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Celebrity Poetry

By Major Jackson

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What is it about celebrity poets that rile “serious” writers of poetry? With each new collection of poems by an actor or music recording star, envy mounts as does the high levels of indifference by poets and critics, alike. Such books of poetry are roundly dismissed and ignored by the literati, yet inevitably become bestsellers owing to the legions of adoring fans that seem to have an interminable appetite for mediocre verse. Rest assured, such books do not attract prize committees and are rarely reviewed outside of Publishers Weekly or Booklist. One would think, also, given the stratospheric mega-sales, these books would appear on the poetryfoundations.org bestseller lists. Alas, there too, ignored.


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Although celebrity poets seem to be double-dipping in their attempts to elevate themselves from pop-icons to literary luminaries, and although their poetry at times seems vapid and artless (read Leonard Nimoy’s aka Dr. Spock’s love poem below), and although we know their books are part of a package deal contract between their lawyers, media agents, and publishers, I appreciate the visibility and import they bring to audiences of readers who might not normally buy volumes of poetry. They just might even be fighting back the trend of dwindling readerships, helping in the cause of increasing literacy among the youth.
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Do their poems advance the art of poetry? Probably not, but they also do not poison the meal. Although it might be unfair to grant them admission into the country club dining room, they have as much a right to creatively express themselves as the next guy and more to share their musings between the hardcovers on love, life, and lost dogs. (Check out Jimmy Stewart reading a poem about his dog Beau on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1981.)Some celebrities I knew first as poets, long before the bright lights, big screens. At the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, I organized an event titled “Word Up!: 3 Cities, 15 Poets, 1 Goal” which featured poets from NYC, DC, and Philly, including Ursula Rucker, Sabela Grimes, Ryva, Carl Hancock Rux, Rich Medina, Ayana Traylor, Danielle Legros-George, Bethany White, Willie Perdomo, Tish Benson, Joel Diaz Porter, Brian Gilmore, Kenneth Carroll, and a young performance poet Jill Scott. Yes, before her first recording “Who Is Jill Scott?” Jill was a Philly poet. In fact, Jill’s song “Exclusively,” I first heard as a poem before its appearance on her debut album. Venues like the Lyricist Lounge and The Time Café’s Rap Meets Poetry often blended genres and served as springboards for unsigned hip-hop artists, emcees, and poets such as Mos Def, Mums da Schemer, Jessica Care Moore, and others to display their skills in an open-mic setting.
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What is a good trend in my estimation is when mega-stars put their weight behind poetry, as in the Academy of American Poets’ annual benefit that has notable cultural figures as Dan Rather, Minnie Driver, and Liam Neeson reading poems in celebration of contemporary poetry; or when esteemed aficionados of poetry such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or John Lithgow edit anthologies of their favorite poems.
What would really be hip, is if celebrity poets donated their time and talents to more literary organizations and went on tour reading their poems as a group.
I naturally give such artists their due respect and am ambivalent about guarding the gates of taste and good judgment. In that spirit, I encourage you to go out and buy these books (as if they need my advocacy) of recent and not-so-recent pop bards to fill up your bookshelf:
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Ten Last Night by Viggo Mortensen
Foolish/Unfoolish: Reflections on Love by Ashanti
Who Will Cry for the Little Boy? by Antwone Fisher
Tears for Water: A Songbook of Poems and Lyrics by Alicia Keys
The Moments, the Minutes, the Hours: The Poetry of Jilt Scott by Jill Scott
Always a Reckoning, and Other Poems by Jimmy Carter
Thoughts by Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins of TLC
A Lifetime of Love: Poems on the Passages of Life by Leonard Nimoy
A Night Without Armour by Jewel
The Lords and the New Creatures by Jim Morrison
The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur
Touch Me by Suzanne Sommers
Yesterday I Saw the Sun: Poems by Ally Sheedy
Blinking with Fists: Poems by Billy Corgan
The Poets’ Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book
for the Whole Family by John Lithgow
The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
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Meanwhile, here are two poems by Jimmy Carter and Leonard Nimoy.
Why We Get Cheaper Tires from Liberia
The miles of rubber trees bend from the sea.
Each of the million acres cost a dime
nearly two Liberian lives ago.
Sweat, too,
has poured like sap from trees, almost free,
from men coerced to work by poverty
and leaders who had sold the people’s fields.
The plantation kiln’s pink bricks
made the homes of overseeing whites
a corporation’s pride
Walls of the same polite bricks divide
the worker’s tiny stalls
like cells in honeycombs;
no windows breach the walls,
no pipes or wires bring drink or light
to natives who can never claim this place as theirs
by digging in the ground.
No churches can be built,
no privy holes or even graves
dug in the rolling hills
for those milking Firestone’s trees, who die
from mamba and mosquito bites.
I asked the owners why.
The cost of land, they said, was high.
Jimmy Carter, Always a Reckoning, 1995
**********
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I love you
not for what
I want you to be
But for what you are
I loved you then
For what you were
I love you now
for what you have become
I miss you
And not only you
I miss what I am
When you are here…
You bring out the best in me
–Leonard Nimoy

