by Robert Sullivan
Tonight, Will Oldham, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, is performing at Town Hall. Among other things, he is an enemy of poetry.
His sharpest and most prominent attack came in an essay in Poetry, in the June 2012 issue, in one of my favorite sections of the magazine — a feature each month in which non-poets write about poetry. I suppose it was generous of the editors of Poetry to allow what could be called a dissenting voice. Faith, after all, necessitates doubt. But it was not so much a dissenting voice as a voice that said we should shut down the proceedings. It made me ponder canceling my subscription but that would be giving in to an anti-poet and, further, might seem harsh to Poetry.
What did he say? He said poetry is stupid. In most cases condensing an argument would mean simplifying that argument and analyzing but in this case it will mean that I must expand on it somewhat, because there isn’t much to it to begin with. Poetry, he argued, makes him feel dumb because poetry doesn’t make sense. Poetry is just words on paper, and when read aloud it is worse:
Even recited, words expressively coded and adjacented are like a miracle of phonetics but do not mean what they should. It’s about the structure, but a poem holds nothing up and nothing in. It sits there. And in a public space, a read poem fills the air with signs that I cannot use to direct myself anywhere except the restroom or the sidewalk, or inside of myself.
Poetry, he “argues,” fails in the face of, for example, a song. (By the way, Oldham uses “quotes” in his “essay” so when I use them, I’m merely taking it to his level, that’s all.) The songwriter is — guess what? — OK with songs:
Give me a melody — give me, better, a harmonized melody — and those words will become a part of me. This is what I, a child of the age, need.
Poetry, he continues, is intentionally obscure and thus worthless. He quotes a Shakespeare sonnet then dismisses it:
Unfortunately, the full sonnet made no sense to me, and even that quoted couplet became scrambled and indecipherable without the guidance of a critic to give it meaning — because it is poetry, and poetry is something that points to something else.
I could go on but I can’t bear it. I could try to imagine Oldham’s point of view. Towards that end I could say that though I have had times in my life that have been not-so-poetry-filled, lately poetry helped me through some rough spots — and I could recommend he try reading this Derek Mahon poem aloud. I could mention recent good times on the subway with my Emily Dickinson collection, thanks to two young poets I saw read, and who, after, implored me to read “My Emily Dickinson,” by Susan Howe. Even mentioning the first line of Robert Duncan’s “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” would be, for me, like fist pumping, so into that poem am I this summer, so impressed with its Con Ed power-plant-like energy.
I might also respond with a reasoned argument — but why?
Instead, I will merely suggest an antidote to Oldham’s dumbness, an essay that is about the same length as Oldham’s but in terms of smarts is an unfair competition, like facing off Brittany Spears (“Oops, I did it again”) against Emily Dickinson (“That it will never come again/ is what makes life so sweet.”). (Oops, I just remembered Spears did not write “Oops.”) I am referring to Charles Bernstein’s essay “The Difficult Poem.” Bernstein, a founder of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry in the 1970s, is the author of many a difficult and presumably Oldham-disabling poem. In his essay, he makes the point that a difficult poem is not the readers’ fault — it is just difficult. Difficultness is a part of life, and writers of difficult poems don’t mean to make them difficult; it just happens that way and that’s OK. “Readers of difficult poems … need to beware of the tendency to idealize the accessible poem,” writes Bernstein. “Keep in mind that a poem may be easy because it is not saying anything.”
For writers of difficult poems, Bernstein has these words of solace: “Like readers of difficult poems, these writers of difficult poems must first come to terms with the fact that theirs is a common problem, shared by many other authors. And they must come to terms with the fact that it is not their fault that their poems are harder to understand than Billy Collins’s, but that some poems just turn out that way.” Which is a great point, and lost, it seems, on Oldham. If life were only Billy Collins poems, there wouldn’t be much to it. You need a little George Oppen to keep things interesting. Though I don’t want to open up an Oppen discussion in sight of Oldham’s essay. It feels distasteful.
I am just going to fight fire with fire and say Oldham’s “essay” is incomprehensible.
