Poems That Teach: Praying Drunk by Andrew Hudgins
For this Poems That Teach, we’ll be doing a close reading of a contemporary prayer-poem—looking for those moments of genius to copy in our own poetry. Join us as we explore the beauty and the humor of Andrew Hudgins’ “Praying Drunk”.
we lurch from metaphor to metaphor,
which is—let it be so—a form of praying.”
Here, we’re going to explore Hudgins particular style stanza by stanza and look for things to steal for our own poetry about prayer. A disclaimer up front: this is not an examination of faith poetry, or religious poetry, or pious poetry. That’s another conversation for another time. Our focus is poetry about prayer specifically, and how it can be done well, as exemplified in Hudgins’ poem, “Praying Drunk.”
First, the title “Praying Drunk” doesn’t hide anything, declares that it won’t hide anything. This is a poem that sets its tone before the first line. Perhaps, the reader may suspect, the poet means the Pentecostal drunkenness, the intoxication of spirit, and although we learn the poet definitely does not mean intoxication of spirit—rather, the more common intoxication of wine—the shadow of spiritual earnestness hovers over the whole reading.
Stanza One: Praise
“I ought to start with praise, but praise/ comes hard to me. I stutter.”
Hudgins begins the poem with unmistakably traditional language, “Our Father who art in heaven,” followed with a three syllable punch line addendum, “I am drunk.” We know we’re not heading into sentimental gushing. We’re a little wary of shallow cynicism, but we’re intrigued. This will be a repeated technique for Hudgins: the juxtaposition of traditional language with vulgar normality. He’s beginning to do the job of attacking the stale burden of cliché that prayer-poetry so often accumulates.
For the voice, the poem moves comfortably in and out of iambic pentameter—like a conversational Gerard Manley Hopkins with his sprung rhythm: “I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree/ Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;” (from ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day‘). When picking up an anthology of spiritual verse, the conversational tone and language of Hudgins stands out among the sentimentality that religious feeling and religious language so often evokes.
By the time we get to the third line of “Praying Drunk”, ”I ought to start with praise, but praise/ comes hard to me. I stutter,” we’re convinced. Here, in this honest moment we know we can trust our poet, because this is all of us, in prayer and in life.
Soon we’re in the first digression of many the poet takes: ”the woman whom I taught, in bed”. We’ll talk about how these digressions will unfold into the meaning-making of the poem more later, but it’s worth noting here that this is another, that’s me!, moment for the reader. Unless we’re a monk, even if we’re a monk, our brains are going to wander.
Near the end of the stanza, Hudgins has layered the poem with more conflict, casual gender violence and sexual cynicism: “I said, Make me something to eat.” The poem is asking the reader to hold together the traditional language, the holy prayer, in the same space as the banal blasphemy—as if the poet is daring his listener, God or us, to stick around.
And the woman’s response? “She yelled,/ Poof! You’re a casserole!—and laughed so hard/ she fell out of the bed.” Humor is holy, a legitimate response to banality and sin.
Humor even compels a holy attitude: “take care of her.”
Stanza Two: Confession
“Forgive me. This is my favorite sin: despair—/ whose love I celebrate with wine and prayer.”
By this point, we’re seeing the framework Hudgins is using as his setting, the four part prayer of Praise, Confession, Thanksgiving, Petition. Like the shadow of spiritual earnestness suggested by the title, this framework acts as a background the poet can return to and bounce against in his quest for honest meaning, an honest expression of his experience of prayer.
After admitting the “dreary”ness of confession, Hudgins leads us right into one of the deepest and most ever-present faith-conflicts, albeit in his particularly humorous way: the dear eating from his garden, “they’re like enormous rats on stilts except,/ of course, they’re beautiful. But why? What makes/ them beautiful? I haven’t shot one yet.”
Why beauty? What is beauty in the modern world? Materialism is the default setting of contemporary western society, or was, and the faith based “beauty of creation” finds no ground in materialism’s democratic meaninglessness. This is essential to the anxiety Hudgins is sharing with “Praying Drunk.” The world, grayscale and hard edged in the language of materialism, must ever argue for its value. And to be constantly on the tail of that argument, wagging—violence appears as a possibility, if not for meaning then for at least shutting down the debate. “I haven’t shot one yet,” our poet says, and I don’t know why.
As in the first stanza, Hudgins uses a digression that leans toward violence, as if he’s a kid at church trying not to think “bad thoughts.” And as in the first stanza, this violence is soon defused by humor. The poem gives the reader another conflation of traditional language and vulgarity: “It’s hard/ to kill your rats, our Father.”
More digressions and lapses in concentration, like prayer. But these digressions are ultimately meaningful because they lead, or are lead, to the honest moment of a real confession, beautifully dark. Hudgins, at the end of the confession stanza, admits the desire sometimes to “wash the whole world clean”, itself spoken as a kind of dark prayer. The reader arrives at the the poet’s confessed sin without surprise: despair; i.e. anxiety, resigned fear, discomfort with beauty, companionship with vulgarity.
