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High and Low

What we write about when we write about celebrities.
"Kanye At Westminster Central Hall 2007" by Daniel Cruz Valle

A glance at celebrity websites and magazines serves to confirm that it is possible to make a living by taking photos of very famous people doing very ordinary things: walking dogs, pumping gas, dropping children off at daycare. It might be difficult to identify the precise desire that these images are intended to stoke or satisfy—the thrill of peeking through the regimented scrim of celebrity to glimpse something genuine, maybe, or simply the reassurance that despite their exalted state, these stars’ quotidian concerns are not wholly different from our own. But the rush is clearly widespread, if not universal.

This spring, Wesleyan University Press released Sarah Blake’s debut poetry collection, Mr. West, which achieves its momentum from examining the distant spectacle of celebrities alongside the enduring curiosity about what they might really be like as human beings. This “unauthorized lyric biography,” as Blake calls it, juxtaposes Kanye West’s life as a black male celebrity with Blake’s own as a white female artist and soon-to-be-mother. “You miss her and I miss him but // surely I cannot say if, when you think of death, you, Kanye, think of the / heart,” she writes in “Kanye’s Circulatory System,” writing of the death of her grandfather and of West’s loss of his mother, Donda. By putting their lives in conversation, she provokes her readers to wonder: What are we able to know about superstars, as far as we are from their fabulous orbits? What are we ever able to know definitively about the experience of someone else? Her answer: people have a great deal to learn from their experience of celebrities, particularly the feeling—familiar to all who have ever considered themselves fans—of identifying with a person whom one has likely never seen in person.

Mr. West builds the enigma and inaccessibility of celebrities—and the way their images are mediated—into the text. Presumably for permissions reasons, Blake can’t quote extensively from West’s lyrics. Thus, she replaces quotations with blacked-out bars and attributions so that readers can find them for themselves. The section “the fallible face,” for instance, has an epigraph that says, “Kanye West ‘Through the Wire,’ line 6 of verse 2’”—a structure evocative of biblical citation—which, if readers check, reads “And he explained the story about how blacks came from glory.”

Poets have been deploying celebrities as a means of mixing “high” and “low” or pop and elite cultures for decades, going back to Frank O’Hara’s poems about Lana Turner and Billie Holiday and beyond. Lately, though, poetic writing that engages with celebrity has flowered: Daniel Nester’s groundbreaking 2003 book about the band Queen, God Save My Queen: A Tribute; Kiki Petrosino’s 2009 book Fort Red Border; Marcus Wicker’s Maybe the Saddest Thing and Julia Bloch’s Letters to Kelly Clarkson, both from 2012. Even celebrities are writing about other celebrities, including Amber Tamblyn, whose third collection, Dark Sparkler, consists of poems about dead actresses ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Dana Plato, and James Franco, whose recent books, Directing Herbert White and Hollywood Dreaming, resound with the clatter of loudly dropped names.

The cynical response to this recent eruption of poems about celebrities might be that it’s a crass attempt to attract attention or a desperate desire to imbue poetry with a cultural significance: My poem can’t be as relevant as Kanye, so maybe if I just write about Kanye, I can vicariously seize a shred of his relevance. But at its best, poetry about celebrity is actually quite complex, capable of grappling not just with the space between fame and non-fame but also with gaps and commonalities across all kinds of human distances, including those of race and gender.

Since the time of The Iliad and The Odyssey, a poet’s job, historically, has been to create myths. One could argue that in writing about celebrities, today’s poets participate in a number of traditions of mythmaking, of devotional poetry (think John Donne addressing a nonresponsive but fervently believed-in God), or simply poetry to a silent and unattainable beloved (think Dante to Beatrice, Petrarch to Laura).

Celebrities are separated from and elevated over us, but they also show us something essential about ourselves. They perform the same function as the ancient Greek gods, offering an outsized depiction of our own virtues and vices. Or, as Leigh Stein writes in “A Brief History of My Life Part VII,” “Truly the only things Lindsay Lohan and I / have in common are our preoccupations // with fame and weight loss, and yet I recognize / a kinship there, as if those two things mattered // more than anything.”