Comments (19)

  • On January 20, 2008 at 6:32 pm Anna wrote:

    While it is tempting to agree with you that any endeavor which brings new readers to the neglected poetry shelves is fundamentally a good thing, I have to mourn the fact that, given the limited shelf space assigned to poetry in today’s book stores, two feet or so devoted to Jewel and the like necessarily squeezes out many excellent books by contemporary poets and past masters.
    Similar to your point about celebrity anthologies, what I would personally like to see would be for our celebrity wannabe poets, instead of inflicting their own well-meaning verses on their fans, to endorse and promote a book by a contemporary or historical poet they admire and would cite as an influence. In this way they could also prove their own devotion to the craft by demonstrating that they do at least read poetry as well as attempt to write it.

  • On January 20, 2008 at 7:25 pm Steve wrote:

    Leonard Nimoy played Mr. Spock. Dr. (Benjamin) Spock wrote a bestseller beginning “Trust your instincts. You know more than you think you do,” and later opposed the Vietnam War. Both (or all three) were admirable, but they shouldn’t be conflated.
    I don’t think Jimmy Carter’s poetic talent is all that and a bag of chips, but he’s clearly trying to write artful, considered poetry in a page-based (rather than performance-based) literary tradition: he’s clearly a reader of serious poets from the literary past. The same can’t be said for some of the other celebrities above, though some of them have other verbal gifts. Carter is one of two presidents to have published a book of his own poems during his lifetime: can you name the other?
    Aren’t some of the books on that list compilations of poems by other hands, assembled by (or with the assent of) the celebrity, rather than books of poems written by said celebrity? I’m all for collections of the Favorite Poems of any famous person. Including collections of poems meant for children, or “for the whole family.” Such collections were once important forms of family entertainment, during the century-and-a-half-or-so after the spread of real literacy among many middle-class women and before the advent of radio.

  • On January 21, 2008 at 4:18 am Daniel wrote:

    I have to strongly disagree here; this notion of “anyone can be a poet” – and the perception of such as a good thing because it promotes the genre – is a misguided, albeit good-intentioned attitude that only increases the distance between the contemporary reader and the world of real poetry. This distance is a problem we do a fine job of creating ourselves, and we certainly don’t need the involvement of celebrity stardom to help. In short, it demonstrates that poetry today has abandoned critical checks and balances in an effort to be “popular” again. It sends the signal that poetry is a discipline that requires no training, experience, or even contemporary knowledge of; in turn, those academic programs are but mere formailities, something not necessary if you have a certain amount of charisma, stardom, or money. No other discipline – with perhaps the exception of art – allows just anyone to step in a claim themselves to be a professional; if Alicia Keys wanted to perform surgery instead of poetry, how many would think it woul dbe a good idea, even if it got a lot of people interested in it? What about Ashanti wanting to fly a plane, with no training – would you buy a ticket on that trip? But no, with poetry its okay, because hey, it makes people go to the poetry section of a book store. That is such flawed reasoning. Perhaps even more detrimental is the long term effects: young readers have a misinformed idea of what poetry is, and don’t realize it until they step into a writing classroom; that general public also has a skewed vision of poetry – either they don’t understand why they don’t like everything else in the poetry section, or they are disappointed with the vague shallowness of celebrity-such-and-such’s poetry, and have no interest in looking beyond that. Look, ultimately this is looking for someone else to solve a problem that poetry itself – including critics, writers, and journals – have yet to fix themselevs. Sure, it does require at least a partial critical guard at the “gates,” but that being a bad thing is a falsehood that has run rampant in our culture, and it has costs us enough already. Besides, there is a fine line between saying “you have to be a member of this club to get in,” and saying you simply need to know what you are doing. It’s the same reason you don’t perform brain surgery, and why I don’t do rocket science.

