Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Does American Poetry Still Suck?

According to poet Cassandra Gillig, no. And maybe yes. Does pop music suck? She has recently received a humble modicum of attention for her poetry mashups wherein she transposes contemporary lyrical poetry onto recognizable pop and hip-hop beats. Think Frank O'Hara meets Drake, because this is exactly what she thinks, as evident in her most popular mash-up "Ode to the Best I Ever Had" which encapsulates the multiple operative textures her project seeks to explore.

Poetry, which is so often seen as the stuffy domain of pretentious academics and inaccessible wordiness, is shown to be exactly that. At least, in certain cases. Nobody walks around talking like Allen Ginsberg--can you imagine how terrible and dry our lives would be if people did?? But most people can get down to the beat of "Ice Cream" by Raekwon. And it is this accessibility that Gillig exploits as a means of making poetry something a normal person can relate to. Case in point: she makes the rattly poet-y voice of notable old white man Dylan Thomas listenable, simply by overlaying it with Miley Cyrus's "We Can't Stop."

Yet the goal she seeks to attain is is not the realization that something in poetry can be fixed to make it more accessible. Rather, she uses the pop beats in order to show that an inherent musicality can be discovered in poetry. That she opts for poets who are still alive and still writing attests to her awareness that some contemporary poetry has developed in tandem with contemporary music. People are often unaware that poets are still alive and that poets still write, and whereas this lack of concern implies a belief that poetry is outdated, boring, or otherwise out of touch, Gillig utilizes the vehicle of popular music to try to prove the opposite. In this way, she has reinvented the conventional approach to poetry simply by trying to apprehend it in a new way.

It’s particularly striking that her approach has been largely enabled by the internet; mash-ups have developed their own culture and system of codification, though usually in terms of music and hip-hop samples. This technology--and democratized access to this technology--is a conceptual and technical innovation very specific to 21st-century internet proliferation. It’s also interesting to note that her artistic success has surpassed a mere internet base. The Poetry Foundation, progenitor of the historically and nationally acclaimed “Poetry “magazine, recently brought attention to her mashups in their online Harriet Blog. This gesture towards institutionalization seems symptomatic of the mashups’s aesthetic and cultural implications; just as she has used pop music to make people care about poetry again, so too has she used her mashups to make capital-P poets care about pop music and the “low culture” it’s often associated with.

It seems reminiscent of Sack’s essay entitled “An Anthropologist On Mars” in which he explores the way in which late 20th-century research in Asperger Syndrome erected institutional reform in medical and psychological approaches to the disorder. This new approach was informed by conceptual and technical innovations in a similar fashion as Gillig’s reappraisal of lyric poetry. This then begs the question of creativity’s relation to the progression of time in history--whether its nature is augmented or merely applied by the technical mechanisms that arise in developing civilizations. If indeed the nature of creativity is essential or otherwise immutable, and we draw on its resources to situationally deal with the problems at hand with the tools at hand, it should come as no surprise that creative individuals simply make it sing to the tune of its times.

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