Saturday, September 23, 2006


So we've finally gotten around to getting that Netflix membership & plunging into the world of grownup movies. By some odd chance, the first two things that came up have been fanciful writer-biopics starring Johnny Depp, The Libertine (2005) & Finding Neverland (2004). Don't worry, I'm not gonna start blogging films, beyond a series of grunts indicating "enjoyed it" or "it sucked" – I've gone quite far enough in demonstrating my cultural ignorance in other areas, thank you.

But idly Wikipedia-ing Johnny Depp (who seems to have turned into a real live actor in all those years since I first saw him glomming wistfully about in Edward Scissorhands), I got really depressed to learn that he's actually older than me. Well – I can't do anything about the baldness or the lack of fine bone structure, but golly I've got to start dieting & working out...
On one of those link-hopping stretches (avoiding work again, of course) I follow John Latta to Jordan Davis to fetch up upon a couple of interesting essays on one of my fave bands, Gang of Four. Timothy Sexton's "Gang of Four and Pop Music as Marxist Critical Theory: A Market of the Senses" is pretty heavy-duty cultural criticism; Scott McLemee's "Entertainment!" responds. The short version? Sexton: GoF Althusserians; McLemee: GoF Debordian Situationists. (Suspect he's been reading Greil Marcus...) Stay tuned for my own thoughtful assesment.

Anyway, Jordan D. two bits' worth runs like this:
With this kind of work -- I'm thinking now also of the Canadian poets Rod Mengham, Rod Smith, and Rodrigo Toscano -- the measure of the experience is not whether you can integrate their critique into a consistent theory, the measure is how memorable are their zingers.
Not entirely sure whether JD means by "this kind of work" "critical essays on Leftist 80s bands" or "Gang of Four & their ilk" (must be the latter). To which John L responds, with fascinating reference back to what sounds like some really lively readings by (of all people) Donald Hall back in the day:
Admittedly, tone is difficult to determine here, and maybe the remark is simply cheeky . . . If not, though, I got questions. Is an assault (or a sprinkling) of one-liners enough? (Is entertainment enough?) (A “zinger” entertains without instructing—meaning it’s unlikely to point to any coherent critique, or convince the unconvinced.) Is the “zinger”-style (call it Rod-kunstwerke) a direct result of performance-anxiety? (That is, writing written for reading, for “getting out the laugh.”) (One writes differently for the known audience.) (In places of thriving “community” or “scene,” most reading-audiences are (mostly) known.) Is the criticism leveled at the supposed showmanship of a Billy Collins inapplicable to the modèle zingeresque of the Rods? (Is the difference an innocuous-inane humor versus a fierce, pointed humor?) (A humor longing to be dangerous?) (Is showmanship (what I loosely term “showmanship”) a form insusceptible to any too-dangerous content?) (Do you think one could laugh oneself through a revolutionary change?)
My experience of the often painful business of poetry readings is that the one-liner plays a pretty big role in most all flavors of contemporary poetry. Charles Bernstein one grand example, a fellow who's written whole poems based around Henny Youngmanesque one-liners, but most of his compadres in the "experimental" scene write a lot less funny (except of course Bruce Andrews & the Flarfistas). Indeed, back in the day when I had poetry readings I really wanted to go to (the unending stream of cool things Rod Smith was hosting in DC, specifically), I found myself sitting thru a lot of performances where the only – the only – signs of response in the audience (sitting with bitten lips & knitted brows, often very Rodinesque) came when a one-liner broke the ice of seemingly endless scrolling parataxis. And this from poets whom I often found interesting & even compelling on the page.

Mibby I generalize from a period style & coterie method – call it the "Roof Books" mode – but yes, by God, I found that the "mainstream" writers – perhaps because they were getting paid more, perhaps because a larger chunk of their livelihood depended on performance, certainly because their work was more immediately accessible – were able to play on a much wider range of emotions in their audiences. (Tho I can't tell you how many times I looked up a poem that had sounded just grand only to find it stale flat & unprofitable.)

I want – oh how I want – to laugh myself through a revolutionary change.


Amy said...

Don't feel bad. I'm the exact same age as Angelina Jolie.

Once, Michael Heffernan, the brilliant and charming but entirely mad poet of the U of Arkansas, gave a reading at the tiny bookstore his girlfriend owned. Brian and I refused to go, because his girlfriend told us she doesn't stock books by black people - and she whispered "black" like it's a dirty word. Most of the small, "intimate" let's say, audience who attended were his MFA students. And Michael was "off his meds" as they used to say. (I'm not sure it was really a meds thing... I think he just had good days and bad days...) Anyway, two hours and forty-five minutes later, he finally stopped, which means at least a full two hours of his students wondering if they could get up and leave without a recriminating knock at the door at 4am (they could not), and I don't think there were many jokes in there, either. (Never has a protest against racism paid off so well.) ;-)

Brian said...

(Tho I can't tell you how many times I looked up a poem that had sounded just grand only to find it stale flat & unprofitable.)

I'm sure it'll come as no surprise to hear that this is precisely what happens at a Billy Collins reading. While at Stanford, I got to meet him, and he's just like he sounds--self-deprecatingly funny and charming, and he's so good at his schtick that during a reading, the audience audibly sighs when he reaches his epiphanic moment in the poem. It's fascinating to watch, especially since he packed two houses--one for the med school and one for the English dept.

But get past the schtick, and the poetry's pretty empty.