Poetry News

The Songs Matter: Dana Ward & 'Pop Magic'

By Harriet Staff


Dana Ward's The Crisis of Infinite Worlds (Futurepoem, 2013) is reviewed at the Los Angeles Review of Books, placing it in the context of "pop literature"—here affiliates being O'Hara, Larry Rivers, Joe Brainard, and more New York School. Michael W. Clune writes of the music:

Dana Ward is keenly interested in pop songs. Larry Rivers’ Camel packs are the ancestors of Ward’s pop. When we read “Our Songs,” we’re not hearing pop as “people in general.” Ward’s poem records marvelous “private associations” with popular music. But this alternative pop art moves in mysterious ways. It isn’t quite what it appears to be. One might, for example, confuse the Rivers-O’Hara-Ward school of pop art with a kind of vapid individualism, a celebration of the rich diversity of different people and their special experiences. One might imagine that Ward is saying that while “Sir Duke” belongs to everyone, each one of us hears something different and unique and personal when we listen to it.

But he’s not saying this at all. The poet has no truck with this kind of vacant postmodern pluralism. His poem moves back and forth between how “we” hear the songs, how “you” hear them, and how “I” hear them, without detectable change in tone or meaning. Turn on “Sir Duke” and the walls become watery. Who hears this way? Anyone. Everyone. Identity doesn’t matter here. The songs matter.

But this can’t be quite right. “Sir Duke” is the only song title given in this long poem, and there are no quotes from any song, no references to any specific hook, bridge, or chorus. Curiously, pop songs as “people in general” might recognize that they are only intermittently present in the poem. It seems as if there are two kinds of pop song here. On the one hand, we have “Sir Duke,” the pop song as it blares, identically, from a million speakers and headphones. On the other hand, we have intense private experiences of listening, in which the pop song appears inside listeners as “bright orange moons” or “an airbrush of jewelry.”

“Playing our songs was mainly dreaming,” Ward writes. The pop song has a double life in this poem. It is a private dream, and a public product. How do we understand the passage from thing to dream? The easiest way would be to say that while the songs are everyone’s, the experiences are yours or mine. But as we’ve seen, Ward’s language refuses this option. The “bright orange moons” and “airbrush of jewelry” are ours, mine, yours.

The paradox, I think, lies not just in Ward’s language but also in the nature of pop songs. Ward understands something basic about the way a pop song works. There is no route linking the song’s status as ubiquitous pop cultural artifact, and the intense experiences the song triggers. There is no way to get from how “people in general” hear the songs, to how Ward’s “everyone” hears them — no passage from “Sir Duke” to “bright orange moon.”

People in the music industry sometimes refer to “pop magic.” Here’s the magic: a pop song is not one thing, but two. It sounds crazy, but it’s easy to illustrate. Let’s say you’re walking down the street with a group of friends when a car drives by. The chorus to “Billie Jean” wafts out of the windows. You and your friends turn to each other and nod and smile. One person starts humming the tune. What’s happened is that you’ve all recognized the song. The thing hangs there in the air for all to hear, it rings out for “people in general.” Nothing turns watery. This is Andy Warhol’s “Billie Jean.”

Now imagine another scene. Let’s say, if you’re Dana Ward’s age (and mine), that you first heard this song when you were seven years old. It was the first record you ever owned. You put it on your parents’ turntable and sat back and the walls became watery. Or maybe you’re 16, stoned, listening to it on headphones. The walls become watery. Or maybe when that car drove by, all of you, instead of smiling and nodding to each other, closed your eyes. Felt your inner walls go watery. And then everyone opens their eyes, looks around, nods.
This is Dana Ward’s “Billie Jean.”

By suppressing almost every identifying detail of “our songs,” Ward suppresses the Andy Warhol aspect of pop songs in order to record the mysterious vital experiences the songs create in us. From Warhol’s angle, the air of our world is shellacked with shiny flat sounds. From Ward’s angle, the air of our world is dense with matter-dissolving hooks and choruses.

Read the full review, which also looks at Bennett Sims's A Questionable Shape. And if you're interested in reading more about Pop and poetry, or how a poem might "forg[e] an intenser real from the cacophony of Pop-sexuality, Pop-social performance and Pop-cataloguing than any smarmy neo-Romantic blitzkrieg of luddite pretensions could ever believe possible, let alone confirm, let alone betray," you should certainly read Joe Luna's 2010-11 essay on the work of Jonty Tiplady, which well connects to DW. XO.