Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Studying "Refusing to Baptize a Son" by Rodney Jones

I've invested the better part of a day studying "Refusing to Baptize a Son" by Rodney Jones, from Elegy for the Southern Drawl (1999). I have found that when you invest that kind of time on a single poem, especially one that you found remarkable and musical on your first read, the technique of the poet becomes more apparent. This is important when you aspire to write poetry of a quality that meets or beats those poets whom you admire.

For years, I have admired Rodney Jones' poetry. It is filled with intricate detail, but in a voice that seems natural and conversational. Jones is a ruthless observer of the actions and ideologies of others and of his own psyche. And while his poetry clearly reflects his own atheism, he often looks closely at Christian culture as he is exposed to it through his extended family. In a way, I read Rodney Jones' poetry as a way of looking into the mind and personality of one who perpetually resists the opportunity and invitation of faith.

This poem, in particular, "Refusing to Baptize a Son" deals with his conflict with his mother-in-law, who is described as "agnostic". One gets the sense from the way in which he describes her, that her quest to see her grandson baptized was mostly one of buying an insurance policy, that he should be baptized just in case there is a God, just in case baptism helps in getting you into heaven, if there is a heaven. The speaker of this poem refuses to play the game of going through the motions of doing a "religious" act, even to placate family. The speaker is a man of integrity, in the sense that he will not fake his way through a religion that he does not believe.

Here's what I came up with in my analysis of sound and structure. Rhymes are color coordinated. Beats (or stressed syllables) are in CAPS. Repeated words are underlined. The repeated motif of words starting with the letter "N" is marked by the first letter in CAPS and BOLD.

Analysis of "Refusing to Baptize a Son" by Rodney Jones

While the third stanza ranges from 3-5 beats per line, the predominant pattern is 4 beats per line throughout the poem. Having only 3 beats in line 13 emphasizes the information that the speaker's mother-in-law has died.

Overall Jones' poems come across as speech, spoken out loud. It is interesting to me to uncover that the lines are controlled through a regular beat pattern, indicating careful attention and craft that still creates the illusion of spontaneous speech.

I love in line 7 how booze only begets more booze, as Jones triggers an association with Jesus turning water to wine. It's as if he is saying that the Biblical story is foolishness, that in the here and now we move from drink to drink, each drink progressively stronger than the last. There's the implication that these two got raging drunk as they argued.

The repeated "N" sounds in the third stanza make for more obvious music. All the appearances of "Not" seem to slow the lines down, like rests in a piece of choral music. These pauses coincide with the pause for thought that occurs after her death and after time has passed. It's as if the speaker now has some distance on the argument and is willing to reflect on the issues anew.

From a structural point of view, it is admirable how each stanza has a strong rhyme or two imbedded in it. Jones allows his lines to be playful enough that he does not root out rhymes entirely, but he does keep them unobtrusive by keeping them away from the ends of lines, as they are more likely to appear in traditional rhyming poetry. This stance keeps the focus on the content of the poem, rather than on the style or music.

I like the narrative flow of this poem from the memory of his conflict with his mother-in-law over baptizing his son, to her death and reevaluation of their disagreement, and finally to his hope that his son will remember the love of his grandmother that triggered her desire to have him baptized. This progression leads naturally to his summing up conclusion. One gets the feeling of having accompanied the speaker through a complete train of thought.

I realize that the conflict in this poem is between atheism and agnosticism; however, the topic of baptism is indicative of the subjects that Jones returns to again and again. This poem, like much of Jones' body of work, reveals the inner struggle of an intellectual man with Christianity, and perhaps all religion. Jones repeatedly comes back to his condemnation of Christian beliefs and those who try to force their belief and or valued traditions on him.

When I read Jones' work, I often think that his criticisms betray a restlessness, potentially a nagging turmoil that he can't ever completely deny the faith of others. I think if he completely had rejected faith in God, he wouldn't have to write so much about his opposition to it. In other words, I don't see why he would invest so much in denying Christianity if he were at peace about his own conclusions.

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