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Poetry vs. Pop Culture (or, Does Anyone Dance to John Berryman?)

I was going to post this as a comment on Michael’s wonderful post from yesterday, but then it got too long (big surprise), and then I wanted to embed a couple of videos (bigger surprise). Paula commented there:

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?

I don’t mean to pick on Paula (or anyone), but why assume that “the masses” (do they huddle? are they wretched?) wouldn’t like or read—or don’t already read—The Dream Songs? Just off the top of my head, the Hold Steady‘s “Stuck Between Stations” name-checks John Berryman:

From its lyrics:

The devil and John Berryman
Took a walk together.
They ended up on Washington
Talking to the river.
He said “I’ve surrounded myself with doctors
And deep thinkers.
But big heads with soft bodies
Make for lousy lovers.”
There was that night that we thought John Berryman could fly.
But he didn’t
So he died.
She said “You’re pretty good with words
But words won’t save your life.”
And they didn’t.
So he died.

The band’s front man, Craig Finn, obviously expects his audience to know who Berryman is in order to understand this song. Not to mention that the whole piece is unabashedly literary; it opens with the lines:

There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right.
Boys and Girls in America have such a sad time together.
Sucking off each other at the demonstrations
Making sure their makeup’s straight
Crushing one another with colossal expectations.
Dependent, undisciplined, and sleeping late.

From the Wikipedia:

Finn is most notable for his narrative, storytelling lyrics that make reference to literature (ex: Sal Paradise and John Berryman on “Stuck Between Stations,” William Butler Yeats and Nelson Algren on “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”) and pop culture (ex: Rocco Siffredi on “Most People are DJs,” Joe Strummer on “Constructive Summer”). Frequent references to youth culture, partying, religion and drugs are also made in Finn’s lyrics.

One can have both poetry and hedonistic fun! Now there’s a novel concept in today’s academy…

The Hold Steady are hardly an obscure band. Daniel Radcliffe (the one and only Harry Potter), for instance, recently claimed them as one of his favorites:

Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe has revealed that his favourite band is US blue collar-rockers The Hold Steady.

Speaking in an interview in Details magazine, Radcliffe said Craig Finn’s band, who recently played a gig in the NME canteen, were, “The best band this year by far”.

The actor is famously a fan of indie music – he reads NME every week and was featured in the mag in 2004 talking about his favourite bands.

He highlighted Bloc Party, Art Brut, The Others, The Strokes and The Cribs as his personal favourites at the time. He revealed that his lifetime ambition was for The Libertines to sing him happy birthday. [emphases and links in the original]

So there’s one mainstream “blue collar” band that rocks along to John Berryman. The less-well-known-but-still-rather-popular Okkervil River (they’ve been on Conan!) also referenced the man in one of their songs, “John Allyn Smith Sails”:

Look at that! Hundreds of people dancing (well, swaying slightly) to a song about John Berryman! I wonder if they could be convinced to come to an MFA reading? Probably not, because, as most writers know but refuse to admit (publicly), university readings tend to be joyless affairs that academics suffer through in order to gain social capital! Why would a commoner attend one when he or she could go see an outdoor show instead? I mean, I know I’d sure rather have gone to that festival than most of the readings I’ve slept smiled through (and I’m not especially a fan of Okkervil River!). What’s more, there’s arguably more artistry on display here than at many readings: did you notice how the song’s final verse braids Berryman and popular culture even more tightly together by segueing into a cover of Brian Wilson’s “Sloop John B”? How disgustingly fucking clever! (Here’s a detailed analysis of the song’s lyrics.)

John Berryman can sometimes be tough sledding—but, c’mon, he’s not that hard. And he doesn’t belong exclusively to “the academy,” languishing in lofty university libraries, unread. I know plenty of “everyday folks” who adore his work, and the work of other confessional poets. I still see commuters reading Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell on the train and bus. And not too long ago, I shit you not, I saw a high school-aged couple reading The Dream Songs—on Chicago’s Fullerton bus! (For more on the connections between pop culture and John Berryman and the confessional poets in general, see this excellent essay.)

