Berman, David. Actual Air. Open City, 1999.
Corgan, Billy. Blinking With Fists. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
Doughty, Mike. Slanky. Soft Skull Press, 2002.
Garfunkel, Art. Still Water: Prose Poems. Dutton, 1989.
Krukowski, Damon. The Memory Theatre Burned. Turtle Point Press, 2004.
McCartney, Paul. Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics, 1965-1999. Norton, 2001.
Ranaldo, Lee. Road Movies. Soft Skull Press, 1997.
Ranaldo, Lee and Cynthia Connolly. Lengths and Breaths. Water Row Press, 2005.
Smith, Patti. Early Work: 1970-1979. Norton, 1994.
Tweedy, Jeff. Adult Head. Lincoln: Zoo Press, 2004
As Reviewed By: Kathleen Rooney
A few of my fellow Emerson MFA grads and I are forever fantasizing about starting a band. We’ve decided what instruments we’d play, whom we’d sound like, how we’d share song-writing duties, when and where we’d practice, what outfits we’d wear at our shows, what dive bars we’d book ourselves at, what we’d drink onstage, what covers we’d perform, and, most importantly, what we would call ourselves. Our current fantasy band name front-runner happens to be “The Going Concerns,” but our list of potential monikers has been lengthy, including at various points “Kiki and the Terribles,” “The Afternoon Delights,” “Comma Splice,” “The Enchantments,” “None of Your Beeswax,” “The Sicilian Defense,” “Fans of Joe,” “Clouds That Look Like Killers,” “Sorry About Your Daughter,” “The People’s Choice,” “Drunk Pterodactyls,” “Sauce-Bottles,” “Per Se,” and “Strictly Confidential” to name just a few.
Our fantasy has been increasingly fueled by the minor but steady success of Ara Vora, a Boston-area outfit comprised mostly of three of our recently graduated friends, including two poets. Ara Vora, in turn, has been encouraged by the successes of Ploughshares Poetry Editor David Daniel’s band Love-Star, as well as Asheville Poetry Review Editor Keith Flynn’s band Electric Zoo. After all, we—the would-be Going Concerns—ask ourselves at shows, at parties, at bars: if these poets can do it, then why not us?
Others might ask why we, a bunch of aspiring poets, should want to try our hand at rock in the first place. The answer seems obvious. Writing is an inarguably solitary and arguably lonely pursuit. Any serious writer will tell you that her writing life is uninteresting by most people’s standards, inasmuch as it typically consists of spending eight to 12 hours a day alone, in that clichéd yet necessary literal or metaphorical room of one’s own, not speaking to anyone, sometimes reading, sometimes researching, staring at and occasionally typing on a personal computer. Once all the staring and typing are through and the writer in question has finished a poem, a story, or even a novel, she still has to face the issue of audience—as in, will the piece ever have one? Of whom will it consist, and of what size will it be? Unless said writer happens to be a brand name best-seller like, say, John Grisham or Mary Higgins Clark, or an established prize-winner like Jonathan Franzen or Susan Sontag, she can expect no guarantee of being widely—or even narrowly—read. As rockstar poet Damon Krukowski observes in his self-reflexive prose poem “Reading”:[private]
Opening a book, at random. This book, if it so happens, but the likelihood is small. Because of all readers, how many will ever read a particular book. And then of all particular books, how often might one choose the one being written.
The case is compounded for poets, even at the performance level. Forget the adulation a rock star receives—how about mere reciprocity? Even when a poet gets the occasional crack at an onstage event—in the form of a poetry reading—audience members are usually far too polite to let the reader know what they really think. In other words, never have I seen devil horns a-flyin’ at a reading (except at one by David Berman, and that was in a Chicago rock club, and happened only after he’d switched from reading to singing, but more about him shortly).
According to Stephen Burt, in his essay “‘O, Secret Stars, Stay Secret!’: Rock and Roll in Contemporary Poetry,” we harbor numerous “assumptions about the differences—no, the contrasts—that separate poetry from rock and roll. Rock is easy, poetry hard to create. Rock is spontaneous and simple; poetry intricate, enduring, reflective. Rock is ephemeral, while poetry endures. And rock songs (for all those reasons) belong to the young, as poetry maybe did once but sure doesn’t now—or so we assume”. He goes on to argue that poetry to some extent craves the immediacy, spontaneity, fame, and—let’s face it—youthful hipness of rock and roll; poetry, or at least certain young poets, want to be cool. And while it is interesting to examine, as Burt does, why and how poets can be seen to covet rockstardom (or at least the trappings thereof) and how they incorporate elements of rock and roll into their poetry, it’s equally fascinating to explore a somewhat more puzzling phenomenon: recently multiple indie rock musicians have been seen to covet the power of poetry to such an extent that they are bringing out collections of their own, in some cases under the auspices of prestigious literary presses. In flipping Burt’s equation and examining its less obvious side, I would argue that just as certain poets long for rock’s visceral immediacy and audience, certain rock stars long for poetry’s durability, thoughtfulness, intimacy, individuality, outsider status and intellectual cachet. I would also argue that despite their evident differences, these two seemingly disparate art forms are actually more closely allied than the casual observer may perceive.
