Is Poetry a Popular Culture?

by on Feb.20, 2013

I think it’s fair to say that in our culture – the wider culture of newspapers and films but also academic discussions etc – poetry has come to exemplify the opposite of a Popular Culture. The movies are for everyone, poetry is for the select few. The movies feel good about this because it makes them – despite the very hierarchical arrangement and huge amounts needed to make them as opposed to the fairly cheap cost of making say an Internet zine of poetry – feel democratic; it seems to make a lot of poetry people feel good because it makes them feel exclusive, like they have Taste. Or it makes the poets feel moralistic (whether Quietist or Experimental this seems true); they are not part of the spectacularity of the Culture Industry, the immorality of kitsch etc.

Similarly, some scholars like to study “popular culture” in opposition to an elitist “high culture.” It’s part of a democratic gesture.

Bridging these worlds seem to cause a strange amount of consternation. It’s totally accepted to be a scholar of mass culture; and it’s accepted to be a scholar of high culture. But very seldom do they seem to be read together.

A couple of days ago, Steve Fredman led an interesting discussion of Laurie Anderson’s “Strange Angels” as part of our poetics study group here at Notre Dame (drawing connections to Win Wenders, Benjamin, Fassbinder etc). A couple the professors objected to what they saw as the banality and kitsch of Anderson’s lyrics and her music. After some discussion it came down to: Was she aware that she was using banal language? Was it a parody? Could it be seen as a critique? IF so, she was justified. If so, she did not challenge their notion of Taste (that’s my reading of the situation, not their’s obviously.).I argued, that No, her work did not have that kind of critical distance.

But I kept wondering what threatened them so much about this work, what made them so defensive. Was it not the problematic “hipster” quality of Anderson: she was following a different “taste” than theirs – one that included pop music, dancing, fashion etc.

A few days ago, we had a Latino/a culture scholar named William Orchard here; he gave a fascinating talk about a kind of negative aesthetics in ASCO (obviously I was excited since I’ve written and thought about them so much recently) and one of the Hernandez brothers who drew Love and Rockets in the 90s (I can’t remember which is which, it was the one who drew the plot centered on the chesty woman in Palomar, that was always my favorite strain of the comic). And in one seeming throw-away moment, Orchard said something about wanting to bring the “popular culture” work of Hernandez into the academy without turning it into a symptomatic kind of study of cultural studies and without turning it into literary studies, but maintaining some of the hermeneutics into which it was conceived. Interestingly, he did this while quoting Melanie Klein’s “Bad Objects” (wonderfully). Of course Asco’s art was full of references not just to Surrealism (they called themselves “el camino Surrealists,” but as I’ve argued before Surrealism is already kitsch, already pop culture in a way that really interests me) and high culture, but also to telenovelas and day of the dead costumes etc.


In his book Looking Awry, Zizek uses “mass culture” to talk about Lacan (supposedly high culture). Well, he does this a lot. But in this book, in the preface he says somethign interesting. He begins by talking about how pop culture makes for good examples to use to discuss Lacan and then he says:

“On the other hand, it is clear that Lacanian theory serves as na excuse for indulging in the idiotic enjoyment of popular culture. Lacan himself is used to legitimize the delirious race from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to King’s Pet Sematary…”

Of course his book shows that this idiotic enjoyment is in fact quite complex… But I don’t want to say “complex”, I want that word to also be idiotic. I wonder what would happen if we could read poetry and popular culture together? Can we read poetry for its complexly idiotic enjoyment? Can we read poetry as popular culture?

One case study for such a reading might actually be the culture I came out of – the Swedish pop culture of the 1980s, which as I’ve noted in the past was full of cross-over aesthetics. The top band Imperiet was very decadent and self-consciously literary (influenced hugely by poet Bruno K Oijer, and even putting one of his short poems to music) (notably they started out as a punk band and another huge influence is obviously Iggy Pop, whose bodily movements and vocal stylings Thastrom obviously modeled himself on); the Danish superstar poet Michael Strunge dedicated his first book to David Bowie and wrote homages to Ian Curtis of Joy Division; one book from this era had an homage to Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” (can’t remember which one, it was one of the Malmö poets, but I always teach that song too in my poetry writing classes); and later in the 1990s, Aase Berg makes Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre one of the “characters” (or figures at least) in her book Dark Matter.

