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On Poetry & Kitsch
[Note: This post is part of a new monthly series on the Editors' Blog in which we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry's current issue. Daniel Tiffany's poem "How Many Days Can You Live on Vicodin and Frosty?" appears in the November issue.]
“Kitsch” is a dirty word, so it’s always been a little mysterious to me, even though kitsch—fake art—is supposed to be all around us. I know kitsch when I see it, I guess, but I wouldn’t know how to define it exactly. It gets confused with camp—and even with art itself (by those who never use the word, who enjoy it un-self-consciously, without feeling embarrassed). In fact, kitsch—as a term of mild reproach—usually turns out to be something other people like—stuff that is stupid or pathetic or silly. I, too, dislike it—though, following Marianne Moore’s example, I could probably be talked out of my aversion. And it gets even more puzzling, or disconcerting, when you try to think about kitsch in relation to poetry. Is there kitsch in poetry? Well, yes, there must be, but no one talks much about it. And no poet I know would want his or her poems to be described as kitsch.
The modernists hated kitsch—that’s for sure—and they were the ones (literary types, mostly) who first defined it in a series of essays in the 1920s and 30s: Robert Musil, Adorno, Hermann Broch, and Clement Greenberg—who attacked kitsch as the antithesis of the avant-garde. (Did you know that Greenberg was a budding poet with no training in art history when he published his famous essay in 1939?) The campaign against kitsch was in part a way of identifying and condemning artifacts associated with mass culture. Walter Benjamin, too, wrote a little piece called “Dream-Kitsch” (Traumkitsch) in 1923, but he didn’t seem to hate kitsch as much as the others. Even Benjamin, though—like his fellow modernists—conceived of kitsch as a form of degraded Romanticism. This presumption doesn’t sit very well, however, with the thesis that kitsch is a product of modern industrial culture (another common idea)—but, then, theories of kitsch have never been very coherent, except in the anxieties and hostility they convey.
One thing that’s surprising about all the inaugural essays on kitsch is that poetry figures prominently in each of them as a model and source of kitsch. That’s odd because kitsch has become a term we now use mostly to describe material artifacts—not poems. The evolution of pop art has blurred distinctions between high and low in visual culture, to some degree, but poetry and kitsch still don’t get along very well today. So what gives? Is there a forgotten history of poetry and kitsch? And if we were to dig up a little dirt on the subject, would it matter to our understanding of kitsch in general—or to our sense of the relation between poetry and popular culture?
You don’t have to dig very far, it turns out, before you hit pay dirt—though traces of kitsch also lie at great depths in the poetic tradition. But before we go any further, let’s see if we can develop a working model of poetic kitsch—something grounded specifically in language–by sampling some of it (names withheld, of course!).
More white than whitest lilies far,
Or snow, or whitest swans, you are:
More white than are the whitest creams,
Or moonlight tinseling the streams.
Vagrants, crushed by such effulgence,
Wrap their mild twigs and bruises in straws
And touch themselves lightly, like buttered bees.
A cherub, on pinions of silver descending,
Had brought me a gem from the fretwork of heaven.
O my kitten a kitten.
And oh! my kitten, my deary,
Such a sweet pap as this
There is not far nor neary.
Where’s de voice me love’ to hear
Whisp’rin’ sweetes words o’ cheer?—
Voice dat taught me ABC
As me leaned ‘pon mumma’s knee.
Any serious reader of poetry would likely find these passages to be insipid, formulaic, trivial, sentimental and, above all, unoriginal. Derision and contempt, as these judgments suggest, are common responses to kitsch, yet one is nevertheless surprised to find Broch, Adorno, and Greenberg describing kitsch as a “cult” of “indecent necrophilia”–as “trash” or “poison”–and, even more extravagantly, as “the element of evil in the system of art.” And all of these authors associated kitsch with fascism. Goodness gracious! What is it about the seemingly harmless pleasures of kitsch that calls forth such harsh response? Accuracy and specificity, it’s true, are not among the virtues of kitsch. Its powers of representation are extraordinarily weak; its images and sentiments are false, synthetic, fake—everyone is in agreement about that. Yet the enigma of its transparent falsehood reaches an audience much larger than more “serious” poetry. Why? How are we to explain the significance or appeal–from a verbal standpoint–of the generality of kitsch? Could it be that the verbal integrity and mass appeal of popular poetry (a contemptible idea to most poets) are not grounded in the function of representation? What drives a poem that depicts nothing?
The distinguishing verbal feature of poetic kitsch (aside from the stereotypical imagery and sentiments it shares with kitsch in other media) is its deliberately “poetic” diction (whether simplistic, archaic, or exquisite). At once superficial and profoundly traditional, the diction of poetic kitsch traces a Luciferian arc from cosmos to cosmetics, from canonical to degraded verse: a delusional program of bad taste and aesthetic failure. Poetic kitsch cultivates what Baudelaire calls the art of the cliché. In a sense, then, kitsch is the perfect illustration of T.S. Eliot’s thesis of poetic “minority”: the idea that the language of the poetic tradition is grounded in mediocrity. From this perspective, kitsch is not merely, as most presume, a rancid delicacy of low-brow taste (in contrast to elite culture), but a bridge between the two realms: a medium between high and low sensibilities that is seeing some pretty heavy traffic these days—a key, that is, to poetry’s vexed relation to popular culture.
