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…
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.