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Pop culture & “the anxiety of contamination”

Dean Young's nominal doppelgänger is also a writer.

There’s a curious poetry review that appeared in yesterday’s online New York Times by Dana Jennings entitled “Five Poets Seasoned By Life”; it covers new books by Dean Young, Dorianne Laux, Jim Moore, Tom Sexton, and Laura Kasischke.  What caught my eye was the way Jennings insistently framed the books as alternatives (and antitheses) to the summer blockbuster:

Any one of the following books by midcareer poets would be a bracing warm-weather antidote to the clankety-clank-clank of Stieg Larsson’s alleged thrillers, or the kohl-smeared smirks that make up the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies.

And the conclusion to his poetry round-up takes another sarcastic shot at pop culture: “who knows, maybe the wan and swoony girls devoured by the ‘Twilight’ series will grow up to one day read these poems instead.”  In other words, what we have here is yet another (ho-hum) instantiation of the Great Divide.

In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (1986), Andreas Huyssen has famously argued that, since at least Courbet, “there has been a plethora of strategic moves tending to destabilize the high/low opposition from within” yet “these attempts have never had lasting effects”; rather, such attempts “seem to have provided, for a host of different reasons, new strength and vitality to the old dichotomy.”  Huyssen continues, “[t]o argue that this simply has to do with the inherent ‘quality’ of the one and the depravations of the other—correct as it may be in the case of many specific works—is to perpetuate the time-worn strategy of exclusion; it is itself a sign of the anxiety of contamination.”  Jennings’ easy dismissal of the depravities of cinematic pirates, vampires, and cyber-hackers is particularly surprising in light of the first author he treats: Dean Young.  Recent Young poems include references to “ninja stars,” “pornographic magazines,” and “anthropomorphized Playdough.”  This is to say that he is extremely well-known for his embrace of popular culture.  This is an exchange from an interview at The Rumpus:

Elaine: Are you a movie, television fan? I’m wondering about pop culture and how the way language is used there may be informing the tone/posture in lines like ‘Well, screw you, to be  sick/of metaphor is to be sick of the otherness/of life…’ The way the line breaks deepen the antagonism, yet the antagonism feels culturally familiar, extracted from the days of our lives…

Dean: Maybe not the soap opera itself but Days of Our Lives yes. I try to soak it all up.

And according to a punning Publisher’s Weekly review of his fifth book Skid, Young’s collection “skids all over mainstream American culture.”  He soaks it up; he skids all over it.  Perhaps Jennings should too.

Like Huyssen, I don’t wish to do away with a detailed attention to aesthetic quality nor to promote a kind of cultural relativism.  However, there was a badly missed opportunity in Jennings’ review–especially since a reflection on Dean Young’s work could have opened up an interesting discussion about poetry’s relationship to other facets of cultural life.  Just flipping through Skid now, I see that Young has been “seasoned” (to use Jennings’ term) by “Wile E. Coyote” as well as Keats.  As Huyssen says, “For quite some time, artists and writers have lived and worked after the Great Divide. It is time for the critics to catch on.”

15 thoughts on “Pop culture & “the anxiety of contamination”

  1. Right on, Michael. The last thing the academic poetry world needs right now is to seal itself off—or to be further sealed off—from the popular culture. I’ve never really understood that impulse, shared by so many academic poets and critics.

  2. I’d noticed that writer on King of the Hill before. I wanted to believe it was really the poet. dang.

    1. Yeah — the first time I saw that “Written By DEAN YOUNG” flash across the screen, I did a triple-take.

      Apparently another Dean Young is the writer for the cartoon Blondie.

  3. Yes, but it’s not just “academic” poets. I’ve talked about this quite a bit – how the worst critique in the poetry world is always to dismiss a poem as kitsch. Ie Tasteless. However, I also think it’s worthwhile to think about the relationship to mass culture. What does “embrace” mean? What mass culture? You’re right, Michael, that thinking about how Dean Young “embraces” mass culture and what mass culture might lead to a really interesting discussion about his poems.


