From Tuesday 12 May, Kathryn Gray will be running the Summer Course ‘Alien Vs Predator?’ Poetry and Pop Culture, exploring what happens when the two apparently hostile worlds of poetry and pop culture meet … Could you write a great poem about Don Draper? Kathryn writes a few words in praise of pop:
‘In Praise of Pop’ by Kathryn Gray
My love of pop culture can be traced back to an undistinguished childhood and adolescence; a late bloomer, and a wild romantic – that tragic but common combination – my fascination with icons, those twentieth-century gods and goddesses of the silver screen, saw me through the disappointments of my resolute ordinariness. Their travails and triumphs promised, haunted me.
Even now, at 42, in the second half of my life, Ferris Bueller, lip-synching to Wayne Newton’s Danke Schoen on a parade float in Chicago thirty years ago, remains impossibly bittersweet. The grind of adulthood, of work and responsibility, will surely come, it emphasizes, but you will always have your memories – if you take the time to create them. Yes, life does move pretty fast, and if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might well miss it. Leisure doesn’t rule – though how we wish it could. But there’s always the movies – and poetry.
In recent years, my fascination with pop culture has become more conscious and cautious. Facebook and Twitter have played their part. In between the pop quizzes, the spats, the snippets of news and gossip and online petitions, we read between the lines of lives – fragments of who we all are, really, battling with our failure to live up to the ideals created by advertisers and, yes, those heroes of cinema again, through either open melancholy or elaborate, carefully modulated fictions of our contentment and success.
We have all become writers – albeit at differing stages of the editorial process. Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter, in tandem with reality shows, feed the creation of personalities who very often do not have any claim to a specific gift or talent. They do not have to do anything, really, being is all that is required. The more we tell ourselves to look away from the spectacle of Kim Kardashian, the more strangely compelling she and others like her become. Perhaps because we see the fleeting possibility of what might have been, had life furnished us with a better stylist and a Birkin bag (but hopefully without that infamous viral video). But perhaps, also, because we own her. We are the custodians of such icons. We created them, after all. And we consume them.
Reading Frank O’Hara’s ‘Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed)’, we can detect an early signal of the kind of entitlement we live in today. The poet sees a newspaper headline, which reports yet another blip in Turner’s tumultuous life:
Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]
Frank O’Hara, 1926 – 1966
Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
Under the veneer of the poem’s apparent throwaway humour, though, something rather more interesting is happening. For O’Hara is signaling ownership, rather than straightforward compassion. While his life, in a rainy (snowy? hailing?) New York, seems rather down at heel and humdrum by comparison to the Hollywood star’s, and he is just a poet in an age which is already seeing that kind of authority diminishing, he commands her: ‘oh Lana Turner we love you get up’.
But is this really a declaration of common humanity? I recently read a commentary of this poem which suggests a link to the Twitter age, as fans’ and denigrators’ words collapse on timelines, urging fortune or disaster on their objects of obsession. This seems so absolutely true. Investigating why this interplay of estrangement and intimacy exists seems a pressing matter for poetry, even as it raises a delicate issue – underscoring and exploring poetry’s loss of relevance in a mass-media age.
In the West, we live in a dejected and yearning age. We feel cheated; we’re always, somehow, missing out. There is the abiding sense of civilization in crisis. Our colonial errors are coming back to haunt us. Our politicians – their lies, human frailty and excesses exposed further by mass media – perpetually disappoint us. Increasing secularism in our society makes so much seem hopeless, promising an afterlife of darkness and silence rather than reward. If you’re wanting something, you better pursue it now – get rich or die tryin’.
HBO has given us Game of Thrones, an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s cult fantasy series. Martin’s plotting seems to speak to many of our Western anxieties. And he’s a learned writer, despite his mainstream popularity. His work seems clearly influenced by what we now think of as high culture, but was once the popular culture of its time – echoes of The Nibelungenlied and a host of Medieval romance and epic tropes abound. Martin’s characters are complex, full human beings – few are completely bad and none are completely good or flawless. Indeed, they seem so like us that a site like Zimbio offers to settle the question more specifically: which Game of Thrones character are you?
