White Dopes on Punk: An Analogy*
The dichotomy people in the literary world frequently make between mainstream and experimental poetry, conservative and “progressive”? poetry, is very similar in form and tone (the attribution of sin to one and virtue to the other) to the dichotomy people (some of them the same people) make in the field of popular music between disco and punk. Disco bears the burden of inauthenticity and ideological mystification, complicity and social complacency—bodily pleasure as the opiate of the masses. I find this still-too-common characterization curious, since disco’s main producers and audiences were black people and gay men. Punk, on the other hand, bears the banner of authenticity and critique, transgression and rebellion, a revolt against the body and enjoyment (see the Sex Pistols song "Bodies"). Rebels of all stripes tend to be rather puritanical.
But much of the most interesting music that followed punk and disco combined the two: I’ve heard New Wave described as disco with punk lyrics. (Or did I come up with that myself?) As I’ve written before and undoubtedly will write again, the same is true today for poetry: much of the most interesting and exciting work transcends or ignores the borders some people are so eager to patrol and maintain.
One way in which the analogy between mainstream and experimental poetry and disco and punk breaks down, at least for me, is that, while there are many poets on both sides of the “mainstream”/“experimental” divide whose work I enjoy and admire, as a general rule I can’t bear punk, which I find whiningly one-note (sometimes literally) and dull. (On this topic, see my partner Robert Philen’s clever post "On Why Punk Rock Is So Boring" on his wide-ranging and always fascinating blog.) The pure products of disco (with the possible exception of Silver Convention, who really were dull) were always more interesting, more engaging and, yes, more pleasurable than the pure products of punk, which drive me just a little bit crazy, and not (like, for example, the music of Scott Walker) in the interesting, stimulating way that expands the mind.
*For those who don’t recognize the reference, my title (which is meant as a humorous but gentle gibe) is an allusion to The Tubes’ song “White Punks on Dope.” There’s also a British punk/New Wave compilation called White Dopes on Punk, though I only found out about it while doing a Google search after writing this piece. I wouldn’t want to deny myself any credit. :-)
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...