Certainly, there is a history of rockstars themselves yearning for this alliance, and I don’t just mean Jewel’s 1998 sap-fest A Night Without Armor, or even the work of Ashanti, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur and Jim Morrison. As far back as 1963, we have John Lennon’s In His Own Write and his 1965 collection A Spaniard in the Works, both of which probably owe less to psychedelic pressures than to the English tradition of dark, ironic, nonsense poetry as propagated by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. In 1971, we have Bob Dylan’s Tarantula, composed in 1966 and postponed due to his motorcycle accident, which, although originally billed as a novel, more closely resembles a long prose poem.
Some of the most fascinating artifacts of this rock-to-poetry crossover are the lesser-known ones, including 1989’s underappreciated Still Water: Prose Poems by none other than Art Garfunkel. Divided into sections named after the elements and broken up by a series of three interviews, Garfunkel’s carefully structured collection grapples directly with the issues of why famous musicians should crave poetic intimacy and permanence. In response to his interviewer’s question, “You say that you bring a shyness to your music. How difficult was it to decide to publish your poems, and was there anything that made you start thinking along that direction?” he replies, “at a certain point, you say, ‘Who am I writing this to? [. . .] is it simply seeing who I am, crystallized on paper? [. . .] You realize you’re writing to someone, even if it’s to a soulmate you’re hoping to find. Then you realize; Okay, I’m writing to others. But you think, Which others? How many others?” At times, he even sounds like a literary magazine editor arguing in favor of the power of poetry. His words “I would say, ‘Well, what do you think this life is for, why is this a wrong way to spend my time? Should I be putting aside this acquaintanceship [. . .] so I can get on to being acquainted with Dan Rather’s six o’clock news? Is that what I should do? Get on with the culture I live in?’” have an eerie resonance with Christian Wiman’s April 2004 editorial in Poetry magazine in which he writes: “[t]he greatest power of poetry . . . at this particular moment in history, may be simply [the] act of preserving some aspect of truly individual consciousness in a culture bent on obliterating it.”
Garfunkel’s poems themselves are not half-bad. In the untitled second poem in the collection, in fact, he writes with a delightful Donne-like music and meter:
Speaking of Garfunkel, another oddly appealing artifact of this historic exploration is a slim volume entitled The Sounds of Silence, edited by Betsy Ryan in 1972. Subtitled, Poems and Songs about Loneliness, it’s available for pennies on Amazon and well worth every one. The book is tacky in many respects, especially the soft focus black and white photos that illustrate many of the selections: a non-descript man sitting in a non-descript room for the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man,” a murky puddle of rainwater for Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” the limpid eyes of a weeping woman for Rilke’s “Solemn Hour,” and so forth. Yet it’s compelling in other respects, such as how, printed on the page and stripped bare of musical accompaniment, “She’s Leaving Home” pales in comparison to Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” which almost makes you want to raise your lighter in tribute.
Adrian Mitchell, editor of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics, writes of these cross-genre correspondences and contrasts that, “Lyrics tend to be less concentrated, partly because a song has to work instantly, and partly because the words must allow room for the music to breathe, to allow time for the work of the music. In a good song the words and the music dance together, so they need dancing room.” Mitchell’s point here is at times illustrated rather unfortunately when such songs as “Hey Jude” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” suffer from appearing naked on the page without the melodic accompaniment that makes them so pleasing when sung. Mitchell argues, “Paul is not in the line of academic or modernist poets. He is a popular poet in the tradition of popular poetry,” and says that, “Whenever critics say there is something inferior about a poem that is sung, my advice is to sing Blake’s ‘Tyger’ or Robert Burns’s ‘My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose’ at them.” I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Beatles songs are unpoetic, but I would suggest that McCartney’s poems are not nearly so effective as those of Blake and Burns. They do sometimes become so bad that they swing back around to good again. In “Rock On,” for instance, his tribute to his late wife Linda, he writes with winsome awfulness:
I want to smell
your underarm odor
I want to drink
your ice cream soda […]
Want to stroke
your furry kitten
Don’t be shy
you won’t be bitten.
