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Poet as Celebrity

This essay grew out of a discussion on Melic's Natter board about the inexplicable popularity of many mediocre poets versus the relative obscurity of seemingly gifted ones. Now as a journeyman poet myself, I don't want anyone construing this as a sour grapes piece or even a back-handed way to suggest that I am languishing in anonymity for anything other than the mediocrity of my verse. Okay? Just so we understand ourselves. No, the term itself --"celebrity poet"-- is a disquieting amalgam to many as it suggests a weird cocktail of two mutually exclusive sensibilities. These two worlds operate under a number of battle-weary monikers: sacred vs. profane, literati vs. philistine. Pick your poison.

In his recent essay collection, Nobrow, John Seabrook suggests that the high brow/low brow firewall was obliterated long ago by a sort of meeting-in-the-middle, for which he coins the term, 'nobrow.' The real game is to appear High Brow, i.e.., don the mantle of "culture" (by now, no more than a marketing designation), cultivate a studied disdain for the vulgarities of the commercial world, and sell as many T-shirts as you can. As the Mephistophelean David Geffen confides to Seabrook about the great counter-culture-warrior-cum-street-poet, Bob Dylan: "I would say [he] is as interested in money as any person I've known in my life." The answer, my friend, is stacking up in the bank vault.

Mind you, celebrity poet status is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, increased notoriety springs from a pre-existing body of reputable work. This represents the healthiest category of poet celebrity, where we find, for example, Poet Laureates enjoying a surge in book sales as a result of their office. Furthermore, the poetry community is blessed (at least at the Laureate level) with eminently sensible representatives. Thus we have little fear of Rita Dove running off to join the circus or Robert Pinsky embarrassing us on celebrity golf tournaments. Can the Screen Actor's Guild make such a claim? By the way, a surge in sales for a Poet Laureate would be a rounding error to Jewel or John Grisham. A runaway bestseller in poetry circles is probably no more than 50,000 copies, not even semi-stratospheric.

While an authentic poet in every sense, Allen Ginsberg practices a brand of celebrity poetry with his penchant for shameless name-dropping. Ginsberg's compilation, Collected Poems (1984), for example, includes a massive index of proper names including many of the cultural glitterati of our time. For those who like to keep their circus clowns in the basement, Ginsberg's cosmological mish-mashing of high and low art figures has contributed much to the blurring of the line.

So much for the anomalous few who can write their celebrity status under the table. By and large, celebrity poets do not further the art of poetry, and for this reason, our sense of fair play can feel betrayed. The false light of celebrity often heaps undeserved acclaim on a "famous" person's work.

Behind the book tours and lecture circuits there is, in the end, only bad poetry. Nor will posterity be fooled (though you and I won't be here to enjoy its equilibrating effects.) Worse still, many of us know anonymous, toiling colleagues who consistently write the pants off the celebrated few. So who ever said the big red carpet was fair?

Perhaps the founding father of the celebrity poet movement was the altogether histrionic but completely fascinating Lord Byron who, with the remarkable exception of his work Don Juan, is widely regarded as a pretty mediocre poet. The trouble for poetry is that Byron, besides spawning his very own overheated adjective, "Byronic," gave birth to a hyper-romanticism which stressed, in Matthew Arnold's words, "the fashion of deranging [one's] hair, or of knotting [one's] neck-handkerchief, or of leaving [one's] shirt collar unbuttoned." Gads! More often than not, this risqué fashion statement was accessorized with some pretty bad poetry from his imitators. Compounding Byron's legitimacy woes is the fact that modern mass culture icons, among them Mick Jagger, routinely cite him as a font of inspiration. So where's the satisfaction in that?

In Byron, we find a charismatic guy with devilish good looks who combined meager poetic credentials with an uncanny knack for self-dramatization. I mean, this guy died trying to free Greece from Ottoman rule! Pretty cool stuff. Not surprisingly, T. S. "it's the poetry" Eliot had few nice things to say about Byron, characterizing his poetry as exceedingly ornamental and composed in a "dead or dying language." But then, Eliot was a priggish poet's poet, kind of an anti-swashbuckler. I'm sure Byron would have wafted granular particulates in his countenance (for you Modernists that's "kicked sand in his face") had they only managed to be contemporaries.

Another thirty-odd years would go by before celebrity's pernicious influence on literature would really find its legs. The perfect vehicle arrived in the serialized novel of mid-late 18th century England. At Charles Dickens' commercial height, the magazine carrying A Tale of Two Cities was selling 250,000 weekly copies! And yet in spite of --many would say because of – the growing commercial and popular success of his novels, Dickens' "vulgar sentimentality" became the subject of increasingly heated attacks from the denizens of culture. For example, "Saturday Review's" James Fitzjames Stephen noted huffily (and is it only me who detects the smallest trace of envy?) "To [men of sense and cultivation] Mr. Dickens is nothing more than any other public performer --enjoying an extravagantly high reputation, and rewarded for his labours both in purse and in credit, at an extravagantly high rate." Yikes! I wonder what Mr. Stephen's sales figures were.

