Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Alien vs. Predator, review of a review

The Financial Times doesn't review poetry all that often, but it had George Pendle review Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins (Penguin, 2012), a book I have not yet read, and intend to.  This is a review of that review - or rather, a brief lament at so many of the assumptions and lazy claims made in it.  The main problem for me is Pendle's claim is that this collection "could take poetry to a new readership" because of its "ephemeral appreciation of pop culture" and that this pop culture poetry, that references "rap", is like "Wallace Stevens playing Xbox".  Paul Muldoon and John Ashbery and Ginsberg are cited as presiding spirits. Blogs and tweets are mentioned.  It is a "gory B-movie mash-up" with a "bouncing, colloquial firestorm of pop and poetical reference".  Sigh.

Where to begin?  Firstly, there is nothing new about this sort of pop reference in poetry.  Gargoyle has been publishing work like this for two decades.  Most slam poets have mined this.  David Trinidad in America, and David McGimpsey, in Canada, are geniuses at this combination of TV, film, and poetic reference.  Indeed, I edited a "B-poetry" anthology of pop sci-fi poems half a decade or more ago. In fact, the default position of most poets born since 1976 is to include or reference, pop culture with their poetry.  It is true that few such earlier books have been marketed with quite the brazen simplicity of this new one, which wears its sleeve on its heart, as it were.  However, from what I have seen of "new readerships" for poetry, they don't exist.  This is for two reasons: 1) the nature of poetry is that, however much it seeks to, or seems to, pander to pop culture desires, it always, if actual poetry, exceeds those pleasures and makes demands that prove resistant to mere consumerist impulse; and 2) the nature of readers is that those who love poetry inevitably seek more and deeper pleasures than mere surface pop culture skits and pastiche; and those who don't move on to books, games, TV, films, and other online entertainments, instead.

Canny readers will see these are the same coin, two sides.  What I mean to say is this - poetry can't sell out - even when it tries, it fails.  No slam poet, no comedian poet, no sex poet, no stripper poet, no movie star poet, no model poet, no rock star poet, no TV poet, has ever become truly famous, and critically loved, as a poet qua poet.  The poets who resonate, who last, who quicken us, who signify, in the end, the integrity and deep vocational labour of poetry, are those who plough their furrow, without heed of "new readership".  Poetry readers are few and far between - there is no mass market for poetry - and never will be.  It is a dream of marketing teams, and it cheapens poetry to think it might even be desirable, or possible, to have a poetry that could effortlessly appeal to millions.  Poetry is the hook that must catch a little in the throat, and whose bait is the sweetmeat of the gods.
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