My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch, by Daniel Tiffany. Johns Hopkins University Press. $29.95.
In Brian Selznick’s 2007 Caldecott-winning novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the orphaned main character, Hugo, spends his time trying to repair a broken automaton in the hope that, restored to working order, it will transcribe a message from his dead father. “I’m sure that if it were working,” Hugo’s father once explained, “you could wind it up, put a piece of paper on the desk, and all those little parts would engage and cause the arm to move in such a way that it would write out some kind of note. Maybe it would write a poem or a riddle. But it’s too broken and rusty to do much of anything now.”
Hugo’s father was right — sort of. As Selznick explains in his acknowledgments, Hugo’s broken automaton was inspired by an actual automaton constructed around 1805 by the Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet (1745–1830) and now contained in the collection of The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Capable of drawing four different pictures, Maillardet’s device also writes three decorated poems (two in French and one in English) including the following:
Unerring is my hand tho smallMay I not add with truth.I do my best to please you all,Encourage then my Youth.
When the automaton in Selznick’s novel is restored, however, it does not write a riddle or a poem, let alone a poem like the one with the cultivated archaic diction, trinket-like preciousness, formulaic nature, and failed seriousness — that is, with the kitschiness — that Maillardet’s automaton produces. Instead, it draws a picture, one that eventually leads Hugo and his friend Isabelle to discover that Isabelle’s godfather (who owns a toy shop from which Hugo has stolen bits and pieces to use in repairing the automaton) is really the early filmmaker Georges Méliès.
Although there is no mention of either Maillardet or Selznick in Daniel Tiffany’s magnificent book, My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitsch, Selznick’s erasure of poetry from the automaton’s history provides a nicely condensed version of the long “secret history” of kitsch’s origins in poetry that My Silver Planet uncovers — a history that reaches back to Maillardet’s eighteenth century and that, Tiffany claims, has been obscured but nevertheless embedded in and informing poetry ever since. Even though we now associate kitsch almost exclusively with the visual arts and material culture (velvet paintings, anyone?), My Silver Planet reveals how kitsch and people’s ideas about kitsch were in fact first developed and articulated in relation to poetry. How and why kitsch’s connections to poetry were obscured, what the (far-reaching and significant) implications are for restoring those connections to British and American literary traditions and critical practices, including modern and contemporary poetry, and what unexpected social and literary values get expressed or embodied in poetic kitsch — what Tiffany describes at one point as “poetry in drag” — are thus the primary questions driving My Silver Planet.
Like Maillardet’s automaton, My Silver Planet is so full of fascinating and elegant moving parts (from counterfeit ballads to commonplace books, Mother Goose, pet epitaphs, Gothic sensibilities, Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, Charles Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, and Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory) that it’s impossible to describe them all here; you’ve got to see it in action to appreciate it fully and, even then, it’s hard to believe it works. But a short (perhaps kitschen table) version of the history that Tiffany tells might go as follows. In the mid-1700s, about a quarter-century before Maillardet would relocate to London, and in response to the emerging category of polite, bourgeois “literature,” certain British writers (notably, but not only, coteries of queer aristocratic men pursuing personal and artistic relationships on secluded estates) started collecting, counterfeiting, sampling, and imitating old British folk ballads. Importing language that might have been fresh at an earlier point in history but that was so familiar by the 1700s that it appeared to be artistically primitive, unoriginal, cliche, and thus eminently reproducible — all characteristics that we now associate with kitsch — those writers tapped for the first time into the vernacular past as a way of “resisting the purified diction of ‘polite letters.’” In doing so, Tiffany argues, they discovered a range of new “poetic effects” acting “not as mode of representation but as an insular and ambient medium of expression” that we now know as kitsch.