Whether one views poetic kitsch as jejune or arresting, as a shallow spectacle to be suppressed in English poetry or as the essence of poetic language (in contrast to prose), kitsch is the direct outgrowth of a heightened and restricted vocabulary associated specifically with poetry, a recursive genre designed to telegraph certain generalized poetic effects (which places it at odds with the super-genre of literature). Viewed in this way, kitsch suppresses the functions of representation and meaningfulness in favor of reproducibility (at the level of sentiment and diction) in order to build a regime of special effects. Poetic kitsch thus reveals its affinity for what Sianne Ngai calls verbal “gimmickry” or gadget-love: a temptation marking, it turns out, a submerged correspondence between kitsch and the Oulipian procedures or “constraints” of the poetic avant-garde today. In this framework, poetic obscurity is no obstacle to popularity since, as we know from the methods of advertising, even a nonsensical phrase can be converted into a common idiom if it is repeated often enough.
The orchestration of poetic effects pertains, it must be emphasized, directly to questions of audience and mass culture. Understood in this way, poetic kitsch traffics in aesthetic hyperbole, counterfeiting poetry in a language that defies particularity and, for that very reason, captivates its audience: a hyperaesthetic formula radiating the mystified–and stereotypical–estrangement of “Poetry” (with a capital P). More concretely, kitsch in poetry may be described as poetry in drag. By this, I don’t mean a form of verbal cross-dressing, but something akin to the more ubiquitous spectacle of female female-impersonation or male male-impersonation, a cosmetic distilling of lyrical expression: a poetic doll. Kitsch in poetry thus enacts in stilted syntax and precious vocabulary a linguistic melodrama, exposing at once the intrinsic falsehood of poetic diction and the unadulterated essence of poetry. In so doing, kitsch spawns a popular and hyperlyrical artifact so profoundly alienated from its canonical sources that it functions as a cultural cipher in the no-man’s-land between lyrical and anti-lyrical traditions of poetry. Summoning images of live burial, Hermann Broch calls kitsch “a foreign body lodged in the system of art.”
If poetic kitsch fails to represent any kind of experience accurately—external or internal—why does it matter at all? What does its flimsy verbal delirium accomplish? The key to the integrity and popularity of kitsch lies in its power to tell public secrets and, by harnessing its addictive pleasures, to make them stick. Kitsch expresses to those who consume it not individual fantasies, but collective social desires and grievances that would otherwise remain concealed. In addition, kitsch evokes and makes palpable its own ghostly circulation through countless rings of anonymous consumption. Like advertising jingles, verbal kitsch is a form of reflexive intelligence in mass culture—a paradigm that began with poetry, with the ballad revival and the literary struggle over possession of vernacular language in the eighteenth century.
In its most rarefied and, at the same time, least distinctive aspect–an art without qualities–the reproducibility and immobility of poetic kitsch may succeed in arresting poetry, in removing poetic language from external influence, from the continuous stream of historical incident. Under these conditions, poetic diction functions both aesthetically and socially as a viral system of resonance and feedback, allowing for the possibility of collective experience–a way of modeling social and ephemeral totalities–based on the reverberation of shared conditions. In the largest sense, then, poetic kitsch exploits the interrelated and potentially subversive categories of diction and totality. It operates in a contaminated verbal space integrating jingle and epic, chorus and collectivity.
So, is the prospect of deliberately writing poetic kitsch merely a form of slumming? Not if we acknowledge that our use of the word slum retains some of its original meaning as a word in the dark tongue of the demimonde: the OED says slum means “gypsy jargon or cant” and “nonsensical talk or writing,” but also a “criminal trade.” Perhaps, then, kitsch is a form of slumming, if it may be counted among the poetic strategies Susan Stewart calls “crimes of writing.”
Returning, finally, to the craft of poetry, kitsch works according to the logic of the poetic refrain, a relic of the ballad revival and neoclassical promiscuity—an age of poetic imposture and inscrutable forgeries. Recent interest by “experimental” poets in the ballad form reveals a submerged affinity, as I noted earlier, between kitsch and vanguard poetics. Charles Bernstein’s mock ballads, for example, become the vehicle for an exposé (and expropriation) of poetic fraudulence:
Poets are fakers
Whose faking is so real
They even fake pain
They truly feel.
Bernstein’s bogus lament sounds a bit like the tricked-out doggerel of Frederick Seidel and Michael Robbins, but it also feeds off the renegade minstrelsy of Caroline Bergvall, Catherine Wagner, Harryette Mullen, Cathy Park Hong, and Susan Wheeler’s first couple of books. It is no accident that Bernstein and Hong choose the archaic ballad—the most coveted (and volatile) ornament of what Dwight Macdonald calls “the golden age of literary hanky-panky”—to posit a revolutionary equation of kitsch and avant-garde.