    1. Hi Johannes,

      I’ve noticed a tendency for all sorts of scenes to believe themselves the “only” ones doing what they’re doing. So, for instance, many people speak of the “the writing scene” here in Chicago—in fact, I can name at least five different such scenes, none of whom know much about one another. And no doubt there are more such scenes.

      I tend to focus on academic poetry because it’s a scene I was trained in, and quickly became dissatisfied with. Although of course academic poetry is hardly monolithic. Still, it’s frustrating to see so many institutions behave so myopically.

      (Your company of course excluded; you know I consider you one of the good guys.)


    2. Very true, Johannes — the dismissal of popular culture is alive and well in the NY Times book reviews and beyond.

      Hmmm…good point about the word “embrace” — the word actually gave me pause when I was writing the post, but I just went with it anyway. It’s interesting to look at the verb Young himself actually uses: “I try to soak it all up.” This seems related to what you call kitsch as a “permeable zone” (I was checking out some of your Montevidayo posts just now). And as far as what mass culture exactly — well Young says “it all” which makes me suspicious. It seems to me that Young’s use of kitschy imagery (ninja stars, playdough, etc) is mainly textural and much of his overall interest is in lyric sincerity. I was looking at this passage from his poem “Action Figuring” as it connects with the issue of the summer blockbuster that Jennings brought up:

      In the last 3 days, I have rented 8 videos,
      have seen explode: helicopters, satellites,
      a bridge, flesh-eating puppets, heads,
      hands, the White House, unclassifiable
      weaponry, flora and fauna of distant worlds
      and still within me some fuse burns on.
      Love is not everything yet without it
      one explosion is much like any other.

      It seems like Young is contrasting these commercial movies and their formulaic, serialized explosions with some Dylan Thomas-esque notion of lyric interiority (“still within me some fuse burns on”). This seems to instantiate some divide (between the repetitions of special effects and the authenticity of love) though he, of course, needs the special effects to create the trope of the fuse in the first place.

      So yeah, “embrace” isn’t the right word — but surely Young’s relation to mass culture is interesting and requires some more analysis.

  4. Although I understand the annoying snobbery of the Times review and other critical writing, I think the issue isn’t whether poets embrace mass/low brow culture/pop, but whether any kind of poetry could be widely consumed by “the masses”. And my guess is, no. Also, doesn’t anyone find it a big difference from sitting around watching law and order reruns (something I love to do) and getting through dream songs or even dark blonde by belle waring?

    1. Surely, Paula. I did think about this before I posted, though it seemed like such a great irony that Jennings wanted to fortify the high/low divide in discussing a writer that, to some extent, wants to dismantle it or trouble it. I do think there is a big missed opportunity in regards to Young’s poetry and I wonder if his use of mass cultural references speaks to this point about audience consumption. I find Young’s poetry entertaining — and entertaining in the way I find TV entertaining. I suppose your point is about poetic difficulty, no? Or low vs. high cognitive activity?

      And Dream Songs has an interesting relation to previous incarnations of popular culture — minstrelsy, etc —

      1. Sure, Adam — when poetry interfaces with music and performance, there is indeed a great possibility for poetry to “be widely consumed by ‘the masses’.” Dub poetry as well (a la LKJ) — and there have been some great collaborations (Jayne Cortez and the Firespitters, Breyten Breytenbach’s work with the South African post-rock band Benguela, etc) —

        I’m still thinking through Johannes’ question about WHAT kind of mass culture…looking over Jennings’ review again, he is totally fine with sports and uses a baseball metaphor in his introduction:

        “Reading a savvy verse veteran is like watching Sandy Koufax paint a 1-0 shutout in his prime — some pure high heat here, a paralyzing curve there, then a little deliberate deception way down in the dirt.”

        Clearly gender is a huge issue here if we compare the masculinized control and athleticism of that conceit with the bashing of Twilight and its female fans who get “taken over” — they get consumed by the cultural products of their own consumption:

        “who knows, maybe the wan and swoony girls devoured by the ‘Twilight’ series will grow up to one day read these poems instead.”

        It is the difference between the poetics of craft and control and the poetics of contamination. And Jennings is hoping for a conversion.

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