Stanza Three: Thanksgiving
“Our Father, thank you for all the birds and trees/ that nature stuff.”
The first line: again, the traditional language with a punchline—the subversion of sentimentality. For Hudgins, humor is part of the engine for the whole poem, the whole prayer. “Praying Drunk” seeks to build closeness with its audience—whether the reader or God—through laughter, as in the relationship discussed in the first stanza.
But also the humor is defensive: ”I’ve confused myself.” The turn toward self-deprecation consistently shows up in response to vulnerability. Our poet is wary, as we are, of being too honest, too vulnerable—the anxiety of showing our naked feelings can only allow so much before the joke.
Then, again, the urge to digress, to be blasphemous: laughing at the awkward antics of elephants, trunks, and asses.
Which leads back to the urge, vulnerable as it is, for meaning: “I was stunned again at just how little/ we ask for in our lives.”
The digression of this third stanza finds its place as the speaker sees the nuns. As they struggle to protect their wards from the vulgarity of the elephant, the speaker laughs. It’s a joke, but not a joke. It’s meaningless and vulgar, but also, not. Where there is humor, as we lurch from digression to digression, “from metaphor to metaphor”, there is meaning, the poem seems to say, and the prayer is its seeking and unfolding.
The prayer, here, is the process by which the elephants and the asses becomes more than a joke—prayer is the background against which anxiety can finally be pinned and examined and meaning in the meaningless exposed.
Stanza Four: Petition
“As I fall past, remember me.”
By the fourth stanza, we’re used to the speaker’s self-conscious hedging around emotional vulnerability: “I’m usually asleep by now”. I don’t usually take this seriously, the poet seems to say, but I’ll try this time.
This is the climax of the self-deprecation, this part of the prayer where the speaker is to make “Requests”. How vulnerable it is to ask for help! To lay out, to God, to the reader, what it is you truly want, even the fact that you want anything at all. It’s not cool. “Embarrassed,” the poem says.
”I want a lot of money and a woman.” Hudgins lays bare the urge for blasphemy and spiritual violence, because he knows, by this point he knows, that the desire for money and sex is a mockery. He wants something else. But can he say it?
“I want vanishing cream.” Bring the digression forward, the reader thinks, let us see it. Ah, Popeye, good.
As we near the end of the poem, we know, the speaker knows, that his digressions and distractions will be brought to a meaningful & vulnerable payoff. So when the poet finally admits his anxiety—“What makes me think of me/ is the poor jerk who wanders out on air/ and then looks down. Below his feet, he sees/ eternity”—we’re emotionally ready.
And, dependably, the nebulous anxiety at the heart of the prayer is laid out in cartoonish humor: “suddenly his shoes no longer work on nothingness, and down/ he goes.”
The speaker is the “poor jerk” standing on air, wheeling his arms around—but before that, had walked out full of confidence that the fall wasn’t there. Our speaker, boldness broken as he peers down at eternity below, now falling, but still acting cool, acting like falling was expected the whole time, like falling is what it is man, and you just gotta take life on the chin man and laugh at it.
And then the request, our final line: “As I fall past, remember me.”
Don’t actually let me disappear. Maybe, please, catch me as I fall.
A side effect of the modern pursuit of truth is that the ground seems to have disappeared. This isn’t a new realization, but it’s still a difficult one to wrap our bodies around as the decades pass. That difficulty, that anxiety, has to enter into how we express faith in poetry. Hudgins, with “Praying Drunk”, does what is necessary to faith and to poetry in our contemporary moment—the poem works to keep faith fresh, to undo the stale web of cliché and nicety, to chip off all that dead moral coral layered on by mass cultural adaptation.
Hudgins leans into that anxiety spectacularly. He’s not Kazim Ali, with his mystical beauty and beloved—”Then the gray-green sky came down in breaths to my lips and/ sipped me” (from “July”)—, nor is he the ever sincere Kaveh Akbar who wrote, “I ached to be so beautiful” in “Learning to Pray.” Hudgins is a more conversational Scott Cairns, whose Greek Orthodox language bends and trips with self-deprecating humor, i.e. Cairns’s “Idiot Psalms”.
In the end, prayer-poetry should be fire upon our anxiety, quickened and painful, a remembrance. Hudgins, in this poem and others, exemplifies the poetic technique of undercutting cliché with the plain truth of banal normality, cruelty, confusion, distraction, humor and, even, the sweetness of moments. There isn’t any effort on Hudgins’ part to wedge in profundity or the cross or God’s mercy into this moment. Just a bit of the praying life laid bare, anxiety and vulgarity and all, without the gaudiness of religious cliché wrapped around it.