Thursday, March 31, 2005


So, under recommendation of my friend Sam, I’m attempting the NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) challenge: pretty much it’s to write and post a poem a day during April, National Poetry Month. I guess I post April 1st at midnight? Bring it!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Three Poems

Three poems I rediscovered today at work:

"Ave Maria*" by Frank O'Hara
"The Boiling Water*" by Kenneth Koch
"The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martins Ferry, Ohio" by James Wright

*I feel like I'm cheating on the Academy by having a link to Sigh.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Paisley's sweater (the saga continues).

So my friends Ed and Mario were in town from Gainesville (Ed's birthday was the 16th) and while they were here I took a day off from working at the Academy (of American Poets) to walk them around the city.

Finally I found a sweater for Paisley at the pet store Nico and I go to... Finally a sweater that wouldn't be too big or look like a big t-shirt... and of course I got it home and put it on her to see and it was too small. She looked like a little go-go boy, which I just can't have. I'm not that gay.

I have been underestimating her size. She just grows too fast.

So it looks like I got my hopes up for nothing--though I also found a little red hoodie near Eatery where I was meeting Nico for our anniversary dinner (3!). I thought it wouldn't fit her, but it probably will... I hope it hasn't been snatched up.

By the time I find a good sweater for her, it will be too warm and I'll be looking for a little pup bikini instead.

Not really.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Pop Art & Democracy

I was watching Mean Girls — a pop movie I actually admire even if I’m often disconcerted with pop culture — and was noticing for the first time just how much make-up the girls are wearing… If a woman were wearing that much while at work or walking down the street, it would be considered distasteful. Yet in this movie girls in high school and adults well beyond their prime are both wearing near-masks of the stuff, heavy blush, and very heavy eye make up as if they were those models seducing us from the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine.

And it isn’t that they’re being made humorous by it. Something about the pop form makes their effort register only subconsciously to the audience. If Lindsay Lohan were lifted from the film and placed in any of this year’s “best” movies, she would look ridiculous. Instead, the world is set up in a certain way so that the audience doesn’t think twice.

The history of “high art” seems to me based on the fundamental truth that artists had to placate aristocrats for survival and recognition. I am not an art history or classics scholar, so correct me if I’m wrong, but most if not every successful artist of classical times had royal families or wealthy benefactors supporting their art. The best art, or at least the most “successful” art, the pieces we remember and celebrate, were made with a relatively cultured few in mind.

Today, however, we have pop art that placates the masses. Freedom and democracy have led to a system in which high art has financial limitations while the entertainment arts are well financed. While this saddens a person like me who believes high art to be an important factor of a culture’s quality of living and the gauge by which people will someday judge our civilization, I have to say that I have no problem with this system. It's only fair. The people are choosing and funding the art they want, through book sales, ticket sales, CD sales, and Internet hits which equal advertising dollars, all of which leads to the production of more art to satisfy mass taste.

Mass taste by definition has to be of a certain quality, which I don’t believe is necessarily a lesser quality. Masses have taste, only varied taste. Mass art does not satisfy a few specifically but large numbers of people at once through manipulations of form and reliance on expectation. It should not be the fact of mass appeal that lessens a work’s integrity. A film like Mean Girls is a worthwhile piece because of how it intelligently parodies the genre of the high school film while relying on expectations and formula so that plot and character can reveal themselves quickly. The tightrope walk is a feat in itself. Most importantly, it does so without the film’s intelligence and attention to detail being obvious to the audience. A well-made pop piece has the creator do the work for the audience while high art challenges and forces the audience toward specific responses.

This means a number of things for art in general. High art is more obviously intellectual, or at least requires more intellectual work on the part of the viewer, reader, etc., and is therefore intended for a smaller audience. An artist’s expectation for an audience to do work is limiting by definition: to appreciate a piece that attempts to further a form requires fluent knowledge of the histories as well as current movements involving the form. Artists aren’t always meaning to limit their audience for the sake of elitism (though it of course happens). Instead, the intention is to create new works that are truly new, original, and challenging. Artists are thought to be the implied audience of much art, because we are the ones who spend so much time studying, practicing, and questioning the arts.

The effect external to this exchange is the connotation associated with such arts. High art is seen as exclusive because it is. Pop art is seen as more satisfying because it satisfies more people more often.

