The The Kristen Stewart Debates: Poetry, Taste and Mass Culture!

by on Feb.20, 2014

I’ve meant to write down a few thoughts about Kristen Stewart’s poem published in (or recited for) Marie Clarie Magazine a couple of weeks back and the ensuing controversy. I think this discussion says a lot about taste, mass culture and poetry.


* I don’t know Kristen Stewart’s acting career very well but I saw her in a movie in which she was wonderfully paralyzed in the face. I also know that she was in the vampire movies, Twilight (which later turned into that S&M novel fan fiction).

* It’s interesting to see what kinds of people said what about KS’s poem. Marie Claire and the celebrity, mass culture magazine all seemed to repeat the line that KS herself used to introduce the poem: she said it was “embarrassing.” A celebrity sites seemed to merely repeat that word “embarrassing”. We can take that as a sign of their laziness, sure, but I think it says something else: Poetry – even though it’s supposedly “high culture” is – seen from the point of view of “mass culture” – embarrassing. Always embarrassing.

* Keeping this “embarrassment” in mind, lets go back to my quote from Rachel Galvin a couple of days ago:

I’d like to add to Yankelvich’s observation by arguing that casting authorial intent as an “embarrassing indulgence” is symptomatic of the very dynamic that Gillian White identifies inLyric Shame: Producing the “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry. This embarrassment congregates around poems seen as offering abstracted, “personal” expression—particularly Romantic, Confessional, and “mainstream” poetry—belonging to what is assumed to be the transhistorical genre of lyric poetry. From the twentieth century onward, such poems have been criticized by scholars, critics, publishers, and writers for their “expressivity,” which is understood as narcissistic and often politically conservative.

* ie it’s not just fashion glossies that view poetry as embarrassing, but also academic critics…

* Poets and web sites that assume some alternativeness/artiness (“indiewire” etc) mostly seemed to pan KS’s poem. It wasn’t just bad, it was “the worst poem ever.” Etc. It had to be bad because she’s a mass culture princess. As such she provides poets the opportunity to show their own taste: Everyone wanted to show that they knew how to spot a fake, kitsch, counterfeit.

* A teen actress is fake to begin with: we already know she’s fake the second we see her raise the quill.

* One of the most common signs of the poem’s failure was that there were too many adjectives. Tastlessness is always both an excess and a lack: the lack of restraint that leads to too many adjectives for example. The poet loses control of the language, gets seduced, becomes too “poetic.”

* But it’s really not a bad poem. This is what Joyelle wrote on Brian Kim Stefan’s facebook page (His post strikes me as a fundamentally decent response, even if he dislikes beatniks):

I actually think this poem is TERRIFIC. I guess there’s something wrong with me. It has a great punchy energy, it’s strange, and I never know where it’s going next. I would put stars all over this poem if it were turned in in my class… Also the language isn’t boring – kismetly and ubiquitously have a nice feel to them. I think this is pretty great.

* Joyelle is maybe the smartest critic of contemporary poetry we have, but she’s utterly tasteless. She writes verse plays after all… There is too many words in her poems… Too much is tasteless. So maybe she’s not the best judge of this poem?

* Another complaint I saw against the poem was that it was too “Beat” – as in beatniks. At first this seemed strange to me since the poem is obviously much more influenced by Ashbery’s “They Dream Only…” But it makes perfect sense: Poetry has been haunted by the Beats for decades. Poets are freaked out by Beats because they were poets who managed to become mass culture, to affect culture at large in a very direct and marked way.

* Apparently the word “neon” is what caused a lot of people to thinks of “beat” poetry. Again, this surprised me because it’s just a word – and especially because I think it refers pretty directly to the minimalist sculpture housed in Marfa. But it shouldn’t be a surprise: the beats used “neon” to invoke an urban atmosphere – of mass culture (jazz, prostitutes, bars etc). It’s also about appearances, which tend to be tasteless.

*But to me THE SINGLE most SYMPTOMATIC thing about the Kristen Stewart Debates was that everyone seemed to imagine her as their student… Almost all comments from poets seemed to be: she’s OK for a student, she is not as good as my students, with a little book-learning she would be better, she should take my poetry class. Etc etc. This shouldn’t be surprising because so many poets are teachers but also because so many poets seem to see education and poetry as ways of defending the “beautiful soul” against the excesses of mass culture.

