No middlebrow for poetry

There really isn’t a place for the middlebrow in poetry publishing.

I don’t like ranking people’s tastes by their supposed expanse of forehead. First, it’s mainly marketing, defining us by how we spend. Second, we’re all more mixed than that. I’m more adventurous about food than music, for instance: I like edgy vegetables and songs with round corners. I am attracted to weird art but have zero interest in experimental novels. I don’t even know how to describe my taste in poetry. Yet an artist-friend has been sending me links to articles on middlebrow art, including the recent New York Times piece. And at the same time I’ve been helping an acquaintance with a poetry manuscript and thinking, “in fiction, there would be a place for this.” Her book retells a politically complicated historical episode in a straightforward style, shifting from speaker to speaker with nary a qualm about appropriation. No lacunae, ellipses, apologetic verbal hedges about the fundamental inaccessibility of the past. Yet the writer, while not versed in the politics of contemporary verse, is ultra-competent, with a long multigenre publishing resume. It’s not that she’s writing badly. She’s just not writing for me.

Fiction does this all the time: storytelling depends on imagining points of view one person can’t truly access. Fiction I’d call literary does this very persuasively, with psychological and intellectual sophistication, in prose full of surprises. Fiction I’d call popular is more predictable, from its similes to its characters and plot, but I read my share of it and I’m glad it’s out there.

There is some range in recently published poetry collections. Some are much, much more abstruse than others, yet even the most approachable are still literary in their values. And unless you’re a former US Poet Laureate, you’re probably finding it increasingly hard to publish narrative verse in a straightforward, grammatical style.

My poetry predilections are probably highbrow, because I’m nerdily delighted when I cut my fingers on the edges of a stanza. But among the poets I meet through publishing and conferences and festivals, I feel kinda lowbrow. I’m attracted to story, and if a poem doesn’t show the author’s attention to potential readers–eagerness to be interesting, willingness to come clean about what’s at stake–I put it down and go back to poetry that seems to want my company. My own feeling of resisting certain avant-garde pieties, however, is relative to a tiny, poetry-obsessed readership, because there isn’t much of a general audience for contemporary takes on this particular art form.

It’s different for Dickinson, Frost, Eliot, Hughes, etc–non-poetry-specialists do read older verse. I’m talking about print, too, and books in particular. Poetry readings can have big, open-minded audiences–I hear accessible, middlebrow poetry more often than I read it. In slam, there’s plenty of popular stuff a professor might deem bad, and that’s good. When an art’s healthy, there’s a big enough range in contemporary practice that there’s no way one person would appreciate all of it. For instance, I can go to an art house film if I want, or sink into a high-box-office 3D noisefest, because the movies are still for everyone.

I wish there were more room for poetry books that might be called middlebrow or lowbrow or accessible or populist, stuff you don’t have to be an insider to get. My own favorite field, as in the novel, is crossover stuff: literary fiction that flirts with mystery or thriller; fantasy that’s smart and well-written. I want more poetry that works at both levels, too–highly readable but sharp and worth lingering over. But how likely is that, when the poetic equivalent of popular fiction can’t find a friendly curator or a book-buying audience? Everything is aimed at the cognoscenti.

Well, that’s enough big-foreheadism. The advance of August always lowers the hairline, but it’s worse for the woman resigning herself to a stint as department head: I have advising sheets to revise, after all, and capstone sections to sort. Time for the mid-career middle-aged medium-height poet to muddle back in the midden of middle management.

“Douchebag” and other rude, not-seasonally-festive epithets

The one time I tried to smoke a cigarette, my friends mocked me: “Cut that out. You look totally ridiculous.” By common consensus, I couldn’t pull off foul language either. I thought the problem might have been some crisp Englishness lingering in my elocution—my mother’s British and allegedly I started kindergarten with an accent. I pondered further: despite U.S. stereotypes about English prissiness, I knew, they carry off expletives quite well in the British Isles, so that shouldn’t be it. Perhaps my tendency to ponder obscenities in polysyllabic latinate diction was somehow symptomatic of the same issue?