It concludes: “When this world is / dead and gone / We will still be / Rocking On!
And even though rock-to-poetry crossovers are not always poetically successful (though commercially they do just fine), this phenomenon is one which many artists and editors rightly feel is worth pursuing. Zoo Press, a division of the University of Nebraska Press, has forged ahead in the exploration of this link between poetry and indie rock, launching an entire subdivision, Nightingale Editions, predicated on this interconnectivity between music and poetry. Nightingale kicked off their landmark series with the artistically respectable Adult Head, the first book of poems by indie rock hero Jeff Tweedy of the major-label-bucking alt-country band Wilco. According to the Zoo Press website—a tasteful and intelligent affair featuring quotations by Wallace Stevens (“They said, ‘You have a blue guitar / You do not play things as they are.’ / The man replied, ‘Things as they are / Are changed on a blue guitar.’”) and Ezra Pound (“Poets who will not study music are defective.”)—Nightingale Editions was “created to explore the relationship between song and word and explore both the literary possibility and literary merit of contemporary popular lyricists and their material on the page.” The website also points out that, “The Greeks referred to singers and poets with the same word after all, aoidos, long before the word poietes came along,” and explains further that books in the series “will range drastically between songs and original work by vocal recording artists—folks many consider to be the best poets going—monographs (that explore the relationship of song lyric and traditional lyric, language in popular or classical song, song lyrics and their place in and relationship to the culture at large) and, in some cases, critical biography and, perhaps, audio CD.”
Before I forge ahead in my own exploration of this fluidity between rock and poetry, I’d like to explain my decision to put the focus of this piece squarely on contemporary rockstar poets who are truly “indie,” as in largely independent of both the major labels of the mainstream music industry and the workshops and tenure-track positions of the academy. I will deal primarily with the contemporary collections of such independent—and, to an extent, “outsider”—artists as David Berman of the Silver Jews; Mike Doughty formerly of Soul Coughing, and now a solo performer; Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth; Damon Krukowski formerly of Galaxie 500 and presently of Damon & Naomi; and Jeff Tweedy of the aforementioned Wilco and the side project Loose Fur; as well as the purportedly indie Billy Corgan, formerly of the Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan. It is important that I do so because indie rock stars are the ones whose chosen art form and independent status most closely resemble poetry and its own relatively independent, outsider status within mainstream culture. I’ll include Patti Smith here, too, even though her books have appeared with W.W. Norton and HarperCollins, because, as a self-proclaimed “unfashionably unreconstructed ‘60s radical,” she too places herself firmly “outside of society” as she has sung in her lyrics.
In his book Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Robert Pinsky writes: “The art the poets practice has a special poignance in a society that emphasizes the idea of the individual in the very act of dreaming on an unprecedented mass scale [. . .] Poetry reflects [. . .] the American idea of individualism as it encounters the American experience of the mass—because the art of poetry by its nature operates on a level as profoundly individual as a human voice.” Pinsky’s emphasis on the power of a lone human voice points up the similarities between poetry and indie rock inasmuch as both art forms draw on the actual voice of a single person for their unique strength and personal appeal, whether this takes place on the page as written lyrics, or whether it is spoken or sung out loud. Pinsky continues:
Lyric poetry has been defined by the unity and concentration of a solitary voice—such as might be accompanied by the sound of a lyre, a harp small enough to be held in one hand. It is singular, if not solitary. […] The solitude of lyric, almost by the nature of human solitude and the human voice, invokes a social presence.
Thus, an Aerosmith concert in an enormous sports stadium, for example, will inevitably be a much more magisterial and distant affair than a solo acoustic performance by Mike Doughty (who, interestingly enough, coined the phrase “small rock” to define his current mode of performance, both to distinguish it from folk music and to emphasize its more personal scale at a tiny club. The image of a lone man with a lyre—or a guitar—is an old and iconic one, and while it is certainly romantic, it is also more easily trusted and respected by many people than louder, larger affairs. (The fact that this image is of a lone man and not a lone woman speaks to the relative dearth of prominent female indie rockers in general, and to the lack of prominent female indie rock poets in particular, but that could be the subject for another review entirely.)
