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.”
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.