent effort by the modern American poet Joe Doyle, and then, of course, the e.e. cummingesque gleeful and joyous sliding note of the twelfth through fifteenth lines (e/e/e/eee), a lovely example of the poet’s use of typographic creativity to make a poetic statement, in much the same manner as the concluding lines of the poem.

But an attentive reader of Ggfddfg finds many places to admire the poet’s deft work; let us examine a few, so as to make the intricacy of the poem more accessible to the general reader:

* The use of other single-letter lines, of which there are five: s, s, a, r, and d. The letter s occurs twice: a statement about sibilance? It is notable too that the second s line serves as a key joint within a mini-poem: One can read the lines (,,;,,,,,/,;,/s/=aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahjs/a) as an initial two-line formal thesis followed by a three-line exhalation or sigh, possibly of relief after the mathematical rigor of the comma/semicolon lines.

* The comma/semicolon lines are themselves witty and very nearly musical in their declaration and resolution, like the best poetry. Doyle states his opening with a duo of commas, then the bassoon note of the semicolon, the larger pause, and the reader stops; for; an; instant; and then a run of commas like sea trout, their backs flashing in the sun. And then the next line, symmetrical, simple, terse, summing what has come before and standing as rune for what is to come; and then a hissing breath, and then with a rush the breath let out, and we are done before encountering the harsh clicking of the next line (iw3kwk), a reminder by an honest poet that we are summoned back to work after the summery exuberance of (=aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahjs/a). Is there perhaps a Calvinist streak in Doyle, although he is reputed to be Roman Catholic? A thread for other scholars to pull.

*The third line (ghhgtgftrttu) may be read in a number of ways, and perhaps the poet intended this ambiguity as a means of widening the scope of the poem. It is first a cousin to the mythic sense of the opening line of the poem itself (ggfddfg), and may in fact be a response to the opening trumpet blast. It is also a strangled stuttering roar of a battle cry itself, a tangled glottal Teutonic word begun (ghhg…) deep in the throat before rising to the tick of the first t. Finally the last two letters of the line (…tu) may be a statement of personal connection, a play on the formal and informal use of the second person in Latinate languages; or may be a closing verbal rise and leap to what has been an exclusively consonantal parade until the opening, both verbal and typographical, of the u.

I hold generally with the second thesis here, as I believe that the entire poem is structured to make that comparison between rigid consonants and freewheeling vowels.

* To wit, the closing line (lines), which may be read two ways: as …d/tl or tl/d in which the d leaps up and away — or even back, as it were, into the last line. It is characteristic of Doyle, famously uncommunicative about his work, to leave no clue as to how the line “should” be read: I believe this is quite deliberate, and is indeed a statement in no uncertain terms by the poet about the vanity, illogic, and ultimate lack of authority of professional criticism (with the exception of the present commentary, of course). The reader is left to his own devices in pondering the end of the poem. Is the d a superscript to the l — perhaps life (l), is squared by death (d)? Or is the d in flight into the future? Is its leap Doyle’s wry comment on our state of being, that that our truest conduct is to leap into the blank white possibility of the rest of our “pages” even as we leap into the past (the previous line)?

I believe, personally, that this is what the poet meant, and that the poem is designed to end on an ascending note, a pithy soaring crescendo; but even this pure grace note is not something that Doyle can refrain from adding to. His urge, as those familiar with his work will attest, is always to widen the meaning of language, to force even the smallest blocks of language to carry large loads, and so even as the d flies into the air it signifies future and past — as we do ourselves, with every breath we draw. Like poems, we may be read many ways, and even as we are new we are old, even as we yearn for the unknown we delve the past for meaning, and so all, especially a very good poem, is cyclical.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Eight
October 2003


Brian Doyle is the author of six books, most recently THE WET ENGINE, about hearts and all. It’s not bad. Among his awards and such are (a) a woman married him, (b) the Coherent Mercy granted them three children, and (c) he was named to the 1983 all-star team in the Newton Massachusetts Men’s League, which was a really tough league, you drove to the hole in that league you lost fingers, one time a guy drove the lane and got hit so hard his arm came off, but he was lefty anyway and hit both free throws. Supposedly he then left his arm in a toll booth basket on the Mass Pike but that might be apocryphal. More from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

Joseph Doyle is a poet who lives in Oregon. In Pynchonesque fashion he declines public comment on his work. In an interview this morning he claimed not to remember Ggfddfg at all – a poem hammered singlefingeredly on a typewriter in the basement at age three, when he was supposed to be helping his father fold the laundry, although he always manages to blow off this chore, but his father is not too bitter about art superseding labor, no, no, that’s fine, art is important. (bios/2003)

Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall.  He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved.  Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017. 

More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.



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