Although the music and publishing industries—the major labels and houses, anyway—often operate under the one-size-fits-all presumption that bigger is always better—that it’s preferable to reach the largest possible audience instead of niche markets—both poetry and indie rock suggest that sometimes smaller is, in fact, what we really need and want. Pinsky poses two rhetorical questions: “Shouldn’t poetry be part of show business? Or even, why does poetry seem out of step with the entertainment industry?” Thankfully, he goes on to say these queries are “wrongheaded” for they ask “why poetry is not something other than itself.” He adds: “As part of the entertainment industry poetry will always be cute and small; as an art it is immense and fundamental.”
And here we arrive at the crux of the interconnectivity between poetry and indie rock: their shared potential to operate simultaneously within and outside of mainstream American culture, their ability to be simultaneously a part of and apart from that which is considered “popular,” and their ability to resonate, if given the chance, with virtually any and everyone on an individual scale. Burt writes, “Poets inspired by indie rock now find in it not just models for individual poems, but models for their (largely obscure) careers. These poets know that they won’t become celebs, or even earn much of a living at their work (except obliquely, through teaching): the obscurity of their new verse both mirrors, and alludes to, the acknowledged obscurity, and the sense of community, indie kids tried to create.”
I have spent a substantial amount of time exploring why poetry might crave rock and roll’s credentials; I now want to address why rock and roll might crave poetry’s attributes, and why indie rockers especially—even though their genre can and does share many poetic characteristics—would turn to poetry as a means of artistic and political expression. Burt wonders whether or not rock and roll, as perceived by poets, “can . . . ever represent anything except a youthful, innocent energy now dissipated or gone bad?” Conversely, I wonder whether or not rock and roll, as perceived by rock stars, can ever represent this energy at all. Finally, I would contend that in the specific cases of Smith, Berman, Doughty, Ranaldo, Krukowski, Tweedy, and Corgan, rock and roll—either because it has been corrupted by the marketplace or the music industry—no longer satisfies their need for uniquely personal, outsider, “indie” expression, whereas poetry does.
Indeed, perhaps because it has always been designed to appeal to a mass audience, rock has shown itself to be in far greater danger of blunting its artistic edge (Modest Mouse songs appearing in mini-van commercials and the like). Since rock has been co-opted by the commercial culture, poetry presents an appealing venue—one even more indie than indie rock—for indie rock stars to express themselves more durably, complexly, and politically. In the long poem “Birds of Iraq,” for instance, from her latest collection, The Auguries of Innocence, in which birds seem to represent her concern with the cruel and senseless destruction of beauty, Smith writes:
When you snap
a bird’s neck
turning in a jewel box
beneath a hammered lid.
We met in the spring house
enacted our play
slept in a tent of sheets
and dreamed of the desert.
Worth noting is that Smith is the only one of the poets discussed here who was actually a poet before she became a rockstar, and who has managed to carry on both careers simultaneously over a prolonged period of time. Her early poetry is more ragged and Beat, including tributes to William Burroughs, whereas her later writings are more rhythmically complex and attentive to form—as in debt to Sylvia Plath as her earlier work was to Rimbaud.
In any event, the rock expertise of these poets permits them to blur the lines between high and low culture, and to expand the definition of what a good poet is. Since neither Smith nor Berman, Tweedy nor Ranaldo, Krukowski nor Doughty, nor even Corgan are part of the academy—which is to say that poetry for them is not a “day job”—each of them has the opportunity to take greater risks in their work than might an institutionalized poet (operating under a publish-or-perish mindset, and therefore more beholden to imitate what’s perceived as publishable). Consequently, most of them—Corgan being the notable exception—write with refreshing humor, immediacy, and originality, incorporating comedy and zeitgeist into their poems with evident comfort and ease.
Just as Jean-Francois Lyotard observes in The Postmodern Condition, the era of Grand Narratives is over, so too is the era of Grand Poets (monolithic gatekeepers and arbiters of taste, such as T.S. Eliot or Yvor Winters)—a positive development for the broadest spectrum of poets and readers of poetry. Instead of having to love or leave the loudest voice in the room, readers and writers can wander off and find some other voice they’d rather listen to. This is not to say that everything is going to please all the people all the time, but rather that somewhere out there, if they are willing to look, virtually any would-be audience members will be able to find something that they like. Unlike during the high modern period, or throughout the better part of the 20th-century when various schools—imagist, confessional, surrealist, language and so on—dominated, now the field of poetic production is far more open.
