Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Floods and the Aesthetics of Destruction

LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I have been struck by the photos of towns and farms in Iowa and Missouri submerged under the rising waters of the recent floods. I was also disturbed by how oddly compelling many of the photographs are--silos protruding from beautiful pools of green blue, seemingly mythical towns buoyed on the pristine surfaces of endless lakes, cultivated fields that seem to rise out these lakes and reach toward trees.

We are often paralyzed by the images of destruction; sometimes because the images shock us into consciousness (like the photos in this month's National Geographic of slaughtered mountain gorillas in the Congo) and other times because the composition of the images startles us with a new representation of what should be a familiar landscape, like the charred remains of a mountain after a fire.

Most of us watched with uncomfortable attention and interest at the recovery efforts of the recent earthquake in China, much the way we kept tuning in to see similar efforts after the typhoon in Thailand and Indonesia a few years ago. Awe-ful in the worst way, visual coverage of these events both humanizes and globalizes such tragedies. We watch and we worry and we wonder and we weep.

The artful images from the recent floods in the Midwest reminded me of two different Katrina-based art projects I encountered on a recent trip to New Orleans. The first is an installation that existed for one day only in a small, edgy gallery owned by Kirsha Kaechele, located in a predominantly African American neighborhood of the city. The brainchild of artist and architect Mike McKay and his wife, artist and architect Liz Swanson, the Cloudline project replicates through fishing weights and lines, the topography of the living room in McKay's childhood home that was destroyed by the Katrina levy breaches. Part of the artist statement reads as follows:

Made by a series of 3800 weighted filament lines suspending over 8,000 aggregated points, the project replicates a specific debris field documented within a living room of the artist's childhood home. The debris field contains the exact forms of household furniture, such as chairs, end tables, a sofa, and a piano, yet one’s reading of the objects remains abstract due to its construction. Instead, one is left only with a vague sense familiarity based on scale and proximities to the human body.

McKay suggests the exhibit looks at the relationship between chaos and stagnation, which it certainly does, but for me, it is also about the conversation between destruction and construction as well as this notion of aesthetics and disaster. Though it takes a while to load, you can view a short documentary of the project here. As you watch, you may ask yourself what sort of conversation tragedy and beauty might have with each other.

Across the street from where Cloudline appeared stand two small empty houses that now serve as exhibit spaces, both of which comment on what it means to "reside" in New Orleans post-Katrina.

Visitors walk through the houses to confront dirt floors, ducks hanging from ceilings, overturned appliances, broken fireplaces, and secret spookily lit indoor gardens.

In the case of Cloudline and these houses-cum-canvases, exterior becomes interior, and we are forced to reconsider easy distinctions between "nature" and "civilization," as well as facile notions of what is "artistic" and what is "created."

Such art may not fix the damages caused by floods, but it does reorient us to the process of meaning-making that both floats on the surface and simultaneously lies at the very depth of human lives.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Now that we have pop music, why do we still need poetry?

The Professor of Pop poses this question as a comment to last week's post on poetry and popular culture.

It's a good question; one that probably should be asked more often, but instead, poets, professors and publishers of poetry merely ask: why don't more people read poetry? Inquiring instead into poetry's necessity is an altogether different and more meaningful project.

Liking poetry to music is even more interesting, and it raises some important points about cultural associations we make with various genres. The poet Robert Bly once remarked that he was jealous of musicians because their work goes straight to the heart. Bly lamented how, in the United States, poetry seems to get log jammed in the brain, only rarely trickling down to the emotional register of the "heart" or "soul." Indeed, we all know the sensation of a really phenomenal song and how viscerally we react to it--even over the entire course of our lives.

For better or worse, our brains (and perhaps also our bodies) react differently to words than to music, and here is where I would say poetry differs from pop music and why we need both. Pop music is largely about sound and a little bit about language; poetry on the other hand is largely about language and also a lot about sound.

For example, I truly love Nirvana's music. Nevermind is a great album with exceedingly poetic turns of musicianship. However, there is really nothing about the lyrics that is linguistically transformative. Some of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is catchy, but most of the song is a string of cliches. Even worse is the Professor of Pop's bailiwick, Led Zeppelin, which also happens to be one of my favorite bands. That said, almost no band has worse lyrics. Either the words are pinched from old blues songs or pinched from earnest but freaky tales about gnomes, Mordor, and may queens. And, after films like This Is Spinal Tap, those kinds of over-the-top I-am-trying-very-hard-to-be-deep lyrics just come off as high camp. But, the guitar riffs on "Whole Lotta Love," the vocals on "Black Dog," and the entire side two of Led Zeppelin III are musical "genius"--the term traditionally used to describe writerly talent.

We need poetry because popular music can only do so much. Lyrics in songs with driving riffs or thumpy back beats are always going to be the chaser to the music's bigger drink. What's more, since we communicate with each other through language, we need something in that realm that turns the same words we use at the grocery store, with our children, on the phone with customer service, and in bed with our partners into something not ordinary, not commonplace, not quotidian. Popular music--as a whole--just doesn't (and can't) do that, but at its best, poetry does.

We need poems because they help put us in right relation with each other and the world. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger claims we need poetry because "the poet in the time of the world's night utters the holy." Langston Hughes, the great African American poet once wrote that "poetry is the human soul entire, squeezed, drop by drop, like a lemon or a lime, into atomic words." That's pretty heady stuff, but thankfully, poetry is both a lot more and a lot less than that.

Still we need both music and poetry because we don't want holiness or Madonna all the time. Sometimes we want a funny poem by Billy Collins or Sherman Alexie or Russell Edson. Or, we want a funny song, like "Little Ghost" by the White Stripes or the Gourds cover of "Gin and Juice." Sometimes we want Radiohead, and sometimes we want Emily Dickinson.

