POETRY AS POP CULTURE TRIVIA, OR ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT IN SUCK CITY

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I bet you think this poem is about you.

Three poets read at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival’s “Headline Event” in Salem on Friday night. By now, it is a truism that contemporary “headline” poets do not traffic in anything that resembles poetry: speech that aspires to music. Instead, we get speech aspiring to pop culture trivia. The poems themselves—clotted, reference-heavy—vainly strive to be interesting with all the things they talk about, but the befuddled audience greets ‘oh-is-that-the-poem? Is-it-over?’ effusions with deathly silence. Immediately, the poet begins to nervously joke with the audience and there is palpable relief in the crowd—in attendance for entertainment, or enlightenment, or social snobbery, perhaps—as the poet makes an off-the-cuff remark that elicits laughter (ah, we are being entertained!). “I should have told you that the poem [which I just read and no one could fathom] was about [fill in obscure pop reference].” (Laughter).

The evening was very much like this: unfathomable “poems” eliciting silence, with wheedling, used-car salesman joking in-between. Beethoven at the piano with hands in casts but joking up a storm. A wonderful evening of “music.”

The first poet did that annoying, stiff “poet-reading voice,” the sustained vocal tic in which prose is forced to sound like stilted prose in order to sound like poetry.

Reads a “poem.” No reaction. Poet: “I should have told you the whole book that poem is from is about me being poor and dreaming of being an astronaut.” Laughter.

And so the evening of “poetry” proceeded.

The death of poetry is kept from the audience and its friends because referential language is endlessly—referential. “I mention Peaches and Herb [70s soul group] in this poem,” the poet announces, to appreciative tittering. Peaches and Herb!

A poem, or series of poems, or something, on Jack Johnson, the early 20th century boxer, is full of information on the legendary figure: “poetry” meets Wikipedia. Peaches and Herb was only mentioned in passing in some poem that was trying to…? It sort of makes one feel sorry for Peaches and Herb. The first reader quotes Jack Johnson in his poem and then tells us of the theft in a sudden little-boy outburst, post-poem: “Decidedly dissatisfied by my presence.” It turns out the best line of the evening is by Jack Johnson, the boxer.

The second reader, a middle aged woman, Denise Duhamel, is more visibly ruffled than reader number one by audience non-response—she is bravely cheerful in a slightly heart-breaking manner and laughs nervously and obviously wants applause, and through sheer will, eventually gets a little, in  a spectacle of podium-groveling both touchingly noble and embarrassing at once. She has a romantic side—it fails in a mawkish poem about James Taylor and Carly Simon—but it saves her in what is the most satisfying portion of the evening—a piece in which a woman narrator and her husband witness another couple fighting, which elicits a lovers quarrel between them as they take sides. The other couple, overseen arguing on a beach, eventually make up, and the speaker ends with the observation: “no one was watching us.”

The “romantic” Duhamel was hit and miss, but at least she felt the romantic need to be heartbreaking, and the heartbreaking requires a certain coherence—and becomes naturally funny, by turns, if enough “heartbreaking” detail is provided.

The two men—Adrian Matejka and Nick Flynn—seemed intent on showing off, not communicating. I know this! (Good for you) the sole emotional content of the dudes’ poetry.

The third reader is best known for Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, a memoir about his homeless father which was made into a movie. Since poetry isn’t memoir or fiction, published poets seem to understand that one doesn’t get up in a front of an audience and make one personal tragedy or topic the centerpiece of the presentation—even though this is what an audience more easily digests. Poetry readings risk taxing the attention span very quickly, because there’s so many mental paths traveled over the course of even a few poems. And here’s why fiction and memoir sell better: it’s a simple matter of singular focus. Poetry’s “riches” defeat it.

Poets don’t help matters with musically-deaf poems chocked with facts and trivia. Lou Reed was the pop reference of importance for the third reader—the fact that his father died on the same day as the pop icon was well…a fact—like James Taylor and Carly Simon’s divorce, like black boxer Jack Johnson’s white mistresses—and facts were all equal here. The Poetry of Fact. The poems tended to remain on this level, the level of the fact: too much story and poems crystallize into fiction, too much emotional focus and poems harden into uncool sentimental poetry—so fact is where they stay, or, more accurately: move around in, in a molten fury, a super-intelligent flux; the more ambitious poems create a three ring circus of facts: the missing jetliner in the news, the painter Fra Angelico, the poet’s mother, and surely something is profound and enlightening in the mix—to the poet, but not, unfortunately, to the audience. It finally becomes an orgy of Wikipedia meets the personal, or worse, blah blah blah hell.

The charming and witty personality of the poet often hides the boring, badness of the poetry, in a live setting.  But in the long run, oh witty friends! we do not believe this is good for poetry.

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3 Comments

  1. Andrew said,

    May 4, 2015 at 1:31 am

    Clotted. Yes – exactly the right word…clotted.

    The blood flowing from the open veins of modernist poetry is afraid to coagulate because someone might accuse it of cultural insensitivity.

    I am glad I was not there.
    I prefer lightweight jingly rhymes with a clear message.
    Oh well – back to my shift at the salt-mine…

  2. Versatile Simian said,

    May 4, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Teaching the Ape to Write Poems
    by James Tate

    They didn’t have much trouble
    teaching the ape to write poems:
    first they strapped him into the chair,
    then tied the pencil around his hand
    (the paper had already been nailed down).
    Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
    and whispered into his ear:
    “You look like a god sitting there.
    Why don’t you try writing something?”

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 5, 2015 at 4:42 pm

      “They didn’t have much trouble teaching the ape to write poems.” I’ll say.


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