  • On January 21, 2008 at 7:41 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    The Jimmy Carter poem ain’t bad–I mean, he could have got it published even under a pseudonym I imagine.
    Does anyone remember that Slate piece where they put Rumsfeld’s Heraclitean sayings into verse form? They were pretty good.
    The Best Loved Poems of Jacky O. is probably the reason Cavafy is as well known in the US (assuming any foreign poet–or poet for that matter–is well known) as he is, since it included “Ithaka,” now, ironically, a fairly common graduation-speech type poem.
    Can we include Stephen Frye’s The Ode Less Travelled on this list? I have yet to read it, but I have heard excellent things about it.

  • On January 21, 2008 at 10:51 am Belinda Shinshillas wrote:

    I know that everything that you can do to promote poetry is a good thing. but as Juan Gelman (one of the best Argentinian poets) used to say:
    In these modern times, poetry readers are not abundant, but they are really loyal readers. And we have to be honest and say:
    “Poetry readers are not poetry public, that is the big difference between poetry and bestsellers.”
    Juan Gelman (Buenos Aires, 1930).

  • On January 21, 2008 at 12:29 pm dwayne wrote:

    It’s interesting that Daniel fell back on the would you let a surgeon operate on you with no training analogy, when surgery and flying a play, and driving a car, if you want to take it to that extreme, are inherently different from verse. The skills needed to write passable poetry can come from reading, writing and listening to what you hear. I doubt the skills for surgery, flying a plane or driving a car are that easily acquired.
    Many poets have written well without getting an MFA and I doubt anyone on this list serve, save Major (maybe) knows Alicia Keys, Jill Scott or any other singer turned poet good enough to know if they have a strong sense of poetic craft acquired thorugh reading, from some workshops in their area or some other source.
    I read an article where Agha Shahid Ali says the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz drew 50,000 people to his readings. I’m not comparing Faiz to Jill Scott, but it’s interesting that few American poets, if any, resonate that much with the average public, who Daniel seems to think can’t understand quality verse, to draw that type of crowd. And I think Major is on to something. Jewel can’t take up space on the shelf my yet to be written book could be taken up, because among other things, I rely on the publishing industry to determine when my poetry is book worthy and I, like most poets, am just not that concerned with creating a 50,000 person audience. (Nor do I know what it takes to get it.)
    The problem may just be the constant degrading of the reading public, something that celebrities always know not to do. And Jill Scott’s book contains poems that rate more relevant and at times just plain better than many a poem that makes it in many a journal.
    dwayne

  • On January 21, 2008 at 1:54 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Actual Air by David Berman (Open City Books)
    Adult Head by Jeff Tweedy (Zoo Press)
    Michael Madsen had some poems in Esquire a few years ago.
    Joni Mitchell in The New Yorker a few months ago.
    There is the rock anthology “Third Rail” and then there is the indie rock anthology (vol. 1&2) Revolution on Canvas.
    The list goes on.
    Some of these items depend on how you choose to define celebrity. Some of it begs the question of why all of this pathological interest in celebrity and for what? At least in any truly meaningful way, if anything collectively meaningful is even possible in late capitalism. As for poets, who call themselves poets, or see themselves as being ensconced in some brand of literary milieu–what some recognize as hell–one might want to investigate what all of these divisions of labor mean for health of the conversation–or poetic enterprise as I have heard some call it. Regardless, in my experience, poetry only knows addition–good, bad, indifferent.

  • On January 21, 2008 at 1:56 pm elle wrote:

    Yeah, what Dwayne said. Don’t mess with Jill. :)

  • On January 22, 2008 at 4:35 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Hang on a second, please, shouldn’t we be making a distinction between poetry collections by people who are known for their words and sounds— and people who are known mainly for their pointy ears? What exactly is the point of putting Suzanne Somers and Mos Def in the same boat? Once one has made this initial distinction, it’s really just a question of whether a work is especially rewarding on the page, in performance or both (all three count as poetry for me, just that i wouldn’t spend my hard-earned money on a book from the second category, id download the mp3 and listen to it multiple times).
    The celebrity thing is a red herring and a “by the way”. It may well be that a celebrity turns out to write well, but I consider it absolutely, absolutely disgusting when someone uses their power, influence or riches (for that matter, even to some extent their youth or their retouched photographic image) to get a book of poems published. What is it they’re after, cultural cache or high-culture certification? What happens to poetry when it becomes about cultural cache or certification?
    Yes, the Jimmy Carter poem is an interesting and worthwhile statement, but what makes it more crucial than, say, poems by unfamous soldiers in Iraq or prisoners at Guantanamo Bay? Rather than advocating poetry by celebrities I think it makes more sense to question the haloed figure of the Poet: to say that useful and interesting poems need not only come from professional, well-read poets or oracles, not only from people who toil away at the practice and the reading day after day at their desks or those who publish in literary journals; that, on occasion, even people who turn to the practice of poetry less seriously and persistently might still be able to express important ideas effectively in verse.