Kitsch, for Tiffany, is not a quality inherent in a poem or piece of art, but a mode of relating to a poem or a piece of art and thus an index of social relations and part of the history of taste (what you call kitsch, I may call art). In fact, one of the things that makes kitsch poetry kitsch, as the previous paragraph suggests, is how it traffics in the outdated (particularly outdated diction), unselfconsciously “convert[ing] the exalted phrases of the poetic tradition into the abject substance of automation and monotony” — a process that reaches a magical or perhaps terrifying epitome in the figure of Maillardet’s automaton, which is mechanically fated to pen the same three poems over and over, the novelty of its verses becoming more and more cliche and thus more and more automatic and monotonous each time they appear. Kitschy poems thus unknowingly cultivate what Tiffany calls “archaic or markedly ‘poetic’” attributes of language including “poetic cliches and tableaux.” Kitsch links to the figure of the poetaster, the production of poeticisms, and the activity of “poefying.” It frequently elevates the humble, simple, or small. Consider, for example, some of the elements of kitsch in the first line of the automaton’s poem alone: its inverted and thus “poetic” syntax, the poetic word “unerring,” the cliche of referring to one’s hand while writing, the attention to smallness, and the archaic spelling of “smalle” itself that the decoration makes possible with a precious flourish. Whatever power this writing has (what Tiffany calls its “authority”) comes not from language’s representational capabilities but from expressive — i.e., poetic — qualities of the language itself.
Kitsch’s effect, Tiffany argues, is one of “arresting poetry and its drive towards particularity and originality.” Kitsch doesn’t make poetic language new. Rather, kitsch makes it “increasingly insular and arcane,” part of “an artificial, common language ... available to a mass audience” as cliche. And here — in the loss of poetic originality — is precisely its power. “In essence,” Tiffany writes,
what kitsch expresses lies beyond personal experience.... The loss of originality would allow poetry to become — via the traits of its reproducibility — the impersonal and allegorical expression of millions of souls.
These claims for the aesthetic power of kitsch are thus what make Tiffany’s chapters on Ezra Pound, the New York School, and contemporary innovative writing so striking. The modernist tradition in the US, at least in My Silver Planet, does not always “make it new” as Pound entreated poets to do; in fact, it makes it old more frequently than we think, in the process harnessing the effects of kitsch’s poeticisms and poetic cliches for expressive, political, or innovative ends and thus unsettling the divide between “high” and “low” art. Following My Silver Planet, one might be moved to wonder, for example, how much more or less kitschy is the “unerring hand” of the automaton’s poem from 1805 compared to the “unerring hand” of Time in the last four lines of Claude McKay’s canonical 1921, Harlem Renaissance-era poem “America”:
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,And see her might and granite wonders there,Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
What makes the automaton’s poem kitsch and McKay’s poem art? Are they, in fact, both art? And how and why does the kitschiness of this moment in “America” — a moment where, as Tiffany describes it elsewhere, “time freezes” and poetry’s drive toward originality is arrested — affect how we understand the functioning of the language in McKay’s poem?
A further elaboration on poetic kitsch — including its additional verbal properties and effects; how it links in a variety of compelling ways to queer history and queer theory; how it produced (and therefore how poetry produced) the “inaugural artifact” of popular culture; how it and its “lullaby logics” and childish pleasures helped to create modes of reading and of relating to objects that anticipate “the methods of enchantment and indoctrination essential to modern consumerism”; how kitsch may help reveal that we are at “the end of popular culture as a viable concept”; and how kitsch might imagine a progressive social totality — awaits you in the pages of My Silver Planet, dear reader. Sadly there is neither time nor space to elaborate on all of those suggestions here except to say that, in aggregate, they thrillingly, audaciously, and convincingly identify poetry as a primary motivational force in the history of popular culture, thereby also situating poetry studies as crucial to the study of popular culture and vice versa.
As compelling as this material is, of more sustained concern for Tiffany is, as I’ve suggested, the relationship between the vernacular and the avant-garde — also an agenda in his previous book, the excellent Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance, which sought to show, in part, how poetic or lyric difficulty is connected to the obscurity of slang used by beggars, criminals, and revolutionaries. My Silver Planet argues that kitsch (with its roots in the vernacular) shares an unexpected number of traits with the historical avant-garde including an adversarial stance vis-à-vis the bourgeois category of “literature”; a relationship to language as everyday practice; a deep suspicion of originality; and a cultivation of collective rather than personal forms of expression. The avant-garde and the vernacular are not the opposites they’ve often been made out to be, Tiffany claims, but, rather, are in a dialectical relationship with each other, with kitsch serving as a “medium, a bridge” between them. Nearly half of My Silver Planet is given over to “kitsching” elite twentieth-century poetry (Pound, the New York School, and contemporary innovative writing), no doubt to display how kitsch works as a new analytic for poetry studies, but also to reveal how elite and vernacular histories exist in relation to each other and in mutual opposition to polite letters.