There is no longer just one audience for poetry, or just one way to get into the art form, e.g. by being lucky enough not to hate the poems taught in your junior year high school English class. Now, readers can get into poetry on the radio, the internet, or at a rockshow or reading. Smith, for one, is a gifted reader and spoken word artist, and has been since the early 70s. She frequently reads poetry at her live performances, and even included one of her early works, “Babelogue”—in which she writes, “each bolt of wood, like a log of Helen, was my pleasure. i would measure the success of a night by the amount of piss and seed I could exude over the columns that nestled the P/A. some nights I’d surprise everybody by snapping on a skirt of green net sewed over with flat metallic circles which dazzled and flashed”—on track five of her landmark album Easter, before the anthemic “Rock n’ Roll Nigger” on track six.
As a result of such blending and blurring, poetry’s overall cultural importance increases in proportion to its diversity because it can talk not only to itself, but also to a wider array of readers. All this is not to say that there are no longer any gatekeepers, or that quality is somehow no longer being controlled. Rather, I mean that there are simply more gatekeepers and—this is the good part—more gates; subsequently, those gates intersect with the broader culture at a greater number of points.
The majority of these rockstar poets show us just how satisfying and artistically viable this new trend toward lower-case grand poets can be. Looking at their work, we discover how their unusual cultural positions allow them to accomplish with relative ease goals which can elude mainstream poets and rock stars. I’ll start by examining Actual Air, the brilliant and unusually hefty 93-page debut of David Berman, published by Open City Books in 1999. Berman, the lead singer of the Nashville-based alt-country band The Silver Jews, is among the most literarily “serious” of the poets in question, having attended the University of Virginia where he studied with Charles Wright for his undergraduate work, and UMass-Amherst where he studied with James Tate for his MFA. Moreover, Berman originally published a significant number of the poems in this collection in small journals, a traditional venue of literary legitimacy. His work tends to deal with America in all its kitschy glory, as when he writes in “From his Bed in the Capital City,” that
snapshots of Mom
with a kitchen table hill of cocaine
or the dog frozen in the attitude
of eating raw hamburger
get filed under ‘Misc. Americana’.
And although he, like any recipient of an MFA in poetry, has benefited from years of formal training in the discipline, his deft yet casual incorporation of comic detail, a dry, sardonic voice, and even product brand names prevents him from coming across as elitist. In “The New Idea,” for instance, he writes:
Our CEO is in Asia and the staff has gathered
in the boardroom for his televised conference call.
An inter-office newsletter is passed around
by a clerk I once caught pressing warm xerox copies
to his face and who later tried to shake my hand
in the men’s room. “The universe, she is a bitch,”
he said and I liked him for not knowing that men
characteristically shut down in restrooms.
In many respects, Berman is an avant-gardist, and like many avant-gardists, he manages to be political without being ideological. The last line of “Casette Country,” for example, is “anti-showmanship, anti-showmanship, anti-showmanship” thereby delivering a wry yet oblique comment on fame, and perhaps—if one is inclined toward such a reading—on the phenomenon of rock stars (consummate showmen) becoming poets. Here, as throughout the collection, Berman comments on the state of discourse in America, while conscientiously avoiding a coherent ideology. Similarly, in “The Charm of 5:30,” he writes,
There’s a shy looking guy on the courthouse steps, holding up a
placard that says ‘But, I kinda liked Reagan.’ His head turns slowly
as a beautiful girl walks by, holding a refrigerated water bottle up against
her flushed cheek.
Once again, Berman delivers a sweeping, evaluative statement about society, while simultaneously making sure his readers cannot extrapolate from it a unified worldview. This semi-sympathetic depiction of the bashful Reagan fan can be seen both as a joke at the expense of nostalgic Republicans, and as a swipe at the liberal arts-supporters who are typically poetry’s champions. By deliberately distancing himself from those groups most likely to claim him, Berman achieves precisely the kind of outsider status that permits him to simultaneously critique and be read by the widest possible audience.
Achieving a similar effect through markedly different means is rockstar poet Mike Doughty, formerly the lead singer of the band Soul Coughing, and the author of the 78-page collection Slanky. Doughty litters his debut book with pop-cultural references to everyone from Van Halen to Marky Mark to Cookie Monster, the latter of whom, in “Portraits in Show Business Number Three,” “burnt out and hateful of children, concocts a suicide plot under the auspices of televised entertainment.” Always skeptical, always judging, Doughty uses his poems to interrogate our attitudes towards infotainment and simulacra, as well as our increasing inability to determine what’s real and what’s unreal. His plentiful references to contemporary stars and showmen provide a poetic record of early 21st-century America, resulting in a book that bears unflinching witness to the ethos of the era. Doughty presents himself both as more of an outsider—from the academy, anyway, for he holds no MFA and releases his poetry through the stridently indie Brooklyn-based Soft Skull Press—and more ideological, for he has allied himself closely with such groups as MoveOn.org and has contributed to the decidedly leftist Future Dictionary of America.