The popular culture is full of stuff like this. Take, for instance, this recent Pitchfork Media interview with Welsh indie rockers Los Campesinos!:

[Gareth Campesinos!]: The last song we completed in Seattle two days ago is tentatively titled “Too Many Flesh Suppers”– it’s not a vegan thing. It’s a reference to B.S. Johnson, who’s a British novelist who committed suicide at the age of 40 and had a huge influence on me personally– probably more so than any single band. The song is totally based around processed drum beats and drum samples. It’s the darkest thing we’ve ever recorded, sonically and lyrically. The first time I heard it I was in tears– it’s a really, really intense song. It finishes with everything else drifting away, leaving this string quartet part that [violinist] Harriet wrote– her violin work on this record is out of this world. It’s the biggest departure from anything we’ve done before.

And just I yesterday posted a tribute to Gil Scott-Heron, which mentioned that late poet’s influence on Kanye West. Stop and think about that: West, arguably the biggest pop star in America right now, closed his most recent album—which numerous mainstream critics called the best album released in America last year—with an extended sample of Scott-Heron’s work:

From the Wikipedia:

The album debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 496,000 copies in its first week in the United States. It achieved respectable international charting and produced four singles that attained chart success, including US Billboard hits “Power“, “Monster“, “Runaway“, and “All of the Lights“. Upon its release, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy received general acclaim from music critics, earning praise for its varied musical style, opulent production quality, and West’s dichotomous themes. It was also named the best album of 2010 in numerous critics’ polls and year-end lists. The album has been certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America and has sold 1,095,000 copies in the United States.

I don’t see how poetry gets more mainstream that that, honestly.

Whenever I hear the unappeasable poets and critics sulk, hiding the day, talking about how “no one reads poetry anymore”—I want to hit them. (I don’t, because I am a nonviolent person.) And I just don’t see their point. I guess it’s more fun to complain about obscurity (how precious!) than actually come out and talk, and see what’s really going on “out there,” in the pubs and the discotheques and the basketball fields and, I don’t know, the gutters—wherever it is that the common persons amass.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

37 thoughts on “Poetry vs. Pop Culture (or, Does Anyone Dance to John Berryman?)

  1. Thanks for the comment, Adam!

    “there’s arguably more artistry on display here than at many readings” — I agree that some poets can learn a thing or two from literary-minded indie rock.

    I’m actually a fan of Okkervil River and Will Sheff — especially the dramatic monologue type songs.

    1. > Okkervil River and Will Sheff

      I intend to listen to them/him more. But I am always intending that. Mind you, I have nothing against them/him.

      1. I’m a little confused. Are you suggesting that millions of people are reading the lyrics (which you equate with poetry)? Are are you saying that listening to music is equivalent to reading?

        1. And by equivalent, I mean to quote the many nuanced meanings of the word- “corresponding or virtually identical especially in effect or function”. I think both are very valid, not one better than the other. But very different. Listening to music is as important if not more to me than reading. But they are not the same.

          1. Hi Paula,

            I’m saying that song lyrics are a form of poetry, yes, and that listening to music is a way of experiencing poetry. It’s a different way than sitting down and poring over a poem on a page, yes, but not necessarily better or worse.

            To clarify, the conclusion I disagreed with was this:

            [The issue is] whether any kind of poetry could be widely consumed by “the masses”. And my guess is, no.


    1. I like the way you put this at Montevidayo:

      When I analyze the way contemporary poets erect high/low divide, it’s not to say that I like Law and Order as much as I like The Dreamsongs, it’s to point out what is implied in this rhetoric. Of course Law and Order is different from The Dreamsongs, but so is Monet’s Waterlilies and Andy Warhol’s Elvises or even Robert Lowell’s black kids floating in bubbles. Why is it important to make one high and one low? Why not say: these are two different art works?

      I think I may even agree with you, 100%.

      This is also true, in my experience: “In the academics discussion about poetry, the popular will never be the cool poetry exactly because popularity ruins ‘high’ culture.” Speaking quite frankly, I find that a lot of academics get upset when they see “high art” become mainstream. If people outside the academy are reading John Berryman, then what does one need the academy for? There must be something “wrong” with him, if you don’t need an MFA or PhD to understand him. Time, then, to abandon him in favor of a more hermetic poet… It’s really not unlike the indie kid who loves only bands no one else has ever heard of. It’s a question of individualism: if everyone else knows the thing you alone know, how can you be unique? … Of course, these are themselves cliches, but there’s truth in them.

