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. :-)

Originally Published: March 4th, 2008

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...

  1. March 6, 2008
     K. Silem Mohammad

    I wonder if this analogy isn't a little off-base. Where I grew up, it was typically the same people who hated disco and punk. Remember, Johnny Rotten's t-shirt said "I Hate Pink Floyd," not "I Hate Donna Summer."
    If I were going to try to find a musical equivalent to the mainstream/experimental dichotomy, it would be something more like easy listening vs. punk, or perhaps more accurately, "classic rock" vs. punk & disco.
    This is not to deny that one can find annoying rockist biases against disco among punkers, but I would guess that such attitudes increase in direct proportion to how much said punkers' aesthetic is formed on a "badass" hard rock stance. So, for example, the mookish Ramones (whom I nevertheless cannot ever fully reject) expressed all kinds of narrow, stupid, gluehead views, whereas the Clash were committed to both musical eclecticism and progressive politics.

  2. March 6, 2008
     Don Share

    A complication is that we now know that John Lydon actually listed to Pink Floyd, among many other things; and of course The Clash were Mott the Hoople fans (and shared a producer in Guy Stevens), so the "classic rock" vs. "punk" thing involves both more stance... and more nuance... than simple oppositions allow.
    I don't know why this comes to mind, but when I met our "Jane," he was wearing a "Who the **** is Mick Jagger" T-shirt.

  3. March 7, 2008
     Cuitlamiztli Carter

    I commented on Mr. Philen’s blog because I think punk rock is a vastly diverse field that is resistant to definition or reduction. There are folks who do the same thing with rap - because they don't like the slim amount of rap they've heard, they're educated enough to note some common trends but dismiss the genre as a whole.
    Every era of punk rock reacts against the mainstream around it. I actually really like disco, but I hate the Sex Pistols. However, punk-infused acts from that era, such as the Stranglers, Wire, or the Specials managed to blend several styles around the ultimate punk ethos of cynicism and simplicity (though the late 70's punky ska/reggae movement chucked out the simplicity quickly).
    People often forget that the Ramones, the first "true" punk band (though there were antecedents), weren't as abrasively rebellious as the British movement that sprang up, or the California (vivat Darby Crash!) one that followed. They were just inherently independent in their thinking, so when they pursued distorted bubblegum pop, it was antithetical to what the mainstream wanted without a bunch of "fuck you"'s in the lyrics.
    The aggressive three-chord stance of many punk bands may get repetitive, but it shares that with the loopy beats of much dance music. But I love both. However, the punk ethos quickly shed its simplicity and began incorporating other elements.
    So while I can concede that some might find the pure products of punk rock less pleasurable than say, disco, I for one don't. I think they're two sides of the coin. Sometimes I want to dance to something with a syncopated groove, sometimes I want to let lose to raw, bordering-on-breaking-up distorted fury.
    Of course, I prefer ska-punk, which often blends the simplicity with punk rock with the flourishes of rocksteady. A good example is early Suicide Machines.

  4. March 7, 2008
     Tyrone Williams

    I concur with all the complications re punk, disco, etc. I too found that my friends who hated disco also hated punk--these tended to be classic rock and/or classic r & b fans (needless to add, they found new enemies in rap and grunge...). But as for the mainstream/experimental divide (which is not the same as the conservative/radical divide), it's interesting, Reginald, that you write that one way the distinctions break down for you is that you like writers on both side of the divide. I hate to invoke the New Criticism here but your remark seems to play into the hands, so to speak, of the pathetic fallacy--that what a work "is" is equivalent to its "effect" on a reader. I too like writers on "both sides" of these divisions but that doesn't mean the divisions are not "real" (whatever THAT means!). I thought your piece was going to investigate the "insider" (coterie or hegemony) and "outsider" claims for "mainstream" and "experimental" modes of writing. And just to play a bit with your Christian terminology, I've heard and read "mainstream" used as a good and desirable quality and "experimental" debunked as anathema...Different folks, of course, from those you appear to be invoking...

