One piece of rhetoric that pops up a lot (I’ve written about it in the past) is the “hipster” charge. The other day someone referred to “hipster shock poetry” as being the opposite of honest, sincere poetry for example. One of my problems with this charge is that it is seldom if ever elaborated on. What does it mean? Who is a hipster poet?
The other day I read this post by Sean Bishop (via big other.com), which is one of the first times I’ve actually seen someone venture to expand on what the hipster charge entails and identify who it applies to:
#8: Fence Books. At the risk of alienating myself from this press entirely, the way I feel about Fence’s cover designs is roughly the way I feel about many of the poets they publish: they remain on the vanguard of a hipster aesthetic, but in a way that will probably seem quaint in five or six years—the press seems doomed to re-design and re-brand on a very fast cycle… they’ll continue to be successful, I think, and to stay on the vanguard, but only as long as they can maintain the energy of reinvention. Like Black Ocean and Octopus, most recently Fence has favored loud, two-or-three-color covers, and like Octopus sometimes I think their type choices are unfortunate. For instance, I do like Joyelle McSweeney, and I’m excited to read her new book, but that titling and those graffitiesque drips remind me a bit too much of Urban Outfitters.
I’m glad Bishop actually bothered to define this charge a bit.
In this blog post, and in many other instances, it does seem to have to do with “vanguardism”. That is to say, it’s not “avant-garde,” in the sense of the established, sanctioned “Official Experimental Verse Culture” (ie language poetry and its descendants); that is to say, it does not aim to be of the future, to be important, to make literary history; it is not invested in reproducing itself. It’s a counterfeit avant-gardism (perhaps Rather it is of its moment for a brief time (5 or 6 years) and is “doomed” to become quaint, to become kitsch.
And as we know from Daniel Tiffany’s writing on kitsch, kitsch is “excessively beautiful.” Charges of “hipster” poetry tends to imply a sense of excess; and excess suggests lack of Taste. Someone with Taste knows when to stop, how to moderate, how to contain “beauty.” The “hipster” lets the art become excessive, lets art become “graffitiesque” (ie when art takes over the space of the everyday).
Part of this excess seems to be that that the hipster – as in other hipster discourses – allows the art to take over their entire life; they become too concerned with how they look for example, what their beards look like. It’s like art takes over their entire life. I think we see this in this particular post with the reference to Urban Outfitters: poetry has become too much like clothes. It is not deep,important poetry, but frivolous poetry, poetry like clothing. Perhaps the kind of clothing with a book by Pierre Reverdy in its pocket (instead of a heart beating in the body). The UO-reference also seems to connote a kind of luxury, which in turn is often used to connote wastefulness, a choice of art over “real life.”
One interesting part about Bishop’s article is that it’s fundamentally tasteless because it’s about judging the books by its covers – ie it’s already a kind of “hipster” rhetoric! In other words, Bishop cares too much about the surface, treats poetry too much like clothing. And it’s perhaps out of sensing this dichotomy that Bishop takes on the tone of a superior judge and arbiter of Taste: and as a judge, it seems he finds fault with just about all the presses he also likes. By judging the covers, he is essentially dooming himself to a tasteless hipster-pose, and must therefore criticize all the designs in order to maintain his own position as a Man of Taste, as opposed to a Hipster of Excess.
One last thing. I wonder: Is it Fence people talk about when they talk about “hipster” poetry? If so, all of the poets or some of the poets? “Hipster” is one of those terms like “surrealism” that tends to be trotted out again and again, but seldom defined. So that’s what I’m getting at here.