My Silver Planet offers a thrilling new way to read poetry from the past two hundred years. (Graduate students, you can now kitsch your way to a dissertation!) My only reservation about My Silver Planet stems from the fact that, while it acknowledges and examines early forms of kitsch poetry in the sphere of popular culture (Mother Goose, epitaphs for pets, etc.), it doesn’t examine kitsch poetry in modern or contemporary popular contexts, choosing, instead, to lavish its attention on kitsch in avant-garde contexts. While quick to name examples of kitsch poetry within the more recent popular sphere — newspaper verse by Edgar Guest, advertising jingles, song lyrics, and so on — My Silver Planet refrains from engaging any of them at length, giving the impression that while kitsch is “an evolving aesthetic” in elite echelons, it is a static, monolithic, and easily ascertained category of writing in popular ones, in the process effectively reinforcing the divide between the avant-garde and the vernacular that Tiffany claims kitsch helps to bridge. One comes away feeling that, insofar as modern and contemporary writing goes, the vernacular is important to understand not because it is complex or merits analysis in its own right, but because it can help shed light on elite poetries.
I suspect that, if turned as an analytic toward the popular, kitsch can help us better understand the work — if not an odd or unexpected literariness — of once-famous poets like Guest (who wrote a poem a day for the Detroit Free Press for forty years); greeting cards and poetic wall-hangings; popular song lyrics (rooted in the ballad tradition that Tiffany makes so central to kitsch); poetry scrapbooks (an extension of the commonplace book that figures into My Silver Planet’s history); and poems appearing on or in any number of consumer items ranging from pillows to candy boxes to beer coasters. It might also help us to understand the citations of poems in movies or TV shows from the past fifty or sixty years that sometimes sample — and perhaps thus kitsch, or perhaps begin to make cliche — verbal artifacts from literary culture in a way that parallels the incorporation of the vernacular by elite poetry and demonstrates how the “bridge” of kitsch between them does in fact run in two directions. (Think, for example, of what Dead Poets Society has done for — or to — Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!”) Perhaps the secret history of poetry and kitsch that doesn’t make it into My Silver Planet’s secret history is that, just as it was with Mother Goose in 1765, kitsch in the poetry of popular culture has been an ongoing and evolving aesthetic as well.
It is interesting to note in conclusion, for example, that while The Invention of Hugo Cabret erases the kitsch poetry of Maillardet’s automaton from its narrative, Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning 2011 film version Hugo brings it back, although in displaced form. In a scene where Hugo and Isabelle are interrogated by Inspector Gustave in the Gare Montparnasse in Paris, Isabelle interrupts Gustave’s verbal assault and puts him on the defensive by quoting the majority of a ballad stanza excerpted from Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday”:
My heart is like a singing birdWhose nest is in a water’d chute;My heart is like an apple-treeWhose boughs are bent with thickset ...
Inspector Gustave stops Isabella before she can finish the stanza, but in this context (the context of our present day viewing as well as the movie’s setting in thirties Paris), the verse is kitschy enough — trivial, mediocre, sentimental, derivative, commonplace, cliche, formulaic, childish — that we can all finish the final line ourselves. It’s a scene that puts the fraudulence of kitsch’s history into play (Hugo and Isabella lie about where they’re headed, and Hugo pretends he’s not an orphan). It’s a scene in which the verbal cliche and the verbal effects of kitsch stand in opposition to the policeman of the train station’s bourgeois, polite culture. And it’s a scene in which the “lullaby logics” of popular kitsch poetry get turned against the Inspector, distracting him and diffusing his aggression to the point where he eventually lets Isabella and Hugo go on their way. Kitsch “arrests” him, one might say, rather than the other way around, suggesting that while the history of kitsch and poetry has not been told and analyzed until now, the effects of that history are nevertheless, as Tiffany argues, still with us — in the poetry we write and read, and in the train stations of our dreams.
Poet Mike Chasar earned a BA in English from Valparaiso University, an MA in English (creative writing) from Miami University in Ohio, and a PhD in English and a certificate in book studies from the University of Iowa. His collections of poetry include the fine-art letterpress chapbooks The Dialpainter Sonnets...