      The goal of the academy should not be to cordon off work from others, nor should it be to separate the holy from the unholy. Rather, it should be to teach people various means for better interpreting the culture at large—”high,” “low,” popular, unpopular, mainstream, underground, whathaveyou. I learned a lot from my professors that I may not have learned elsewhere; now I can apply those analytical tools to anything I desire: Louis Zukofsky poems, Batman comics, X-Men films, Agnès Varda movies, Kanye West lyrics. &c. That will of course involve judgments, but evaluation shouldn’t be the only goal.

  2. By “masses” I only meant lots and lots of people. I don’t think lots and lots of people read poetry. And that doesn’t bother me at all. But I think it’s a valid point. Lots of people listen to the Hold Steady-I saw them open up for the Datsuns, God they were smug- and the Hold Steady may read Berrryman, but that doesn’t mean lots and lots of people read poetry. I never insinuated Berryman belonged to the academy, I just think its pretty statistically certain he doesn’t reach huge amounts of people.

    1. If a mainstream band like The Hold Steady is citing John Berryman, then John Berryman seems part of a more mainstream discourse (that’s practically a tautology). How large a part? I have no idea. Are people listening to The Hold Steady and then going out and reading John Berryman? I have no idea. (I imagine some are, most aren’t—just like with all things.)

      I don’t like arguing over vague impressions of what’s happening in the world. I’m more quantitative than that. It often seems to me that trees are looking at me funny, but are they really?

      As for statistical certainty, a Google search on John Berryman (in quotes) retrieves ~250,000 results. Whether you consider that “huge amounts of people” is entirely subjective. For the sake of comparison:

      Harry Potter: 295,000,000
      Daniel Radcliffe: 17,300,000
      Robert Frost: 4,850,000
      Jack Kerouac: 3,810,000
      Allen Ginsberg: 3,090,000
      e. e. cummings: 3,070,000
      The Hold Steady: 1,370,000
      William Carlos Williams: 957,000
      Frank O’Hara: 440,000
      John Berryman: 250,000
      Louis Zukofsky: 104,000
      Lorine Niedecker: 45,700
      Johannes Göransson: 18,900
      A D Jameson: 14,100
      Paula Bomer: 9,120

      Cheers, Adam

      1. And as Johannes and I have generally noted (both at Montevidayo and in this thread), the academy often “lets go” of poets as they achieve popular success. So Robert Frost of course is no longer really a poet, as any educated person knows (woe betide those rubes who are moved by “Death of the Hired Hand”!). Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg—they’re time is up as well; they became too widely read. Cummings is looking a bit too popular, too. WCW, he squeaks by under 100,000, but if he sells a few more books, he’ll be out on his ass. Frank O’Hara is currently safe but better not get any big ideas. Meanwhile, do you know who the greatest poet of the 20th Century is? Louis Zukofsky; he’s got the perfect blend of density and obscurity. Feel perfectly free to write your dissertation on him; it will be decades yet before the masses even hear of him…

        1. Can we not simply overlay a Marxian Capital “process” here and simply call our cultural products something akin to “natural resources” that the Academy “buys” and puts into production as “new” or “more” products become necessary to feed the machine?

          Zukofsky is simply new material for academic assembly lines.

          This is not about ideas or art, but product and the machine of capital as it works its magic on the market of academic labor and publishing.


        2. I’m not sure if I’m with you on this one, Adam — PMLA (and if there’s a journal of the academy, it would surely be PMLA) published an article on Frost in the May 2008 issue… there was an article on Ginsberg in the Fall 2010 issue of College Literature, etc etc

          I think much of the academy has shifted to a cultural studies model and what is popular isn’t so stigmatized… and I’m also thinking about Franco Moretti’s concept of “distant reading,” which is quite indifferent to lexical density.

          I think you may be simplifying the academy a bit too much. And the forces behind the current interest in Zukofsky (and, more generally, Objectivism and second wave modernism) are a bit more complex than just chalking it up to poetic density. And there was a recent Library of America edition of Zukofksy…I’m not sure if it will reach “the masses” exactly, but I’m not sure if he’s as recondite as you’re making him out to be…

          1. I suppose this isn’t my fight, and I don’t intend to fight…but possibly the academy is not worth our time in any real measure if it insists on a kind of numbing jargon of currency.