Perhaps because of this lack of association with the professional poetry business, Doughty proves himself less concerned than other poets with making the political sound poetic, and more concerned with simply letting his commentary stand as commentary. In the prose poem “Portraits in Show Business Number One” for instance, he writes of Fran Tarkenton, who goes to sleep in hotel rooms on his lecture tours and is troubled by the “hell of the lives of the people” to such an extent that he “goes to the President, who is his friend,” until finally “the FBI has Fran Tarkenton killed, on television, and blames it on the President and a man they happened to employ as a bike messenger nine years ago [. . .] Because [. . .] The FBI does not want the people to get together and love one another.” Doughty employs similar critical techniques to even greater effect in “Brecht Said Fascism is Not the Opposite of Democracy but a Distortion of it in a Time of Crisis,” a tragi-comic allegory of American politics in which a little boy and his ant farm represent the thinly veiled despotic nature of the current administration, and the terrible havoc that can be wrought by childish, unjust, power-hungry, demagogical leaders. And while his poetry is frequently far more political and ideological than one might think an enjoyable collection could get away with being, Doughty makes Slanky a compelling read by combining some of the best qualities of poetry—its permanence and space for dissent—with rock and roll’s immediacy and boisterous, angry sense of humor.
Sonic Youth member Lee Ranaldo’s first poetry collection, Road Movies, originally published in 1994, was also issued by Soft Skull in 1997 in a revised, expanded edition. Like Doughty, Ranaldo alternates between free verse and prose poems, and frequently takes as his subject the tragi-comic interrogation of the American Dream. In “New Condo,” he writes:
got a new condo
got a microwave
and a fashion model
got a hot sock
and a ten foot flagpole
a new word/ for everything
now I’ll name names [… ]
full of thoughts
my new condo
is free of thoughts
it’s an incredible empty space
for me to fill
with beautiful bodies
and tasty drinks
36 inch TV’s
this door has three locks.
Here, as elsewhere in both this and his second collection, Lengths and Breaths, we hear Ranaldo reveling in sound, engaging the kind of wordplay that Gregory Orr defines as “music” in his seminal essay “The Four Temperaments.” Interestingly enough, Ranaldo and Smith are the only ones among these musician-poets to include rhyme consistently in their work, giving the reader the impression, at times, of the auditory pleasures of reading Dr. Seuss—as in “Leap,” when Ranaldo writes, “cross out any larger plans/keep out of vacant lots/beware the strong foundation / eat peaches and apricots”—but with a rock and roll edge—as when he concludes the poem with “it’s razor blade time / ten years of betrayal / shut me off / shut me out / shut me up.”
Ranaldo is a committed poet, and he and Smith are the only two writers discussed in this piece to have multiple full-length poetry collections to their names thus far. Unfortunately, sometimes, both of Renaldo’s collections veer toward cliché and slackness, as in “Oklahoma/In the Field” in Road Movies, for example, when he writes “I look back on my youth. The fields roll, the clouds roll across them. I can see for miles, there’s no one in sight” (43), and in “Poetry Reveals Itself” in Lengths and Breaths, when he declares
shapes out of shadows
This periodic reliance on tropes and overuse of short lines occasionally causes Ranaldo to come off as derivative, as too self-consciously adoptive of a latter-day Beat pose. That said, while I will never list Ranaldo as one of my favorite poets (as I certainly would Berman, and possibly Smith), I will say I enjoy reading him, for his work is—unlike a lot of what passes as Good Poetry today—always readable, always smart, and often mordantly witty. Taken as a whole, Ranaldo’s work, though hit or miss, argues tacitly, convincingly that not all poems need to look or operate in a way considered acceptable by mainstream editors, anthologists, or the academy.
The poetry of Damon Krukowski, on the other hand, while it yields a similar argument, hardly ever misses. In the interest of full-disclosure, I should confess that, although I listen to and enjoy the music of all the other artists reviewed here (even Corgan), I have never paid much attention to Galaxie 500, nor have I ever even heard, to my knowledge, Damon & Naomi or Magic Hour, Krukowski’s other musical projects. Thus, I didn’t know what to expect of his first and only full-length collection The Memory Theatre Burned. Reading it, however, I wanted to get my hands on both the chapbook, 5000 Musical Terms, which preceded it, and the back catalogues of all his band’s records. Divided into two sections, “The Memory Theatre Burned” and “Vexations,” Krukowski’s book of prose poems unfolds its fables in the spare, simple language of allegory, trying to reveal essential human truths, while buckling continually, absurdly, deliberately under the weight of such a task.