Did that sound tough? I want to sound really tough. Maybe incomprehensible isn’t tough enough. Sometimes, even as a guy who spends his time at a keyboard, as opposed to an artillery gun or city block-sized piece of farm equipment, I wish I had a tougher public persona, even amongst writers. I wouldn’t want to spit at Colson Whitehead, as Richard Ford did recently, after a scorcher of a review, partly cause I’ve never felt that riled up by bad reviews (they usually miss the parts I think are really bad), and partly because I’ve always been an ineffective spitter — a bad judge of the wind, little volume, less a spit than an indication of ambivalence, a pffff. I would settle for a not-so-serious duel challenge (a la Tolstoy and Turgenev) or for a drunken and belligerent appearance on a talk show — along the lines of Norman Mailer, who for those too young to think of the 70s as anything more than fashion trend, was the novelist, pugilist, and wife knifer, and (actually pretty good, especially in comparison to a sword tweeter) mayoral candidate, who went after Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett show.
Of course, I overthink these things, and my problem with unleashing my inner Norman Mailer is that the victory in that performance was eventually awarded to Dick Cavett, who, when caught in Mailer’s crossfire (“Why don’t you look at your question sheet and ask your question?”) came back with the one solid blow of the evening: “Why don’t you fold it 5 ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?” Even when Mailer would eventually knock Vidal down with a punch at a dinner party, Vidal would beat him with an effortless bon mot, reported variously as “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again” or “Once again words fail Norman Mailer.”
The lesson: violence unleashed leads to mixed results, as it did 37 summers ago in my own life, when Henry Goodfriend wouldn’t stop swearing around my little brothers and sisters (I am the oldest of 6) and I threatened him with a knockout punch that I was in due course forced to deliver, for the one and only time in my life — the result being no discernable damage to Henry, my siblings’ disgruntlement (going on 37 years), and me with a cracked hand.
Fortunately, as I hereby launch this bold literary assault — if I haven’t lost you already with this digression that, I see from the vantage of this paragraph, is a little weak, a pfff as opposed to launching a loogie, a mortar fired from too far — I feel as if I will have the backup of many. I believe that tonight I will be in the company of angry poets. Many angry poets.
The course of action I have hereupon decided on — this vindictive and, yes, distasteful diatribe — may be too little too late. I have come to terms with that. And yet, I can easily imagine that the presumably poetic rage against Oldham has been building, that poets everywhere have been communicating and planning and plotting and readying themselves for his appearance this week — preparing for a confrontation that will be, if not terribly noticeable, then certainly epic, in some potentially vague sense.
I know I will be attending tonight. I wouldn’t miss it. Why? you ask. Well, first of all, I like his music. I remember not being that interested in his music on first listen, but then I heard a philosopher I know sing a traditional ballad that Bonnie Prince sings — the Ohio River Boat Song — and I went back to him and, sure enough, came to dig him. Also, I am a huge fan of the opening act, The Murphy Beds and I have been hearing great things about Dawn McCarthy, who is also performing.
But I am mostly going to be there to be a witness to the moment when poetry takes its revenge, which, I believe, it ultimately will. I’m a little shocked it hasn’t happened already, that no one has called out “Prince” to date — that the readers of Poetry didn’t show up on his recent “book” tour and give him a hard time, perhaps by raising their hands and asking penetrating questions about the “essay.” He came to the city at least once since penning the Poetry piece, to do a reading from his book (which apparently explicates his work). I happened to spot him in a bar in my neighborhood, and I contemplated marching in and saying something but it is a bar that I haven’t been in in years, and seeing him through the window, he appeared to be bigger than me and so I felt as if I needed backup — a bunch of poets, for instance. And also, I was late for dinner at home.
At Town Hall tonight I expect to see the police holding back lines of poets, two or one deep. I imagine haiku writers will have the most concise protest placards, and that sonnet writers will work hard all day on a response and in the end will perhaps be too tired to show up. Light verse, so often demeaned even by poets, will prove effective, with sharp repeated volleys of cheery sentiment. The writers of difficult poems will be the most difficult to spot. They may be hiding amongst the non-poet public, or even lurking in the backstage crew, or amongst the cops. Be alert, Bonnie “Prince.” Watch your back. You might wake up in an alley the next day looking like Rimbaud on a bender. You may have only a vague recollection of five tercets and a quatrain. Only later will you realize that you were villanelled.
Robert Sullivan is a contributing editor at Vogue, and the author of numerous books, including Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City and, most recently, My American Revolution. He self-published one poem, a found concrete poem that is a standout in that particular poetic genre. Photo by Neff Conner.