            I’m a little put off by this (mostly because I have not idea what it means and I’m too lazy at present to look it up): “Franco Moretti’s concept of “distant reading,” which is quite indifferent to lexical density.”

            I’ve always wondered what we gain other than “product” by being so “pop” centric.

            Art of the moment–and of the near past–should be art “of/in the street”–alive and always in motion. We study the past; we study the Greeks; Gilgamesh; the Bible and so on. We study the institutions; we study cities and states; we study rhetoric…

            But it seems to this outsider that Literature, Comparative and otherwise, has done itself and its readers a disservice by institutionalizing itself and attempting to apply a “scientific” language to its works.

            Hardly a book has time to be read before it is machined to death in the academy. (See my previous comment re: Marx.)

            1. Well, we are talking about specialists, so there is, necessarily, a specialized language (jargon). I always wonder why folks in literary studies and the humanities get criticized for using “jargon” while the same doesn’t go for people in the sciences. I’m thinking of the extremely disrespectful obituary for Jacques Derrida that the New York Times ran; the headline was “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74.” I’m sure if an expert on string theory or neurochemistry dies, the word “abstruse” would not be used in an obituary and there would be much more respect for the specialization of that field. To say that literary texts shouldn’t be studied with rigor, to me, is like saying we shouldn’t care about tree frogs in the jungle or bacteria living in our stomachs or dark matter in the universe…

              1. I think you nailed the problem right on it’s sad little head with “specialists”. (Damn it, I can’t stop thinking inside Marx’s book! “The weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, are immediately evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions expressed by its spokesmen whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.” Cap, ch 15, sec 1, n4)

                Specialization in production was a particularly brilliant diminishment of human capabilities by industrial capitalists.

                And surely it must be true that Derrida was the kind of thinker that courted that adjective. And it is often pretty easy to hide in the “abstruse” when you obfuscate certain issues.

                An example, my favorite prof of religious studies, Tom Sheehan went into battle with Derrida (and some lieutenants) regarding an essay included in a book about Heidegger’s relation to Nazi’s in his life and how it should be applied to his work. It was pretty impressive how hard all parties worked to make the issue (which, to be honest, I couldn’t really discern) became one of disputing the translation and tense of one or two words from the French to English.

                1. …yet the historicists succumb to their own specialization as well…not that historicism is a bad thing per se.

                  Derrida was a profound thinker. His project was not about obfuscation — to me, it was about unveiling. I think he courts the adjective for people who don’t want to read him carefully.

                  Well, I’m all for people who take the sensitivities and complexities of translation seriously — it’s becoming a lost art.

                  1. I think Derrida much more controversial as a thinker with anything other than derivative value than a proposition that Marx was far deeper and relevant primarily because HIS project was one of “unveiling” and/or “revealing” what goes on underneath/behind the operations of systems.

                    But that said, regarding translation–I won’t disagree–the point was rather that the argument devolved into a particularity that attempted to “veil” the point Sheehan was leveling at Derrida.

                    1. Thanks, guys, for continuing the discussion. And no doubt you’re right, Michael, that I’m being reductive. Stereotypes can’t help but be.

                      I do think there’s something to my original comment, though. Go out and survey 100 academic poets as to who their favorite poets are. I am willing to bet that more will name Zukofsky than do Frost. I hang out with poets all the time, and names like “Frost” and “Ginsberg” (and “Billy Collins”) are mentioned nearly always only to be ridiculed.

                      I’m not saying such poets don’t deserve to be ridiculed; they also, presumably, deserve some measure of appreciation. But I have noticed time and again a strong tendency for specialists in a field to ridicule artists who gain widespread acceptance (and I think that’s because those specialists resent, on some level, the fact that “the masses” don’t need the specialists to enjoy those artists).

                      Speaking, of course, very broadly and stereotypically.