In “The Envelope,” for instance, he writes ingeniously of the genesis of this familiar household item, while at the same time exploring issues of audience and the compulsion to write:
The envelope was an unprecedented invention; for in those days nothing was hidden from view, the occult was as yet unborn, even metaphors of obstruction and enclosure were unknown. It is true that people wore clothes, but they did not carry wallets—and the letters they wrote were transported by hand, out in the open, from place to place.
Meanwhile, “The Secret Museum” begins with an imaginative leap that illustrates the seemingly effortless dream logic that underlies many of his poems: “The horn on the Victrola looked inviting, so I jumped inside.” This fabulistic tone, this recounting of fantastic tales in a strange, yet matter-of-fact fashion puts one in mind of Calvino’s classic Invisible Cities, yet The Memory Theater Burned never seems overly derivative of any of its antecedents, and stands as a funny, meditative, critical and original work in its own right.
While not nearly as political in approach as Doughty or Ranaldo, or even as obliquely political as Berman or Krukowski, Jeff Tweedy, frontman of the band Wilco, seems also to have turned to poetry because of its capacity to support utterances which rock simply cannot. Occasionally, Tweedy does comment plainly on vulgar consumerism and its deformation of the American Dream, as in “Christmas, 1978, Later” wherein he writes:
paper piles up Christmas on the carpet
glossed printed rolled cut folded taped fingerprinted
torn rippled ripped smashed fisted into balls
thereby describing the waste and superficiality of the holiday. He also includes a point of protest in “War is Coming,” which starts:
to be near you soon
I can see the stretchers from a Hilton in Adelaide
tiny teeth closing
on the horizon
More interesting than his rare direct political utterances, though, is the way Tweedy emphasizes his simultaneous allegiance to poetry and music both within his debut collection Adult Head, in the form of poems that re-configure and reinterpret lyrics from already released songs, and without, in the form of blurbs from both renowned poet David St. John and (like Krukowski) Sonic Youth founder Thurston Moore.
Unlike Doughty and Corgan, but like Berman, Krukowski and Ranaldo, many of Tweedy’s poems have been published in small journals prior to their collection in Adult Head, a gesture that bespeaks a thoughtful display of serious literary intent and a bid at legitimacy. Perhaps because he is arguably the most famous rock star of the rockstar poets, Tweedy seems the most concerned with proving he’s no dilettante. As if to defuse the almost inevitable criticism attendant upon the publication of any celebrity poetry collection, Tweedy writes in “Another Great Thing,” that
the best way
to feel your blood
is to lie
tell bold lies
He knows that a typical audience of degreed poetry experts might see his poetic endeavor as a lie; by acknowledging this fact, he removes the sting from potential insults, and demonstrates his honesty, sincerity, and earnest desire and worthiness to be considered a legitimate writer. Additionally, he provides us with insight into the thrill of the task he’s undertaken—the weird scariness and the stagefright a rock star faces when trying to embark on a poet’s career. Tweedy also exhibits an admirable recognition of literary standards; by calling into question his own abilities, Tweedy forces us to re-assess our own attitudes and prejudices concerning what a good poetry looks like.
I only wish I could say the same for former Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, whose execrable first (and, one fervently hopes, only) collection blinking with fists was inexplicably and undeservingly brought out last year by the established and allegedly respectable literary publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In his poem about talent, taste, and artistic distinction, “Whose Music,” Mike Doughty writes about a man “who lives in absolute terror of a saxophone he has kept under his bed for four years” because:
he couldn’t face it unashamed, so he put it under the bed and learned to play sociology, the jewel of all musical instruments. This all had something to do with the difference between fingerpainting and Jackson Pollock or Motherwell, or when a man plays stupid noise he finds attractive on a violin he can’t play, as opposed to the man who can play etudes but chooses to screech. The joy, the redemptive power of the horn he felt unentitled to.
One wishes that Corgan had read and taken this piece to heart, for he is decidedly a fingerpainter who fancies himself a Pollock, arguably unentitled to—and worse yet, ignorant of—the redemptive power of poetry. binking with fists opens with a poem, “the poetry of my heart,” which rapidly establishes Corgan as a steady producer of the type of work no self-respecting high school literary magazine in America would deign to publish:
A single bulb lights this room
It’s dark in here all the time
If the ceiling had only captured my dreams and nightmares alike
what stories it could show.