“I’m an Idiot”:

I think of this example for totally narcissistic reasons: that is how I ended up writing poetry; it was the “idiotic enjoyment” of this highly stylized moment in art which melded popular and “high art”. And I think this is probably when a lot of other folks got their start writing poetry. But I also remember going to college and figuring out that the way I was reading and writing was utterly tasteless, kitsch, too much, not “complex” etc. And I stopped writing for a while (actually until I happened on Aase’s work, which re-inspired me and that’s why I’ve spent years of my life translating it).

I always used to say that I wrote poetry that I thought Robert Johnson would like…

But aside from my own personal idiotic enjoyment, what do the rest of you think about the relationship of poetry to popular culture?

On some level, I think that was what Chris Higgs tried to get at with a recent post on HTML Giant when he rejected “interpretation.” I don’t believe that interpretation is anathema to “idiotic enjoyment” (see Zizek), but Higgs’ post comes from a desire to write about art in a more tactile way. What I think he is trying to get at is the necessary rejection of the kind of critical distance that has remained so important to the academic taste of poetry. I don’t know, What do you guys think about this relationship?

11 comments for this entry:
  1. Carina


    1) Poetry is a popular culture inside/outside of THE popular culture. As an external structure, it’s self-governing and self-selecting in a Mean Girls sort of way; it’s not hard to draw a comparison between the sociopolitical landscape of contemporary poetry, especially American poetry, and most teen dramedies. As an internal structure, it’s functioning as a highbrow microcosm of the concerns of the populace, coding language so that it becomes both a shibboleth and a useless object — I could go on, but really just refer back to Tiffany’s Toy Medium at this point.

    2) I like the way Zizek wraps himself around Lacan, sort of defining “pop” by its perceived antithesis. But really, Lacan is trying to be pop, trying to cater to an average which does not exist, so must be created in the form of an ideally-flawed ideal. The theory invents its own busted subject that it can constantly re-construct.

    2a) “Lacanian theory must be understood as a sort of ‘slave morality'” — Judith Butler

    3) Is engaging in any kind of culture an act of slavishness? Is anarchy an alternative to slavishness or merely a different stroke of the same?

    4) The punk who says “screw it all” is still screwing Pop and therefore a slave to it. An addiction to denial is still an addiction.

  2. Daniel Tiffany

    Let’s just say, if we lived in the mid-eighteenth century–or even today–the true opposition is not between elite and popular cultures but between “literature” (the super-genre of middling, bourgeois tastes) and an unspeakable alliance between elite and popular cultures. Then the dichotomy becomes: poetry (with popular culture) vs. literature.

  3. Johannes

    I was thinking of you the other day during the Laurie Anderson discussion. When is your book on kitsch going to be published? I tried to explain it during our discussion but then I’m like, well it hasn’t been published… / Johannes

  4. Kim

    i think a lot of poetry is just about concealment, because it is so embarrassing, propless, and that act of concealment, or muteness, is hailed as some complex crafty last stand for Over-art, that it shall withstand the corruption of pop flat too-much-ness. i much prefer lately music as expression because it allows for costumage and performance, just the act of assuming non-personhood, as a band, even if you’re just one person, is kind of freeing, masks you can acquire and take on and off as you please, doodle in a variety of styles and not have to furnish some fucking voice. it’s like that kid who owns the bucket and shovel and will only let you play if you make him king

    not to say most of the pop that’s any popular is pretty moralistic and dull

    anyway, great post!

  5. Matt

    I think it’s really important to consider the idea of pop culture in the context of reward. What comprises pop culture these days (commercial movies, Top 40 pop music) is associated largely with big payouts for those involved with them. There’s a huge matrix of causes that lead millions of people to care about the next blockbuster, but a lot of it is tied to escapism and fantasy: If only I could be a movie star, be adored, be rich. The imagined rewards gestate internally and are expressed with the purchase of a ticket. Of course, this structure is reversing the price mechanism: high demand for movies is why movie stars get paid so much. But it’s a sort of feedback loop, too. Wealth allows the acting out of fantasy (assuming fantasy is tied to consumption and luxury, which in the US it is). Movie stars literalize their personae; the masks meld with their faces.

    Poetry, on the other hand, along with other written forms, used to be a medium for realizing fantasy. Poets were movie stars. (Or maybe this is hindsight getting the better of me, and poetry was always hermetic and enclosed?) Now, though, with little external reward attached to producing poems except the praise of peers, it lacks the element of audience fantasy to become a part of pop culture.

