The Contamination of Kitsch (pt 1): Leong on Dean Young

by on Jun.01, 2011

Over at Big Other there is an interesting discussion about pop culture.

It began when Michael Leong noted how in the NY Times review of the latest Dean Young book, the reviewer presented poetry as necessarily opposed to the contamination of mass culture. He even quotes Andreas Huyssen’s After the Great Divide, a book I’ve often quoted:

In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (1986), Andreas Huyssen has famously argued that, since at least Courbet, “there has been a plethora of strategic moves tending to destabilize the high/low opposition from within” yet “these attempts have never had lasting effects”; rather, such attempts “seem to have provided, for a host of different reasons, new strength and vitality to the old dichotomy.” Huyssen continues, “[t]o argue that this simply has to do with the inherent ‘quality’ of the one and the depravations of the other—correct as it may be in the case of many specific works—is to perpetuate the time-worn strategy of exclusion; it is itself a sign of the anxiety of contamination.” Jennings’ easy dismissal of the depravities of cinematic pirates, vampires, and cyber-hackers is particularly surprising in light of the first author he treats: Dean Young.

The problem with quoting Dean Young as part of this argument, according to Michael, is that Dean Young is constantly referencing pop culture (and he’s also a very popular poet). Though on the whole, I think Young is not so entirely opposed to the high/low divide as he may at first seem: as Michael notes in the comment section, Young usually uses pop culture as a way to contrast with/create a sense of interiority and depth of the “poetic” space. In this he’s not all that different from Billy Collins (whose work I wrote about a while back). But it’s a complex issue no doubt.

In the comment section, Paula made an important argument:

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?

My answer to this question is very simple: When I analyze the way contemporary poets erect high/low divide, it’s not to say that I like Law and Order as much as I like The Dreamsongs, it’s to point out what is implied in this rhetoric. Of course Law and Order is different from The Dreamsongs, but so is Monet’s Waterlilies and Andy Warhol’s Elvises or even Robert Lowell’s black kids floating in bubbles. Why is it important to make one high and one low? Why not say: these are two different art works?

The high becomes the bearer of authenticity, greatness, Taste, while the other becomes imitative, cheap, a reproduction. More importantly, “high art” is genuine because it is difficult (you need to have gone to school to have achieved the proper Taste to understand it); while kitsch is fake because it’s seductive, visceral. As in Leong’s analysis of Young, the high becomes the producer of “interiority” and “human=ness” while the “low” becomes an icon of surface and shallowness.

There are all kinds of problems that go along with this divide (black people and their culture become kitsch, foreigners are kitsch, translation is kitsch etc): but the key is I think that high/low is used to create a cultural elite. (Which plays perfectly into the very idiotic anti-elitist, anti-art rhetoric of the right.) And also to maintain a kind of purity of Poetry as a discipline.

AD Jameson has a post on Big Other today trying to show how permeable these boundaries are. Among other things he points out that a lot of people love Plath, including teenage girls, those most kitschy of demographics. But I would add: that’s in part why she’s so declasse in the academy, because if you subscribe to a high/low divide, you can’t actually be popular (or in a strange turn on the avant-garde model, you are always of the future, bound to be popular when people learn to understand your greatness).

In the academics discussion about poetry, the popular will never be the cool poetry exactly because popularity ruins “high” culture.

More about this tomorrow when I’ll write more about anti-kitsch rhetoric in Marjorie Perloff’s writings (most paradoxically in her book on “the uncreative genius” who as it turns out is just a genius afterall).

3 comments for this entry:
  1. A D Jameson

    I agree with your overall point, Johannes. But I must clarify that I didn’t say anything about teenage girls in my original post; I wrote: “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!”


  2. Johannes

    Adam, yes, that was my little addition. I’m all in favor of the teenage girl. And Plath.


  3. Michael Leong

    The point that the “high/low is used to create a cultural elite” is really worth making, Johannes. Related to this — I really like Michael North’s work about how Pound and Eliot appropriate blackface and minstrelsy — such appropriation bolsters their avant-garde credentials against the literary establishment while at the same time relegates black culture to kitsch.

    I’ll be looking forward to your comments about the new Perloff book — I’ve read decent chunks of it but not quite the whole thing. So far, I find it unsatisfying, but hadn’t considered it through the lens of high/low and kitsch. I do remember that she thoroughly trounces Sina Queyras’ book Expressway in favor of, of course, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day. It would be interesting to think through the politics of appropriation in this case, and I’m wondering if the “middlebrow” (represented by The New York Times), for Goldsmith, took the place of kitsch as the new site of cultural mimicry.