We have, now, in American poetry, a new self-consciousness manifesting itself not in schools of thought or types of poetry, but in social prickliness—the birth pains, we can only hope, of a new era where the shackles of old Modernism and incestuous Workshop-ism can at last be thrown off.
For we live in an age in which the ‘I’, central to western civilization (and Anglo-American civilization in particular — for what other language capitalizes the first person singular pronoun?), has collapsed into a mere ‘i’, a mere letter, the Self nothing more than one of the billions of ‘yous’ who cohabit the earth. Yet it is a false proclamation, no doubt owing more to the understandable but ultimately lamentable disinclination to correctly operate the ‘shift’ key than to an epochal change of consciousness.
We have decided at last that we do want the “I,” and are even thinking of capitalizing “You”; for the experiments which have banned the human — the found poem, the deconstructed text, the well-wrought urn of pedantic New Criticism, the sordid materialism and cryptic theoretical aspects of the avants, the cunning and predatory alliances formed in academic conferences and chairs — all of these are giving way to a healthy and humorous atmosphere inhabited by actual persons. To which, hearkening back to the sanctuaries we often attended as young persons, we can only offer an exuberant and heartfelt “Selah!”
We find that emblematic of this ‘new spirit’ are the poems of William Kulik, translator of Max Jacob, master of the prose poem, and professor of a “happy band” of students at Temple University in historic Philadelphia. Kulik’s poems remind us of nothing less than the movies of silent film star Buster Keaton, for in both, the protagonist faces a malevolent world — a world deteriorating in ways that defy reason, a dreamscape of dangerous happenings – yet both Keaton and Kulik’s protagonist (each poem usually has a central character, seemingly modeled on the poet himself) never get rattled, never get flustered, but maintain a cool, good humored imperturbability in the face of events which would drive most personages clear round the bend. Keaton maintains a stone face as houses collapse on him (Steamboat Bill, Jr., 1928), as he is vamped by Fatty Arbuckle dressed as a nurse (Good Night Nurse, 1918, shockingly neglected), and as he plays cards with aged and grotesque Hollywood legends of yore (Sunset Boulevard, 1950). In the same way, the protagonist of Kulik’s poems keeps his sense of good humor even in dire situations—whether prostrate on the ground tormented by a sadistic policeman (“Flexible”), ridiculed on stage by yahoos in a theater that reminded us of the 1973 film Theatre of Blood (“This Old House”), or observing as a swinging 1970s party inexorably disintegrates into a hellish landscape (“The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite”). This determination to maintain one’s good humor, to appreciate and enjoy this short life we’ve been granted, is a spirit we find most congenial, whether in our own dire age or the dire ages past and future. For is not every age dire? No walking down the street muttering in despair with shoulders slumped for Keaton or Kulik — both have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, the bomb a comely XX-chromosomed being rather than a thermonuclear device.
For is there anything better to get one through a dark night of the soul (assuming one has already settled to one’s satisfaction the most pressing metaphysical questions) than thoughts of sexual bliss? “Yes,” we hear a wag retort, “sexual bliss itself!” Yet we beg to differ. For the realm of sexual fantasy will always satisfy more qua fantasia than any and all attempts to realize that fantasy in the harsh light of physical reality. For the reality can never match the fantasy— unless of course one has a nigh unlimited supply of funds and leisure time to stage manage one’s most breathless imaginings. And yet — and yet — even then we suspect that the reality would not match the dream (although we must sheepishly admit that we would certainly like to try, in the manner of, say, Terry Southern, to put this idea to the test).
William Kulik made a splash in Scarriet’s March Madness, an expansive merriment which simultaneously mocked and revered a popular paradigm; we at Scarriet ‘discovered’ Kulik through March Madness, through a list-like winnowing, and lately Kulik has made ‘an appearance’ on Scarriet’s Hot 100 (part 2) a very popular essay the popularity of which proves people care about people, they love lists because let’s face it, what is all temporal art but a list?
There is no depth in temporal art, per se, and if there is depth it is only from the list (the shallow construct of popular culture and mass media, top 40, etc)— the list is the fantasy, and the so-called ‘depth’ the reality which chases after the list itself, and which is only ‘reality’ finally, to scholars who proclaim seeming truths in retrospect.
The fantasy is finally what drives all of us, what gets us up in the morning (or the afternoon), that which is the true food of poets. The shallow list has its significance in its very shallowness, in its construct as a ladder or reaching upwards into, and within, a realm of delirious fantasy, the realm where actor and poet are one.