Dickens' American speaking tours were the closest analog to today's rock concerts for their attendant hysteria. Unfortunately for Chuck, scantily clad groupies became an accouterment of artistic fame only in the late 20th century. But the point survives: commercial success and its by-product, celebrity, were beginning to exert an irresistible influence on literary tastes and trends. A market-driven fissure was emerging between critical works and popular works of fiction, and with it, a distinction between the artist and the celebrity-writer. There are many reasons why this schism happened when it did: a growing middle class with increasing leisure time and disposable income, near-universal literacy, etc. There is however only one way to explain why it was exploited so thoroughly and succumbed so rapidly to the prurient interest: greed.

Though we tend now to snicker at the moral rectitude of High Culture's defenders in the 1860-1930 period, had they prevailed in that battle a) we would still be in possession of the requisite decorum and high-mindedness not to snicker and b) we would not be contending today with the likes of Rod McKuen. In her fascinating book, The Repeal of Reticence, Rochelle Gurstein chronicles the culture battle between what she calls the forces of reticence and the forces of exposure, arguing that the battle was largely lost to the latter by the turn of the century. Elaborating on a quote by the social commentator E. L. Godkin from his 1869 essay "Opinion-Moulding," Gurstein suggests: "...squandering attention on the unworthy constituted nothing less than a 'fraud on the public', giving an obscure person's 'opinions and wishes an amount of respect...to which they are not entitled.'" Sounds like a healthy admonition against the cult of celebrity which, by all indications, fell on deaf ears. Time-Warner, are you listening?!

And then came Chuck Bukowski. A hacking shadow of Ginsberg, Bukowski nonetheless originated in the outer circle of the Beats where an outside-the-academy, gesticulating poetry was central to the movement (Kerouac's "bop prosody"). Credit the Beats with bumping bowling league night to Thursday, folks, because Tuesday night now belongs to the Performance Poetry Read-off and even culture mavens can't be two places at once. So Bukowski represents the nadir of poetry's collaboration with celebrity: poetry kidnapped for the seedy joyride of fame. Bukowski flaunts celebrity as though it were an ill-gotten gain, miring readers in his own self-loathing. Nor can the Jerry Lewis-is-a-genius-in-France argument save him. Yes, Bukowski had a strong European following which anticipated by many years his renown in the States. But then, Jerry Lewis is considered a genius in France, so go figure. (For an even more excoriating review of Bukowski's poetic merit, I urge you to read our Editor's essay in Melic Summer 2000: "Bukowski and the Nadir of American Poetry".)

Face it. We live in the era of culture crossovers and brand identities where promotional synergies are exploited to sell product: Jewel, Jim Morrison and Art Garfunkel come immediately to mind as representatives of yet another celebrity-poet subspecies, the crossover poet or rock-star-qua-poet. (As Mark Strand's new hip-hop album awaits final studio edits at the time of this writing, I hesitate to include him as crossover poet-qua-musician, though I hear his collaboration with Snoop Doggie Dog is some of his best work.) Indeed the crossover phenomenon, for poetry at least, seems to be uni-directional, that is, poetry inherits many moonlighters but offers few exports of its own. Or have I missed any MFA grads in recent MTV videos?

Today's celebrity art is all about the cold gray face of business and one of its key maxims: the standard deviation of proven success is vastly preferable to the vagaries of raw innovation. In short, cash-flow begets further cash-flow.

"Serious" poets should probably expect more crossover incursions in the future. I note with chagrin hardly a ripple registering with the announcement that Martha Stewart would be rushing her first beige-and-teal Cantos to print in time for the spring sales. K-Mart meets The Paris Review with nary a whimper.

The point here is that even if you're the learned tradition's anointed water-carrier in the illustrious line of Whitman-Eliot-Stevens, Jewel's poetry is going to out-sell you. Period. And is this necessarily a bad thing? It all depends on how well you handle an acoustic guitar. Okay, so maybe the occasional 15-year-old girl skimming Jewel's book on the store shelf will reach for an Anne Sexton anthology (sex sells, right?) Might the lesser celebrity-poets serve as rhinestone gateways to more enduring poetic works? Probably not. But at least Jewel's A Night Without Armor: Poems gets to brush bar-codes with Sexton's Transformations for a little while. Perhaps proximity will breed something other than contempt. But I wouldn't want to bet my Howard Nemerov decoder ring on it.

  Norman Ball

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