Beth Towle on Abe Smith, Maurice Manning and "Affected Folk"

by on Jul.16, 2013

At The Actuary, Beth Towle begins to consider the role of “folk” in Abe Smit and Maurice Manning’s work:

Abe Smith’s rant-like paeans to rural life, Maurice Manning’s twangy, plain-spoken sonnets, the Punch Brother’s banjo-heavy love songs: these are all forms of affected folk. Affected folk is interesting not because it plays WITH our traditional knowledge or ideas of what folk “is.” Rather, it plays WITHIN those expectations. Folk art is meant to be democratic, is meant to be true to its name. Folk wants to pretend that it is for the people. Affected folk understands that folk is not about democracy but about the allure of democracy and the inevitable unfulfilling of such a claim that a certain register of art can ever hope to be “for” anyone, let alone lots of anyones. Affected folk is always conscious of what it’s doing but not because it is trying to play towards a specific crowd. Instead, affected folk simultaneously loves and questions its forms and tools. And the readers and listeners of affected folk cannot simply sit back and enjoy the art they consume; they are instead complicit in also loving and understanding what it is that is appealing or unsettling, beautiful or painful about folk art.

I think about Greil Marcus’s brilliant book Invisible Republic (I think it was retitled Weird Old America in later editions) where he gets at the gothic and curious ways that a certain “weird old America” gets configured and reconfigured occultly (the last time it appears according to Marcus is in Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes but Greil probably never read Abe Smith).

Abe Smith is a brilliant writer, whose work is really unique, coming out of folk music and a rural working class background, by way of slam poetry, he has developed this totally unorthodox, almost Celan-ish style of word play (all the while retaining that “folksiness” that Beth talks about). It seems people have had a hard time considering his work critically, even as he’s been an obvious influence on a number of writers.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Carina

    one time I drunkenly proposed marriage to Abe at AWP and then it became a legit poetry rumor.

    this is relevant in that that rumors, affect, and folk-influence are related to expectation in that they exist within a given structure, but their function is surprise — or perhaps, enlightenment.

    see: Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Abe Smith, Taylor Swift