There will always be art that wishes to distinguish itself from both high art and pop art, dodging negative connotation and placating both sides of a theoretical fence, but this solution is too easy. One merely has to make a piece digestible and satisfying while either avoiding pop clichés and formulas or using them for some new affect. Only a certain amount of creativity is required, and the creator still benefits from the rewards of mass ingestion, be it financial or the simple fact of actually having a wide enough audience to feel that the work was actually made public. The problem is that, as refreshing as it is to see a somewhat-challenging film do well at the box office, an interesting song make it to the radio or even up the charts, or a novel that defies classification make the bestseller list, these cannot fulfill our culture’s need for work that challenges us beyond marketable ability. Our culture, after all, has needs separate from any individual’s.

This is why I think it is problematic to see art as either for us or them, to evaluate work by categorizing its intention and response. Instead, it is important to be aware of all of our possibilities. Celebrate pop art and pop culture enough to know the difference. (Put that on a pillow!) Admit how difficult is to make entertainment that entertains and see high art for what it is on the same spectrum. The films shot without witty script of heavy make-up are available as well. It is up to those who require alternative works to fund and celebrate such works’ existence.

Most importantly, those artists who wish to be at the frontier of their particular art form cannot do so without setting standards for themselves as to what constitutes easy solutions. A friend was explaining to me how the wonderful film Dancer in the Dark came to be, how a group of filmmakers challenged themselves to make films with only literal, diagetic sound, for example — a response to the manipulative use of emotional music in films. I was moved by their choice and would love for such goals to cross over into poetry.

Why shouldn’t I set for myself standards of what not to do in my poems? Why shouldn’t I forbid myself to allow easy solutions in my work? At least not for work I intend to be at that far end of the spectrum.

Allow me to pose a theoretical list:
- No more personal narrative. What was once startling and necessary is now over-used and self-satisfying. Let’s see if we can.
- No novelistic turns at the end of a poem. So satisfying. I love them dearly, but if the point of the poem is to come to a conclusion, the conclusion takes up too much of what the poem is.
- No relying on forms that were once original and put to good use that are now incorrectly assessed by influent masses as high art regardless of quality. After all, as lovely as a sonnet or pantoum can be, the history of the form is doing as much work for the poem as the poem itself is.
- No relying on celebrity. How this effects poetry is up for discussion. I have passionate beliefs about the role of the author’s biography in a work. At once, authors and readers should challenge the work the biography does and celebrate the relationship between given information and each specific text.
- No relying on either the organic process to mean more than it does or for the deconstruction of the process to mean more either. Meaning: let the process of each poem be individual to the piece and for good reason.

Of course I found myself arguing with each point. Of course each has its exceptions and misunderstandings. The poet’s toolbox varies from poet to poet. These may be my own limitations based on my own intuitions about what is easy or contrived. Though I do welcome anyone to suggest amendments. I would be fascinated to know what other poets see corrupting the possibility of new poetry.

None of this is to say that all work should be challenging what poetry currently is. If all of a poet’s work is experimental, there isn’t the possibility of refining and celebrating poetics as they are. Somebody’s grandma is saying right now: If we are always looking to the future, what can we take from the present? And she is a wise, wise grandma.

Also, none of this is meant to be read as discouraging those interested in the hilarious notion of a popular poetry, a people’s poetry existing on the page (we all know it exists elsewhere, in other forms). I believe poetry should still be written with masses in mind from time to time, am proud of the fact that a young person just beginning to read poetry will email me now and then to thank me for helping them to love poetry. I would hate to come to never enjoy hearing such a thing, though I know there are academics that strive to only be enjoyed by other scholars. I want to write both if I can, and not only for financial freedom.

The true dream is of course to write work that can do both at once; though I am never convinced such work exists or can.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Webster said BLOG, and it was so

This morning, when I got out of the shower, Nico told me that there was a news story about how Webster recently added new words to the dictionary, "blog" among them. After meaning to "get with it" for a while... I took it as a sign (though I don't believe in signs) to start one up.

In case you are wondering, the other words were wedgie, Al Qaeda, cargo pants, irritable bowel syndrome and partial-birth abortion. I will not be taking any of the rest of the list as a sign. I certainly won't buy any cargo pants in the near future.