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The joke goes: How many hipsters does it take to write a poem?

By Harriet Staff

What? You don’t know???

All joking aside, there is indeed serious talk about what constitutes a “hipster” aesthetic in poetry. And we have Johannes Göransson to thank for guiding us through this tangled discussion over at Montevidayo. Göransson begins by drawing attention to this Sean Bishop post at Ploughshares where Bishop discusses the aesthetics of cover art from contemporary poetry presses, charging Fence with perpetuating a “hipster” aesthetic:

#8: Fence Books. At the risk of alienating myself from this press entirely, the way I feel about Fence’s cover designs is roughly the way I feel about many of the poets they publish: they remain on the vanguard of a hipster aesthetic, but in a way that will probably seem quaint in five or six years—the press seems doomed to re-design and re-brand on a very fast cycle… they’ll continue to be successful, I think, and to stay on the vanguard, but only as long as they can maintain the energy of reinvention. Like Black Ocean and Octopus, most recently Fence has favored loud, two-or-three-color covers, and like Octopus sometimes I think their type choices are unfortunate. For instance, I do like Joyelle McSweeney, and I’m excited to read her new book, but that titling and those graffitiesque drips remind me a bit too much of Urban Outfitters.

Göransson fires back by making an interesting distinction between Bishop’s use of “vanguard” and what we typically label as “avant-garde”:

In this blog post, and in many other instances, it does seem to have to do with “vanguardism”. That is to say, it’s not “avant-garde,” in the sense of the established, sanctioned “Official Experimental Verse Culture” (ie language poetry and its descendants); that is to say, it does not aim to be of the future, to be important, to make literary history; it is not invested in reproducing itself. It’s a counterfeit avant-gardism (perhaps Rather it is of its moment for a brief time (5 or 6 years) and is “doomed” to become quaint, to become kitsch.

And as we know from Daniel Tiffany’s writing on kitsch, kitsch is “excessively beautiful.” Charges of “hipster” poetry tends to imply a sense of excess; and excess suggests lack of Taste. Someone with Taste knows when to stop, how to moderate, how to contain “beauty.” The “hipster” lets the art become excessive, lets art become “graffitiesque” (ie when art takes over the space of the everyday).

Part of this excess seems to be that that the hipster – as in other hipster discourses – allows the art to take over their entire life; they become too concerned with how they look for example, what their beards look like. It’s like art takes over their entire life. I think we see this in this particular post with the reference to Urban Outfitters: poetry has become too much like clothes. It is not deep,important poetry, but frivolous poetry, poetry like clothing. Perhaps the kind of clothing with a book by Pierre Reverdy in its pocket (instead of a heart beating in the body). The UO-reference also seems to connote a kind of luxury, which in turn is often used to connote wastefulness, a choice of art over “real life.”

Will we see Billy Collins in skinny jeans? We can only dream!

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, August 3rd, 2012 by Harriet Staff.