Poetry can do a better job of not taking itself so seriously, and it should market its levity and its windows into the modern dilemmas of love, politics, language, culture, and existence.

But, there will always be room for both popular music and poetry if, for no other reason than, when you are on a date, you do not--and trust me on this--want to try make out to a recording of Ezra Pound reading the first poem from The Cantos . . .

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Poetry & Popular Culture

IS POETRY TOO COMPLICATED for the average reader?

This question begins a recent post from the engaging West End Journal on the relationship between poetry and popular culture. For years now, I have been puzzled by poetry's poor readership in the United States, especially given our cultural context at this particular moment in history. Strapped for time, obsessed with self-help texts, and hungry for authentic sentiment, you would think that Americans would find in poetry a great deal of what is missing in their regular lives.

More and more, people want short, quick, blasts of emotion and engagement. Nothing is more that than the lyric poem, whose compression is, in my mind, designed for contemporary audiences. Intense and introspective, the lyric poem can also function as a kind of mini-self help text. Poets like Sharon Olds, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, Sherman Alexie, and Charles Wright make the poem a site of emotional exploration, soul-searching, and lesson-learning that is actually readable. And, really, no genre does love and eroticism better than poetry. From Pablo Neruda to John Donne to Anne Sexton to Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Octavio Paz to that guy, Bill Shakespeare, it's pretty easy to find something in these poets if you're Jonsing for some action.

"For a very long time," write the folks at West End, "poetry has been seen as a literary playground directed toward other players. Publishers recognize that poetry doesn’t sell very well, and so, they are apprehensive about publishing a great many books of poetry. The problem, though, is that while there may or may not be a market for poetry, no one really knows for sure. In short, no one is making an effort to shove it into mainstream media."

To be sure, they are correct. Mainstream publishers don't advertise poetry, and, unlike novelists, poets aren't really featured on programs like Fresh Air, The Charlie Rose Show, or Oprah. Hollywood isn't making a summer movie of the new Li-Young Lee collection, and there is no "Poetry Bestseller" list.

But, even if there were, I'm not sure Americans would know where to start with poems, what writers they might be drawn to or even what the experience of reading a poem is supposed to be like. Some think the American public isn't really wired for poetry and that they have never really been trained to enjoy it. But, I'm not convinced. So, The Weekly Rader is going to tackle this problem head on. It may make no difference, but we're going to start a monthly feature on contemporary books of poems that a smart, average American--someone like, say, Katie Couric--would like. We'll call it "Poems Katie Couric Would Like."

If you have recommendations on such collections of poems, post them here or send them via email to TWR--making America a nation of poetry readers, one reluctant person at a time . . .

Monday, June 9, 2008

Sex and the City: A Review

EVEN THOUGH THE BOROWITZ REPORT had me scared to death to see Sex and the City, I decided to brave the sexual orientation waters and wade into that space where, apparently, no straight man treadeth.

In truth, Sex and the City isn't right out of the gate, the ideal summer flick for a straight man; in fact, I know no straight men who have seen it. On the night we went, my wife and I estimated the number of (what we assume to be) straight guys in our nearly-full theater could be tallied on one hand. Granted, we live in San Francisco, so our data point could be suspect, but any movie that hangs its boa on what it calls the two L's: labels and love, has a pretty specific demographic in mind.

While some critics, like Anthony Lane, have panned the movie for this, I think it's great.

Traditionally, summer movies are all about the guys--action heroes, comic book heroes, adventure heroes. But, where are the fashion and romance heroes? For better or worse, I think Sex and the City has established a new bar for the women's summer movie--a fantasy flick that replaces explosions with orgasms, bullets with Blahniks, car crashes with kisses, shootouts with shopping.

Of course, there are moments when both the passion and fashion are over the top. The Fantastically Fabulous Four are always fierce in their couture, but so many of the clothes feel forced and unusually impractical (not to mention unaffordable). And, the gratuitous scenes of hot naked men, candlelit sex, postpartum bliss, and string-free relationship reconciliation feel strained at times, as though writer Michael Patrick King had to cross off all of the chic-flick to-dos. And, while it was great to see the wonderful Jennifer Hudson in the movie, her presence to me felt like a way to insinuate a black woman into ground zero of vanilla.

At its best, Sex and the City lets women be women and celebrates them in all of their bad decisions, break ups, anxieties, and devastations. The movie allows the women to be so not fabulous, which is refreshing. The film is at its best when the Super Friends are in Mexico on Carrie's not-honeymoon. Carrie is so depressed she can't get out of bed; Miranda gets busted for her unwieldy pubic hair; OCD Charlotte poops in her Juicy Couture; and Samantha gets absolutely no sex. There are moments, in other words, when friendship isn't quite enough. It's not the answer, not the palliative that is the show's (and the movie's) ethos.

It is those moments that ground the campiness so many straight women and gay men have grown to adore. The film is neither all fluff nor all gravitas, but it has strong enough elements of both to make us interested in the characters we already know and to remind us that this is fantasy.

It's women's summer soft-core--not XXX but a new genre of XX.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Reading Obama and Native America

ON THIS NIGHT WHEN political culture meets mediated visual culture, it is interesting to keep in mind what the image of change actually looks like. Myrtle Strong Enemy, the oldest living woman on the Crow Reservation in Montana, might be asking for a level and a culture of change that most in America can only pretend to understand. What might it mean for there to be a president who takes Indigenous issues seriously?

Equally moving is the 101-year old Strong Enemy's optimism. You are always young enough to want change.

You are also always young enough to know what change might look like.