Leah Umansky, a fine poet from the US, has written some wonderful poems around characters from the series. She’s also explored Don Draper, the anti-hero ad man from Mad Men, in her chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream, taking a crush to levels of high art.
Draper, and his colleagues and lovers, delivered to us courtesy of Matthew Weiner and Lionsgate Television, tell us an historical fiction about masculinity in crisis, for sure, but also about the truth of the nightmare we live in now – of mass consumption, the futility of the American dream, self-corruption, the seeming implausibility of authenticity and self-actualisation, that there is almost nothing that cannot be bought and sold.
Meanwhile, House of Cards, a high-wattage Netflix adaptation of the 1990s BBC drama, plotting the scheming rise of the deliciously venal Frank Underwood and his wife, Claire (notice anything about their names?) would seem to confirm what we have suspected all along in a narrative of which Shakespeare would surely have approved: that politics and power make for ruthless self-interest and a diminishment of the soul. But what does it say about us viewers, that we cannot help but hope that Frank and Claire will once again get away with it – spectacularly? And what might it say about me, that I am in the process of writing a poetic love letter to the complex and compromised Claire, a woman seeking full actualization in a man’s world? Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
Pop culture offers us a chance to confront our demons, but it also offers poetry the opportunity to build a bridge.
Jonathan Edwards’ warm, witty Costa Poetry prizewinner, My Family and Other Superheroes, illustrates this to marvelous effect. In writing it, Edwards has produced a debut which resonates in its high readability beyond the poetry community, linking Evel Knievel’s daredevil exploits to the solidity of a working-class, Welsh Valleys family unit in ‘Evel Knievel Jumps Over My Family’; taking an episode of The Simpsons as a springboard to explore the mutual support and progress of the same family over generations in ‘My Family as a Human Pyramid’; creating a beautiful villanelle, meditating on father-son love, childhood memory, time and mortality, in ‘The Death of Doc Emmett Brown in Back to the Future’ – connecting us all in our nostalgia for the 1985 classic, which itself expresses and cherishes, most importantly, the love and connection between a father and his son. We all know the terms of reference; some of us even measure our lives by them. (Guilty as charged.)
Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family
A floodlit Wembley. Lisa, the producer,
swears into her walkie-talkie. We Edwardses,
four generations, stand in line,
between ramps: Smile for the cameras.
My great-grandparents twiddle their thumbs
in wheelchairs, as Lisa tells us to relax,
Mr Knievel has faced much bigger challenges:
double-deckers, monster trucks, though the giraffe
is urban legend. Evel Knievel enters,
Eye of the Tiger drowned by cheers,
his costume tassels, his costume a slipstream,
his anxious face an act to pump the crowd,
surely. My mother, always a worrier,
asks about the ambulance. Evel Knievel
salutes, accelerates towards the ramps.
I close my eyes, then open them:
is this what heaven feels like,
some motorcycle Liberace overhead,
wheels resting on air? Are these flashes
from 60,000 cameras the blinding light
coma survivors speak of? Before he lands,
there’s just time to glance along the line:
though no one’s said a thing,
all we Edwardses are holding hands.
During the life of this course, we’ll be exploring heroes, anti-heroes, icons (pointless and otherwise), fragmented communication through social media platforms, and the relentless bombardment of information which can often make us feel that we know considerably less, rather than more, about our world and why we’re here. Fandom and random are welcomed, respectable, positively encouraged. Even as I write, I notice what’s trending on a sidebar of Facebook. Paris Hilton: Socialite’s chihuahua, Tinkerbell, dies at 14 from old age.
If you want to engage with pop culture in your poetry, whether through the tragedy of Ned Stark or in admonishment of the selfie stick, you can book Kathryn’s course online or by calling our offices on 0207 582 1679.