  3. I very much enjoyed this curious romp through the sidelines of academia (read other post as well, thanks for link up). This reminds me when I used to read a lot of PoMo bloggers on blogger years ago. As one whose interest didn’t peak until after college, this whole scene is still a bit of a puzzle. What I found most interesting was the bickering that goes on even within the ‘highbrow’ communities, i.e. are you a Silliman follower, or of another school.
    As one who is not of these circles, I do wonder, what is the benefit of being exclusive? I wish we would champion poetry early on in the States and introduce poetry to high school students in a way that would keep poetry alive, i.e. musicians as poets, Dylan, Morrison, etc. (gasp…I know, I’m showing my non-academia, but oh well…) Excellent post, thank you ~

    1. Thanks! I’m all for making things more popular, rather than the opposite. I’m also not much a fan of complaining over the way the world is; I’d rather change things that I think need changing. Cheers, Adam

  4. There is so much good stuff here, but I often simply wonder why we care about these particular market/industry distinctions. You will write what you write and the academy will write what it writes (my neighbor edited a book on the 16th century origins of the concept of plagiarism…) and “there’s what’s right and there’s what’s right and ne’er the twain shall meet”.

    I tend to use any and every piece of pop/lit/high/low material I have in my noggin when I write–that is to say, that’s the shit that comes out of my head in a jumble.

    Certain types of art and culture exist in their time for particular reasons–often exilic to the dominant modes–and certain are mainstream in periods that to us now are “classic” and “difficult”–and what is amazing to us now was at one time quotidian in its cultural place.

    As technology further dominates our being our art will evolve in ways that incorporates that technology and is little discernible from it. All art will trend “pop” because all things will be “pop” as technology equalizes our banal lived passive pseudo-experiences.

    As we blend to the built environment, both made by us and making us, we will cease to recognize the difficulty of the past as having any real meaning to us. Perhaps we’ll say, “Yes, they were primitives. What can you expect of a culture that used a pencil as a mode of expression?”

    My only hope rests (for you Adam) in Uruk; in that the tales of Gilgamesh remain as powerful today as they likely were 5,000 years ago when they were “wedged” into clay.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Douglas. Personally, I don’t particularly care whether things are popular or not, but it seems that many people do. What I don’t get, though, are claims like “no one reads poetry any more” or “no one reads books any more.” I don’t see the purpose in such complaints, honestly. Unless they have some particular purpose other than just general griping.

      As for Gilgamesh…you know as well as I do that no one reads that anymore! :)

      Cheers, Adam

      1. What amazes me about Gilgamesh is that it seems far more relevant than most of our our cultural “artifacts”. I mean I read and reread our first encounter with Enkidu and the “civilizing” that takes place–an amazing recognition of what is “human” in this conception and what is “animal”. Enkidu trades (not by choice) his inclusion in the “no-mind” life of exultant being for the single friendship of a demi-god intent on immortality (which would offer him a “no-mind” kind of perception).

        Enkidu has immortality in his animal being and he “falls” into human mind.

        And the hits just keep coming!

        (But giant slugs?)

        1. It’s exceedingly relevant. I return to it constantly, and intend to do some posting on the Epic this month.

          (But giant slugs?)

          In my twisted mind, the phrase looks a little like “Gilgamesh.” Though I know that’s a leap.

          But the giant slugs of that title are many things—monstrous mollusks, of course, but also immense idlers, Cyclopean composters, whales of wallops, and big bullets—maybe even the brobdingnagian bombs that US has spent the past two decades dropping on Uruk. They, like the novel and its language, are overstuffed.


                  1. He’s historically been very important to me. That said, he wasn’t on my mind much when I wrote Giant Slugs, while I was thinking a lot about Carroll and Joyce. And Raymond Roussel, and Harry Mathews.

                    I have another novel (unfinished), “Seattle,” which is much more indebted to WHG.

  5. The “reply” being disabled (?) on your response (an attempt to get back to your point) I’ll just add here that, while I can in no way speak for (or about) Ginsburg or Collins–I would caution all against speaking about Frost, his poetry and his mind, without due respect. He, like his mentor Emerson, is always well ahead of you.

      1. Frost is not ever easy (even when you think you’re reading grade-school-approved “individualist” manifestos–you’re likely misreading or not quite reading it fully).

        But, to the larger point, again, looks like this whole “mass” v “high” art argument is going on currently in multiple disciplines (or in response to certain expressions in certain media)–from Salon on “boredom”:


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