Gwynn’s “Among Philistines” has to be one of the finest new formalist poems around. A modern retelling of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah dripping with satire, dark humor, and a scathing criticism of consumerist culture, Gwynn’s verse is so well made the formalist aspects go almost unnoticed on the first read through while his lyrical language and story telling take center stage. Don’t take my word for it, Dana Gioia offers a much better essay on the poem and more of Gwynn’s work.
Are you familiar with the story of Samson and Delilah? It’s a fair question, as folks just don’t seem to have biblical allusions at the forefront of their recognition when reading literature these days. No judgment on that, honest, though even deadheads know about it. I’m just thinking that while familiarity with the old tale is not a strict prerequisite for appreciating the poem, it would lend itself to better comprehension and richer context. For example, compare this analysis here, presumably done by someone unfamiliar with the story, to the analysis done above in the essay by Dana Gioia, or your own after reading the poem. Enjoy:
The night before they meant to pluck his eyes
He caught his tale at six on Action News –
Some blow-dried moron blabbing the bald lies
The public swallowed as “Official Views.”
After a word for douche, Delilah made
A live appearance and was interviewed.
Complaining what a pittance she was paid,
She plugged the film she starred in in the nude.
Unbearable, he thought, and flipped the switch,
Lay sleepless on the bed in the bright room
Where every thought brought back the pretty bitch
And all the Orient of her perfume,
Her perfect breasts, her hips and slender waist,
Matchless among the centerfolds of Zion,
Which summoned to his tongue the mingled taste
Of honey oozing from the rotted lion;
For now his every mumble in the sack
(Bugged, of course, and not a whisper missed)
Would be revealed in lurid paperback
“As told to” Sheba Sleaze, the columnist.
Beefcake aside, he was a man of thought
Who heretofore had kept to the strict law:
For all the cheap celebrity it brought
He honestly deplored that ass’s jaw,
The glossy covers of their magazines
With taut chains popping on his greasy chest,
The ads for razor blades with the staged scenes
And captions: Hebrew Hunk Says We Shave Best!
Such were his thoughts; much more severe the dreams
That sped him through his sleep in a wild car:
Vistas of billboards where he lathered cream,
Gulped milk, chugged beer, or smoked a foul cigar,
And his last image, this, mile after mile –
Delilah, naked, sucking on a pair
Of golden shears, winking her lewdest smile
Amid a monumental pile of hair
And blaring type: The Babe Who Skinned the Yid!
Starring in JUST A LITTLE OFF MY HEAD.
He noted how his locks demurely hid
Those monstrous tits. And how her lips were red,
Red as his eyes when he was roused at seven
To trace back to its source the splendid ray
Of sunlight streaming from the throat of Heaven
Commanding him to kneel and thus to pray:
“Lord God of Hosts, whose name cannot be used
Promotion-wise, whose face shall not adorn
A cornflake box, whose trust I have abused:
Return that strength of which I have been shorn
That we might smite this tasteless shiksa land
With hemorrhoids and rats, with fire and sword.
Forgive my crime. Put forth thy fearsome hand
Against them and their gods, I pray thee, Lord.”
So, shorn and strengthless, led through Gaza Mall
Past shoeshop, past boutique, Hallmark, and Sears,
He held his head erect and smiled to all
And did not dignify the scene with tears,
Knowing that God could mercifully ordain,
For punishment, the blessing in disguise.
“Good riddance,” he said, whispering to the pain
As searing, the twin picks hissed in his eyes.
By R. S. Gwynn
Special thanks to poetryfoundation for having this poem online, though the version above is a bit different from theirs. Not sure why there is a difference, but the above version comes out of Gwynn’s sixty page book No Word of Farewell printed in 1996 by Pikeman Press in West Chester, PA., which is where I once had the pleasure of meeting Sam at a conference. He led a workshop on sonnets, and it was an honor to work with him and get some feedback on some verse I was working on at the time. Geez, hard to believe that was twenty years ago. I wonder if he’ll find this page appreciating his poem some day. Would be nice to reconnect. The man is scholar of the highest order – he would have to be to compose this. I saw him recite that one at the same conference, and he had nearly everyone rolling in the floor with laughter … literally, many a scholar fell out of their chair. It was a site to behold.