* Having taste means that you have proper education!

* The other place you see this is how when faced with poets who have different tastes from them, poets tend to appeal to education: You write differently because you don’t have enough education, you don’t like language poetry because you don’t have enough education, you obviously have not read such and such poet’s 1974 essay on xyz. And usually with an affected “wiser-than-thou” tone. Could it be that people have different views? Could it be that they have different tastes? Or does that mean that we LACK the proper learning?

* I find that aspect of poetry discussions absolutely stultifying.

* Tasteless poetry is mostly more interesting than tasteful poetry.

* It seems every few weeks, the very stable poetry world is given a shock and everyone has to weigh in. The Kristen Steward Debates follows closely on the heel of the Kill List discussion. What does a kill list and a poem about Marfa have in common? Both were perceived as a threat to poetry, to that stability somehow. One posed a threat through its direct invocation of violence, the other by having mass culture usurp poetry.
* My title is supposed to invoke the one of the most important “debates” in Swedish poetry over the past few decades, the “Ann Jäderlund Debates,” in which aesthetically conservative critics attacked Ann Jäderlund for hermeticism, for writing baroque necropastorals, and charged her with elitism. Strangely she has gone one to become one of the most popular Swedish poets around and certainly the most influential over the past 20-30 years. Both controversies has to do with “accessibility” and taste.

* A teen actress is never in good taste…

* The poem:

My Heart Is A Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole

I reared digital moonlight
You read its clock, scrawled neon
across that black
Kismetly … ubiquitously crest fallen
Thrown down to strafe your foothills…
I’ll suck the bones pretty.
Your nature perforated the abrasive
organ pumps
Spray painted everything known to man,
Stream rushed through and all out into
Whilst the crackling stare down sun snuck
Through our windows boarded up
He hit your flint face and it sparked.
And I bellowed and you parked
We reached Marfa.

One honest day up on this freedom pole
Devils not done digging
He’s speaking in tongues all along the
pan handle

And this pining erosion is getting dust in
My eyes
And I’m drunk on your morsels
And so I look down the line
Your every twitch hand drum salute
Salutes mine…

4 comments for this entry:
  1. Sandy

    The movie you mention in your first bullet point is The Cake Eaters. Kristen played a young girl with Friedreich’s Ataxia,a degenerative neuro-muscular disorder. She was superb.

  2. James Pate

    Really interesting post. I think part of the anxiety about her poetry comes from the fact poetry (with the exception of spoken word poetry) has become incredibly professionalized. Conferences, workshops, grants, the “right” people to study with vs. the “wrong” people to study with, etc. When someone comes along, especially a celebrity, and just publishes poetry, some people get territorial. “Poetry” becomes an act you should only be able to perform if you’ve gone through the right portals, read the right Perloff books…

    And I completely agree with this:” “The other place you see this is how when faced with poets who have different tastes from them, poets tend to appeal to education: You write differently because you don’t have enough education, you don’t like language poetry because you don’t have enough education, you obviously have not read such and such poet’s 1974 essay on xyz. And usually with an affected “wiser-than-thou” tone.”

    Whenever I criticize some aspect of language writing or conceptual writing, one of the responses I usually get is “surely you haven’t considered poem or essay XYZ.” Usually I have, but the real issue here is the idea there’s a mystic Hegelian zeitgeist out there that we must obey or be objectively wrong (as if this zeitgeist wasn’t a creation of many vested interests, academic and otherwise, creating and enforcing these narratives).

    Maybe Kristen Stewart, by so clearly being in the wrong by so many, is the true conceptualist here…


  3. Dan Hoy

    “this pining erosion” makes me think of “This Corrosion” by Sisters of Mercy. I wish more things in life did that.

  4. bridgette james

    kristen is imitating people because her inability to make a decision about her career. clearly she doesn’t want to act and she is stealing things from people and claiming them as her own because she is lost and on drugs and the truth of the matter of it she is a FRAUD and needs to leave the industry so she can get a clue as to who she is. She is spying on people and in people’s email and propagating things as her own because she is famous and has no idea what to do with it. Hopefully the girl just gets off some drugs and takes an excursion to some island somewhere and figures out who she is…its said…one who steals will have her own words and energies stolen 10 times more…she is a fraud.