I think it’s fair to say that in our culture – the wider culture of newspapers and films but also academic discussions etc – poetry has come to exemplify the opposite of a Popular Culture. The movies are for everyone, poetry is for the select few. The movies feel good about this because it makes them – despite the very hierarchical arrangement and huge amounts needed to make them as opposed to the fairly cheap cost of making say an Internet zine of poetry – feel democratic; it seems to make a lot of poetry people feel good because it makes them feel exclusive, like they have Taste. Or it makes the poets feel moralistic (whether Quietist or Experimental this seems true); they are not part of the spectacularity of the Culture Industry, the immorality of kitsch etc.
Similarly, some scholars like to study “popular culture” in opposition to an elitist “high culture.” It’s part of a democratic gesture.
Bridging these worlds seem to cause a strange amount of consternation. It’s totally accepted to be a scholar of mass culture; and it’s accepted to be a scholar of high culture. But very seldom do they seem to be read together.
A couple of days ago, Steve Fredman led an interesting discussion of Laurie Anderson’s “Strange Angels” as part of our poetics study group here at Notre Dame (drawing connections to Win Wenders, Benjamin, Fassbinder etc). A couple the professors objected to what they saw as the banality and kitsch of Anderson’s lyrics and her music. After some discussion it came down to: Was she aware that she was using banal language? Was it a parody? Could it be seen as a critique? IF so, she was justified. If so, she did not challenge their notion of Taste (that’s my reading of the situation, not their’s obviously.).I argued, that No, her work did not have that kind of critical distance.
But I kept wondering what threatened them so much about this work, what made them so defensive. Was it not the problematic “hipster” quality of Anderson: she was following a different “taste” than theirs – one that included pop music, dancing, fashion etc.
A few days ago, we had a Latino/a culture scholar named William Orchard here; he gave a fascinating talk about a kind of negative aesthetics in ASCO (obviously I was excited since I’ve written and thought about them so much recently) and one of the Hernandez brothers who drew Love and Rockets in the 90s (I can’t remember which is which, it was the one who drew the plot centered on the chesty woman in Palomar, that was always my favorite strain of the comic). And in one seeming throw-away moment, Orchard said something about wanting to bring the “popular culture” work of Hernandez into the academy without turning it into a symptomatic kind of study of cultural studies and without turning it into literary studies, but maintaining some of the hermeneutics into which it was conceived. Interestingly, he did this while quoting Melanie Klein’s “Bad Objects” (wonderfully). Of course Asco’s art was full of references not just to Surrealism (they called themselves “el camino Surrealists,” but as I’ve argued before Surrealism is already kitsch, already pop culture in a way that really interests me) and high culture, but also to telenovelas and day of the dead costumes etc.
In his book Looking Awry, Zizek uses “mass culture” to talk about Lacan (supposedly high culture). Well, he does this a lot. But in this book, in the preface he says somethign interesting. He begins by talking about how pop culture makes for good examples to use to discuss Lacan and then he says:
“On the other hand, it is clear that Lacanian theory serves as na excuse for indulging in the idiotic enjoyment of popular culture. Lacan himself is used to legitimize the delirious race from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to King’s Pet Sematary…”
Of course his book shows that this idiotic enjoyment is in fact quite complex… But I don’t want to say “complex”, I want that word to also be idiotic. I wonder what would happen if we could read poetry and popular culture together? Can we read poetry for its complexly idiotic enjoyment? Can we read poetry as popular culture?
One case study for such a reading might actually be the culture I came out of – the Swedish pop culture of the 1980s, which as I’ve noted in the past was full of cross-over aesthetics. The top band Imperiet was very decadent and self-consciously literary (influenced hugely by poet Bruno K Oijer, and even putting one of his short poems to music) (notably they started out as a punk band and another huge influence is obviously Iggy Pop, whose bodily movements and vocal stylings Thastrom obviously modeled himself on); the Danish superstar poet Michael Strunge dedicated his first book to David Bowie and wrote homages to Ian Curtis of Joy Division; one book from this era had an homage to Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” (can’t remember which one, it was one of the Malmö poets, but I always teach that song too in my poetry writing classes); and later in the 1990s, Aase Berg makes Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre one of the “characters” (or figures at least) in her book Dark Matter.
“I’m an Idiot”:
I think of this example for totally narcissistic reasons: that is how I ended up writing poetry; it was the “idiotic enjoyment” of this highly stylized moment in art which melded popular and “high art”. And I think this is probably when a lot of other folks got their start writing poetry. But I also remember going to college and figuring out that the way I was reading and writing was utterly tasteless, kitsch, too much, not “complex” etc. And I stopped writing for a while (actually until I happened on Aase’s work, which re-inspired me and that’s why I’ve spent years of my life translating it).
I always used to say that I wrote poetry that I thought Robert Johnson would like…
But aside from my own personal idiotic enjoyment, what do the rest of you think about the relationship of poetry to popular culture?
On some level, I think that was what Chris Higgs tried to get at with a recent post on HTML Giant when he rejected “interpretation.” I don’t believe that interpretation is anathema to “idiotic enjoyment” (see Zizek), but Higgs’ post comes from a desire to write about art in a more tactile way. What I think he is trying to get at is the necessary rejection of the kind of critical distance that has remained so important to the academic taste of poetry. I don’t know, What do you guys think about this relationship?