She is here, the one
The one I love, desire, devise, rescue, all to my heart’s own sorrow
I’m lost in this room, but this is the place the valentines are written
The site of my greatest thought and saddest song
There are no birds here to take flight, no islands to reach
No sun to catch me crying
This is the gift of oblivion and opaque dance
The rest of the collection, believe it or not, goes swiftly downhill from there. Not content to include just one reference to “oblivion,” Corgan allows the word to crop up like ugly, inscrutable knotted weeds throughout the book, which includes an entire poem entitled “portrait of oblivion.” The first stanza points up his silly insistence on using archaic, self-consciously poetic diction and tortured syntax, as well as his maddeningly literal use of clichés: “I paint this portrait of oblivion / To amuse and diffuse mine enemy / To incite anarchy in thy heart.”
Unlike his fellow rockstar poets, Corgan does not use poetry to say things he can’t say in his music, but rather he takes advantage of poetry to say things he shouldn’t say in his music. Not merely as bad, but blatantly irresponsible, both politically and artistically, Corgan’s book demeans him, FSG, and poetry as a whole. The already abysmal quality of his writing appears to sink even lower when one considers that Corgan is, on FSG’s list, in the estimable company of Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Paul Muldoon, Bill Knott, and John Ashbery, not to mention Rilke, Lowell, Lorca, Bishop, and Brodsky.
In poems more self-absorbed and self-satisfied than any of the worst poetry produced by the most callow MFA students or creative writing undergrads, Corgan illustrates that his work is incapable of being smart, edgy, or remotely rock-and-roll. He resorts endlessly to the use of the word “heart,” for instance, and produces such couplets as “The most eternal sun-drenched kiss is locked in my mind / as something I won’t miss,” proving he has virtually nothing to say. And while most other rockstar poets take themselves less seriously than many mainstream ones, employing humor as a weapon for their critique, the final couplet of Corgan’s turgid love poem “li-lo, li-lo”—“So cry no tears of missing out / Cry for those who go without”—shows that Corgan is capable only of unintentional comedy. Unlike Berman, Tweedy, Doughty, Ranaldo, Krukowski, and Smith—who all seem as though they read other poets, and who evidently respect, enjoy, and immerse themselves in the art—Corgan appears to write his work hermetically, never reading anyone but himself. His completely straight-faced poem “barbarians,” makes no nod to Cavafy, while his poem “a rose I suppose,” makes no allusion to Gertrude Stein, and betrays no hint that he even knows who she is. On the rare occasion that Corgan does produce a line that could be construed as dissenting—in “barbarians” for instance, where he writes “okay, I think I understand / rebellion is a chore” or in the poem “taos” in which he writes “‘America is my place’ / a place to ponder and plunder’” —the utterance is so cloaked in opacity and wrapped in such a sellout package that it is impossible to tell what he’s really getting at.
When I began this piece, I planned to lament the fact that, despite being the least talented of the rockstar poets publishing in America today (and perhaps one of the least talented poets publishing period), Billy Corgan nevertheless received the biggest book deal with the most prominent publishing house. Now, in closing, I’ll offer it as a negative example in support of my argument: Corgan’s collection fails largely because it rejects the shared strengths of both poetry and indie rock—personal idiosyncrasy, smallness of scale, and a careful distance from mainstream culture—in favor of a smug, rote, easily recognizable simulacrum of the real thing. This strategy often produces blockbuster hits in the music business; in the more intimate realm of poetry, it will fool no one for very long. Corgan’s collection is bad for exactly the reasons that the poetry-resistant mainstream culture thinks all poetry is bad.
It is actually perversely pleasing to report that Corgan has joined with FSG in their transparently money-grubbing endeavor, while Berman, Doughty, Ranaldo, Krukowski, and Tweedy are allied by contrast with Open City, Soft Skull, and Zoo Press, respectively. Smith, meanwhile, although her work is put out with larger, non-independent presses, maintains an independence of spirit in her work itself, thereby serving as the exception that proves the rule. For in being published and distributed by these smaller, yet no less powerful presses, Berman, Doughty, Ranaldo, Krukowski and Tweedy stake their claims to an independent space from which they may speak critically and movingly; in other words, they, unlike Corgan, do not take themselves too seriously, yet they take poetry as an art form very seriously indeed. In doing so, they remain true to the best elements of both their outsider, indie rock roots, and the poetic tradition that, as Pinsky says, “links it to the democratic idea of individual dignity.[/private]