  6. rRoss Sélavy

    @Kim – I really like a lot of the terminology you use, especially “Over-art”, that is a really good term. And I keep mis-reading “flat too-much-ness” as “too-much-flatness”.
    It’s interesting that you bring up music as something that “allows for costumage and performance” – in popular music, at least in the anglophone world, I see a lot of resistance to that (though there are notable exceptions). The idea of rock music seems really invested in a kind of anti-performance-as-authenticity (I’m thinking partly of all the Seatle grunge bands, and then Sonic Youth). This in itself is also a performance, though it masks itself (ironic, no?) as not (kind of similar to the false epiphany in a lot of conventional post-confessional lyric poetry, in a way, I think). I think it’s going to take us a while to move past that, though Lady Gaga is a good sign, as are BIGBANG gaining success in the anglophone world (G-Dragon’s carefully curated, yet totally chaotic and monsterous fashionista-ness is a source of endless fascination to me).

  7. Carina

    DT, I think the dichotomy now IS poetry vs. literature

  8. rRoss Sélavy

    There was something really interesting in an interview with one of the members of Laibach that I was watching on youtube, in which he talks about the rock band as essentially a millitary formation. Here’s the link (I’m not sure where that bit is, it’s around halfway through, though the whole thing is worth watching, Laibach are an incredibly fascinating… band? assemblage?)

  9. drew

    participation vs. judgement is something i’ve been thinking a lot about for years. there is something inherently hierarchical about the interpretive process, something both limiting and limited. that critical distance often gets in the way of pure enjoyment, which is derided and pushed aside, as if a physical, affected engagement with art is somehow a negative thing, somehow unintelligent. but there’s also the flip side of this, that pop culture is also inherently stupid, which is total crap.

  10. Christopher Higgs

    “But I kept wondering what threatened them so much about this work, what made them so defensive.”

    Yes! I have been thinking a lot about this, since my last “H.T.B.A.C.” post generated such vitriol in the comment section. (Granted, I’ve come to expect vitriol in the comment section of HTMLG, since, for the most part, it’s a cesspool.) I think part of the enmity arises from an inability to consider alternative value systems. For example, I notice many respondents presume that “clarity and cohesion” is a given value that everyone shares (or, should share). What seems unthinkable to them is that my “argument” has little interest in clarity or cohesion. That in fact “clarity and cohesion” are part of the problem. They accuse me of being “inconsistent” as if this is a fault!

    I feel like a similar issue can be put into conversation with the relationship between poetry and popular culture. As you — I think accurately — point out, there is a safety in the polarized and reductive categories of “pop culture” versus “high culture.” The rules of that game have been mapped. One need only choose a side and then apply the paint-by-numbers approach that fits within the borders of a chosen side. To blend the two, or in your words bridge the two, on the other hand causes confusion and inconsistency, because this terrain has yet to be mapped (perhaps cannot be mapped?). In the absence of shared values (predicated on agreed upon categorical distinctions) a space of negotiation materializes, conversation becomes more difficult and uncomfortable, and many people decide this zone of discomfort is too intense. So they react strongly against any inclination of its materialization, as though they keep fire extinguishers in their shirt pockets just in case such a zone emerges so they can squash it immediately, thereby ensuring the return of their comfort zone.

    Your point about Zizek and “idiotic enjoyment” also speaks to this revaluing I’m talking about. (I love that phrase by the way.) To value “idiotic enjoyment” is to restructure the entire conversation, because it presents a departure from doxa — if we assume, as I do, that doxa holds “idiotic enjoyment” to be negative, faulty, superfluous, wasteful, indulgent, etc. By suggesting a bridging of poetry and popular culture, it seems to me you are asking for a revaluing of the two as much as you are asking for them to be considered independently. In other words, to read poetry as popular culture, “for its complexly idiotic enjoyment,” is to ascribe a value to that arrangement not previously established, agreed upon, or otherwise considered, by asking both sides of the high/low binary to rethink their criteria.

    I don’t know, just some thoughts. At any rate, thanks for bringing me into this conversation.

  11. Kim

    “there is something inherently hierarchical about the interpretive process”, yes, and a lot of mutations, samplings, reactions, reproductions etc. going on in popular culture seem to disturb this model, nor are such connections considered interpretative, as if the interpretation or engagement with art always has to be smaller than the work itself to reinforce the work’s significance, it’s importance, it’s allotted and hard earned place in the canon of taste 🙂