  • On January 22, 2008 at 5:30 am Sean wrote:

    It is a sad state of being when others would choose to berate and judge another person’s poetry. Whether a celebrity or not, all poetry should be appreciated for the author’s attempt at putting their self/thoughts out there for the world to read. Too many noses pointed skyward in my humble opinion. I, for one, do not claim to be of the intelligenstia. Gladly so. For reasons such as have been posted. I prefer to think of poetry as an art form and an emotional outlet. Let the reader take from it what they will. Poetry was, is, and will be a form for the laypersons to express themselves. Just as it has been throught the centuries. To say only a select few should write or be published, reeks of thinly veiled jealousy and envy. And while “authorized” poets debate over who should and shouldn’t be published. I will sit back and enjoy my copy of “The light in the Attic” (if i remember the name correctly) lol. This is what happens when scholars have to put regulations and guidelines on what should be considered poetry. In closing, just enjoy the book. If not, put it down and move on to one you like. ;)

  • On January 22, 2008 at 10:52 am Nick T. wrote:

    Check out Dan Chiasson’s piece on celebrity poetry from a few years back in Slate.

  • On January 22, 2008 at 12:28 pm Major wrote:

    Anna,
    Would granting “Celebrity Poets” their own shelf space at Barnes & Noble next to “Self-Help” guides help preserve the canonical masters from obscurity?

  • On January 22, 2008 at 12:37 pm Major wrote:

    Steve,
    I’ve been outed. I’m no Trekkie, but thanks for the errata.
    Also, are you asserting that performers such as Jill Scott do not hold up on the page? or do not read serious poetry? If so, it might help to know Jill had plans of becoming a high school English teacher .

  • On January 22, 2008 at 12:41 pm Major wrote:

    AE,
    I remember reading of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s friendship with Robert Lowell. I wonder if he appears in same anthology or spurned her love of poetry.

  • On January 22, 2008 at 12:44 pm Major wrote:

    Aaron F, I am predicting a future collection of Bob Dylan poems.

  • On January 22, 2008 at 1:07 pm Don Share wrote:

    Bob Dylan’s book, Tarantula, was published in 1971, though it circulated as early as 1966; it has been available under the title Tarantula: Poems, by Bob Dylan for about 15 years. Hm!!

  • On January 22, 2008 at 1:22 pm capps wrote:

    I used to have but can’t find an older book of Leonard Cohen’s poetry. How’s “Suzanne” for both? Oh I love that song. But as I recall there were some durn fine poems in that book. A tiny one that ended–I always remember–: “Often I pray for you like this: / let her love me.”

  • On January 22, 2008 at 3:50 pm Don Share wrote:

    Ah, Leonard Cohen, whose latest book of poems is The Book of Longing, dedicated to the late Canadian poet, Irving Layton, his teacher. Cohen started off as a poet, publishing his first book back in 1956 – Let Us Compare Mythologies – recently reprinted in a fiftieth-anniversary edition!

  • On January 22, 2008 at 11:22 pm capps wrote:

    Dang, “I always remember it” and then I misquote it. Now I really remember it: “Often I pray for you like this: let me have her.” That’s all I can remember, those last lines, not even the name of the tiny poem. Now I have to go find that book, and dig out my old cds cause I’ve got Allelujiah and Famous Blue Raincoat on the brain. (The latter of which Tori Amos once did a (beautiful) cover of, and she put a pause in a place in that song that I thought was so powerful I used to take it into intro poetry workshops I was teaching and play it as an example of the effect enjambment could have in a poem, when we were discussing the line and its break. She sang it as “Thanks for the trouble you took/ from/ her eyes/ I thought it was there/for good/so I never tried.” Big pause after “you took.” Kind of lovely. But I’m also a cheesehead.


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, January 20th, 2008 by Major Jackson.