Poetry in the Streets (of Seattle)

jamesfrancoeatspieI have a bad habit, it’s something I can’t really help. I have extraordinarily good hearing, and like many introverts, I’m especially observant in public. I notice a lot of little things all the time, and have mostly learned to tune out (to some degree) other people’s conversations. But I can’t do it when they’re talking about poetry.

I have another bad habit, one that I suspect is common to those in my general demographic – MFA-land educated writers. When I hear other people talking about poetry, I can’t help but listen. And then I judge. I really don’t want to, I’m actually a firm believer in the “room-in-the-pool-for-everyone, just-because-I-don’t-like-it-doesn’t-mean-its-invalid” school of poetry. It’s how I run my workshop (figuring that reading widely and carefully, and learning to talk respectfully about many different kinds of poets and poetry is more useful than learning one person’s version of “good” poetry, which is of course subjective and culturally conditioned).

So I struggle with this. Last week, in Elliot Bay, I was submerged in the potery section, squatting down to look at the books on the bottom shelf, when two young women (maybe high school, maybe a bit older) started talking behind me. The one was asking the other for suggestions of poetry books. “I don’t really like poetry that much…” she said, after picking four books off the shelf. I had to look, what had she handed the other woman before confessing that. A guarded over-the-shoulder glance revealed only one title, but it was revealing enough. It was Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing. Ok, I love Leonard Cohen. I went to see him live, I know most of his songs by heart, but I don’t particularly care for his written work. Like many famous-in-other arts people (ahem, James Franco, and that girl who played the woman in Twilight), his poetry isn’t terrible, but it’s not really that great in my opinion. No wonder she doesn’t like poetry, I thought, if that’s what she’s reading. But I didn’t say anything.

Then on Sunday, walking through the Fremont Sunday market, just as we were about to go inside to escape the cold rain, I noticed a youngish hipster-looking man with a small typewriter (covered), and an open panhandler-style briefcase with a sign in it that was hawking custom-written poems. I’ve seen this kind of poetry-peddling before in other cities, Boston and New York most recently, and actually think it’s a pretty cool idea. Why not, right? Poetry gets unfairly accused of irrelevance, so why not make it personal. I was inclined to stop and buy a poem. In retrospect, I regret not doing it, but at the time I thought, perhaps deeply unfairly, “how good could it be?”

Taste is taught, learned, institutionalized, commodified, and essentially destroys the thing you apply it to. It cannibalizes itself.

Later in the afternoon, sitting in a crowded delightful cafe, I was handed a sticker by a three-year-old girl. It was of a pink ice cream cone. It made me smile. Then she handed one to the woman behind me, who I hadn’t really been aware of before. But after that I heard her talking with the man sitting next to her, about Kickstarter, and him inventing things and printing them on 3D printing machines, and it all sounded really interesting, actually. Until he started talking about how he likes to rap, but he’s not very good. Then she started talking about how it was one thing to write the poetry and another thing to perform it, and slam poetry, and how she wants to go to a slam but hasn’t yet. And I couldn’t help it, my hackles raised. I think rap is great, fun, powerful, awesome music. But I resist calling it poetry.

I’ve spent some time thinking about this, and I think I resist calling rap (and really any other music) poetry, because it both denigrates music as a high form of artmaking, and appropriates poetry figuratively. In the same way that happens when someone refers to a painting as poetry, or a sunset, or a political speech. These things are clearly not poetry, but by calling them poetry as an attempt to elevate them does a disservice to each art form. Maybe that argument doesn’t hold water, but that’s all I was thinking today in the cafe, overhearing this woman talk enthusiastically about a kind of poetry she’d never experienced.

A few days ago on Facebook I read the 55 comments (and counting) on Joyelle McSweeney’s page about the James Franco poem in the current issue of Diagram. I’d seen someone else in a previous discussion about this use the word dilettante, and that makes sense to me as a reaction to him. But of course those of us who are self-critical have to wonder if we’re just haters, just envious of his success and audience and career and wealth and fame and all that envy and bitterness just seeps out in attempting to continue to be the arbiters of taste. I have to say I’ve lost some respect for Frank Bidart, and Greywolf, and now Diagram, because it seems a little parasitically opportunistic to publish his work. Because the work, while not terrible, is also not great. And I know my own bitterness comes from knowing so many great writers who don’t get published by the likes of Greywolf, so many who are so much better than Franco, but wouldn’t turn that kind of profit and fame towards the press.

Poetry for most of my academic career has been the site of so little real reward that it’s upsetting to acknowledge that it’s for sale like most of our culture, and any celeb with a fortune and a little bit of talent can just purchase the success that most of us strive for decades for, and many never reach. And maybe that’s really the heart of it. We don’t want to accept that we’re participants in a machine that functions within a system, not outside of it, and that system is consumer capitalism, and so we are the product and the consumers of ourselves, and something that will really “sell,” will be more valuable than our own cannibalizing scene.

Maybe none of that made sense. James Franco is eating all our pie, and so there’s none left over for us. Except the pie is made of the deteriorating corpses of a culture that has been so unprofitable that even the scent of success nauseates. Especially when it’s someone else’s.

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