In any case, nobody mocks how I swear anymore, and I live with 12- and 15-year old children, so you’ll know that I am mocked about various shortcomings hourly. I’m told, for instance, that my sense of humor is totally immature, which may be why I still get a thrill when a poet suddenly veers towards crudeness. In slam, of course, the climactic curse is practically inscribed into the requirements of the form. See Taylor Mali’s “I Could Be a Poet” for that bit of critical analysis put into hilarious action. At least, I think the “fucking” in that poem is hilarious, but according to my daughter I’ll laugh at anything—it’s just embarrassing.

Usually profanity concerns sex or excrement, both of which are, of course, intrinsically funny. So-called bad language desecrates, too. While powerful poetry often (always?) engages notions of sacredness, if a poem’s good it’s never simply pious—instead, it knocks some god off a pedestal to set up another. Think about Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” or T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” or Deborah Miranda’s “Things My Mother Taught Me”: all of them get to sacredness via irreverence, anger, and resistance to romantic visions. For the Magi it’s liquor and refractory camels plaguing their journey to God. Miranda’s villanelle offers a mantra for holy ordinariness culminating in an unglamorous brand-name ingredient: “Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.” Swearing isn’t required but it’s one way to shake up the over-serious regard that can kill a poem.

English teachers are supposed to say that swearing demonstrates a lamentably poor vocabulary. Sure, sometimes. It can also convey linguistic range and daring; turn up emotional intensity at a key moment; and it can hurt and demean people, too. I think the beginning of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” is brutally perfect: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” While his “High Windows” also haunts me—scraps of it come back to me in all kinds of dismal situations—the obscenity in the beginning of that poem just drives home everything hateful about the author. I lose that crucial thread of connection to the mind behind the poem. I feel sworn at, violently, because I’m part of a major demographic (women) that filled Larkin with longing and distaste. More generally, I think people should be able to work and study without being sworn or leered at—although they’re just going to have to tolerate some profanity-laced poems on my syllabi, because they’re among the most resonant in recent literary history.

While swearing might win you points in a poetry slam, it can still be a liability in print venues (and in some live readings, too). The famous obscenity trial over “Howl” happened a long time ago but certain kinds of explicitness still generate wild discomfort. I once received a nice-note rejection from a very generous editor saying that the word “crotch” in one of my poems (“Lucky Thirteen”) was a deal-breaker. I meant it to be tricky and distasteful: it’s a poem about depression, for fuck’s sake. (Ha!) Still, experimentally, I revised it out. The poem was promptly accepted by another magazine in the next round of submissions. Some version of this happens to me a lot. Apparently I still can’t pull off the colorful verbiage.

Are they right, the editors and readers who resist the cringe? Risks are worth trying, but sometimes you can’t pull them off, or a phrase that was important for generating a poem doesn’t fit in the final version. I keep looking at a poem I first drafted a couple of years ago, working title “Douchebags,” trying to figure out if it’s the title/ blunt treatment of sexual material earning rejections or whether the poem just isn’t quite successful on other grounds. (Anyone who wants to read it and tell me, backchannel!) I can’t revise out the crudeness this time, though. The poem concerns my first sexual experience; this involved a guy who did me some lasting harm but who was also damaged and sad, and whom I did not treat honorably either. When I broke up with him, his lament was: “You douched me over, you douchebag!” At eighteen, I knew this was very funny, and also that I was being a condescending jerk by finding this very funny. He was hurting badly and that was all the language he had to express his emotion. Although he treated me awfully, at some level I had always possessed the power of just being smarter and knowing, deep in my douchebag heart, that I could and would do better.

And this probably gets back to why I’m attracted to foul-mouthed poems, especially when the profanity is mixed up with lyricism, wit, and erudition. I want to believe these worlds can coexist, if not harmonize—that their native speakers can talk to each other, across hurt and difference. Those languages coexist in me.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may your stuffing and sweet potatoes touch illicitly on the plate while brown rivulets of gravy dribble into the cranberry sauce.