  5. March 7, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I agree that the punk/disco dichotomy is a little more complicated than I made it out to be. But in my high school/college experience in the late Seventies and early Eighties, one thing that people who liked prog-rock and people who liked punk had in common was that they hated disco, because it was inauthentic, overly commercial, co-opted by the Man, etc. The Peter Frampton/Pink Floyd fans and the Sex Pistols/Suicide fans could all agree that disco represented everything bad about "pop music," which among the folks I knew was a pejorative on the order of "School of Quietude." (I remember a college friend, an Upper West Side punk who loved Black Flag and Agent Orange and TSOL, dismissing Gang of Four's Songs of the Free--the album featuring "I Love a Man in a Uniform"--because it was "so disco.") And Mr. Lydon went on to do his own version of progressive rock with Public Image Limited, especially their album Metal Box/Second Edition.
    As for the diversity of punk, like Robert, I prefer to define it more specifically. The Stranglers, Wire, and the Specials may have been "punk-infused," but they weren't punk, certainly not musically. Their "infusion" by punk was more in terms of attitude and approach. The Specials, for example, weren't a punk band, and never claimed to be; they were a ska band--a much faster version of ska than classic Sixties ska, but definitely ska. And if I understand Cuitlamiztli Carter correctly, I agree that the Ramones were basically a loud, fast bubblegum group.
    With regard to Tyrone Williams' comment (hi, Tyrone!), in this post, which was meant fairly lightheartedly, I did put my thoughts about the "experimental"/"mainstream" divide in pretty subjective terms. But in my post here on "post-avant" poetry, and especially in the revised and much-expanded version of that piece on my own blog, and to a certain extent in my series of posts on this site about the New American Poets, I discuss the ways in which these categories are constructions and impositions on a wide range of poets, and I question the insider/outsider claims, especially now that so many "outsiders" are firmly ensconced insiders, with Ivy League academic jobs and books from University of Chicago Press. As Paul Hoover has suggested, in many ways (certainly in terms of critical attention and the always-important coolness factor), "post-avant" is the new mainstream.
    Many "experimental" and "mainstream" poets have more in common aesthetically with one another than with other poets with whom they're either explicitly affiliated or lumped together. Many of the divisions and labels have more to do with social context and personal history than with the qualities of the text itself. Jane Miller's work, for example, is far more disjunct and "experimental" than, say, Amy Gerstler's, though one is accounted "mainstream" and one is accounted "experimental." And yes, I do like the poetry of both.
    Thanks again for commenting, and have a great weekend.
    peace and poetry,

  6. March 9, 2008
     Stv Ptrmir

    As someone who grew up on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and loved The Clash, Elvis Costello, the Talking Heads, DEVO, etc. as soon as I got a chance to hear them, I don't think your analogy is apt. A better analogy with the world of music would be genres where there is a long tradition, such as classical (Beethoven, Bach, Mozart vs Alban Berg, Harry Partch, & Cage) or jazz (swing vs be-bop, Ornette, free jazz, Sun Ra, AACM). Both disco & punk were pop music innovations of the 70s, and they both opposed the mainstream pop of the time -- disco coming out of the club scene and punk coming out of garages & basements. The big difference is that disco had mass marketing backing via movies and the music industry, and thus became part of the mainstream almost immediately, whereas punk didn't find a mass audience until Nirvana came along in 1991. Punk took many different turns, but the most important were not along a particular style, but instead embodied the idea that you could do it yourself (DIY). As d boon of the minutemen said, "Punk is whatever we made it to be." Most punk isn't intended for a mass audience. Most poetry isn't either, and like any other art form, the good stuff carries things on from the tradition, but innovates and makes new. I think punk has had a bigger impact on poetry as the DIY concept has become pervasive, whereas it's still difficult to free your ass to a lot of poetry, though sometimes the mind follows anyway. The problem comes when the advocates of tradition try to denigrate and dismiss the new, and ultimately pile as many steamy disco manuscripts as they can in the infield of Comiskey Park and blow them up. But, don't worry Donna Summer & Gloria Gaynor had the last laugh, and the punks don't really care one way or the other--just do your thing--blow it up, blow it up, real good.
    pac, lov & undrstanding (nvr giv up!)
    Stv Ptrmir
    no man's land
    minnapolis, mn