Effective poetry causes us to see something anew. The best poetry about celebrities can help us see their flatness with more dimensionality or can help us see some aspect of ourselves afresh. In “In the Locker Room, I Introduce Myself to a Naked Mickey Rourke,” Chris Green writes of a normal person-celebrity encounter. The speaker first meets the actor’s girlfriend, Carré Otis, of whom he says, “I’ve since read that / Mickey often beat her. / Bad.” The poem concludes, “He wears […] a crooked look / (like his penis), / a sweet snarl. / He has a star-ness.” In 36 lines, Green captures the attraction and repulsion of celebrity.

Green’s poem and others like it display a sympathetic engagement with their celebrities, even when they’re being critical. David Lehman’s “May 15,” from his The Daily Mirror collection, operates in a similar fashion, showing an encounter in which the speaker admires a star, even as the star is less than noble. It begins “Sinatra, snapping out of a haze, / noticed me sitting across from him / ‘Who the fuck are you?’ / Just another fan, I said.” Then it turns into an elegy, continuing “on the day he died / I made anagrams out of his name.”

Kiki Petrosino plays with a similar divination-by-celebrity approach in her book Fort Red Border, the title of which is an anagram of the name of Robert Redford. The book opens with a series of 14 lyric pieces from the perspective of a speaker engaged in a relationship with the actor. The first, “Wash,” takes as its premise that the actor, referred to as another character and in the third person, is helping the speaker wash her hair:

“He never uses the faucet to shampoo my afro—just an old clay jar.
Redford fills the jar at the backyard pump.
Then he leaves it in the sun to heat.
So it’s only going to be so warm by the time it gets to me.
That’s the point of doing things natural:
You get what the sun dishes out, not what you customize.”

This intimate fantasy causes readers to see Robert Redford anew and to ask hard questions about what is and is not considered “natural.” It’s a scene that would be remarkable for its tenderness between any two people, but that seems even more so because it stars Robert Redford. Petrosino takes the fortress—as the anagram suggests—of his celebrity, impenetrable to most, and opens it wide for her first-person speaker, thereby inviting consideration of the racial politics of a hugely famous white man lovingly serving an anonymous black woman.

As often as not, though, the first-person speakers in celebrity poems address an absent second person, the celebrity him- or herself, suggesting that celebrities can be the ultimate correspondents, the most fertile and perfect romantic, erotic, and religious addressees or objects of deep contemplation. They’ll ignore the poets, yes, but the resulting poetry itself, the yearning, makes that ignoring productive.

Julia Bloch’s book Letters to Kelly Clarkson, a set of epistolary prose poems to the American Idol season-one winner (idol! See? Godlike), is in large part about that very phenomenon—paying dogged attention to minutiae about someone who pays none back to you. Bloch writes

“Dear Kelly,

I hear you’ve parted your hair a new way for the music video. I myself am dividing tasks according to what can be completed in front of the television, the depressive’s gesticulations toward order.”

Marcus Wicker employs a similar epistolary conceit in his debut, Maybe the Saddest Thing, writing “Love Letters” to celebrities who will never reply, including RuPaul, Pam Grier, Justin Timberlake, and Jim Kelly. In “Love Letter to Flavor Flav,” he includes an epigraph from Langston Hughes—“We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too”—and asks the rapper, “What have you become?” simultaneously questioning and praising him, concluding “How you’ve lived saying nothing / save the same words each day / is a kind of freedom or beauty. / Please, tell me I’m not lying to us.”

Like Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella from the 1500s, successful poetry about celebrities complicates the relationship between subject and object, self and other, reminding us that we are all potential star lovers, our hearts crying out to hearts that might never cry back: “[l]oving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,” as Sidney says in the first sonnet of that sequence. In other words, whatever other qualities it has, the best poetry about celebrities is not without at least a little bit of love, even if that love is ambivalent.

  • Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...


High and Low

What we write about when we write about celebrities.
  • Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

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