Thursday, September 9, 2010

Chris Gilpin Reacts To Poetry Slam Slams

From the "Poetry Is Dead" online mag, Poem Slammer Chris Gilpin responds to a Betsy Warland whine in Geist. The Warland piece spends most of its woe and type on the supposedly underpublished state of CanPo. A bizarre segue then emerges regarding Spoken Word as a blight on the poetry scene, without having the courage or clarity to tie it in with her larger (and ridiculous) point. Finally, the piece waxes heartful about poetry's "primary source for any culture to express and investigate its vision of what it aspires to be". Now, this last wince-inducement has been a staple of Canadian poetry-polemics for decades. Irving Layton summed up the precious bruised vanity involved in the sermonizing club-building when he stated, in 1967 in a lecture, that it reminded him of a teacher "in a hushed tone try[ing[ to persuade the poor suffering children about the glories of poetry. But, for heaven sake, who are we trying to convince? I mean, most of us are poets or semi-poets, and the rest of us would not be here if you didn't feel that there was something to poetry." Gilpin's answer in PID ("The Living Language of Spoken Word"), despite its partisan opposition, is just as juvenile in argument and tone.

"In “The Shrinking Space of Poetry”, Betsy Warland claims that “Spoken word has grown in leaps and bounds; to my ear, however, the majority of writing performed is not deeply rooted in poetry.” I take exception to this backhanded compliment.

Warland is not the first page poet to disparage Spoken Word in this way. George Bowering declared that the poetry slam—which continues to be the grassroots engine of Spoken Word in Canada—was “crude and extremely revolting.” Paul Vermeersh wrote a long rant about how Spoken Word performances at slams contain no actual poetry. Such attacks from the literary establishment are widespread, and Warland’s comment is right in line with the rank and file of Canadian page poets."-- Gilpin

What is there to argue in the quotes? Spoken Word is rooted in poetry? It's not crude? (There are always exceptions -- I once saw a line dancer who transcended the "art form".)

First, the spelling is "Vermeersch". When an elementary mistake is made, it makes one wonder how closely he read the blog post. Second, the rant wasn't "long", it was quite clipped. ("long", here, suggests that it was unfocussed or irrelevant because of emotional overkill.) Third, Vermeersch's "no actual poetry" is harsh, but I sympathize with the conclusion. He's obviously been to a hell of a lot more of these events that have I. From my experience, it's a rather (there's that word again) crude affair. To parallel, while paraphrasing, Stan Laurel's death-bed wish to the nurse -- Laurel: "I'd rather be skiing right now." Nurse: "You don't ski." Laurel: "Right, but it's probably better than having all these needles stuck into me" -- I'd rather take up canasta than go to another slamfest.

"Warland offers no reasons why Spoken Word should be excluded from the realm of poetry, other than her ears, her aural impression. Why should we trust her ears? Is it because they have heard more “true poetry” than ours? Perhaps because they are refined ears, sophisticated ears, ears that can detect verse better than your average layperson. In deference, should we shelve our own impressions and accept the verdict of her superior ears?"--Gilpin

Ah, yes, the old "elitist" argument, without coming right out with the dreaded word.

I know nothing of Warland's poetry, or her competence for judging it. But her brief argument here is on the mark. Of course poetry is for the ears. And slam poets are all about creating special effects in the collective tympanum. Gilpin's argument in the brief byte above amounts to "Yeah? Says who?" (More on that later.) Extrapolating on sound, I hereby declare Haydn to be truer music than Eminem. But then, hey, that's just my "refined, sophisticated" taste.

"The point here is that page poets, subtly or brazenly, champion their education as the tool which allows them to write and understand “true poetry” while Spoken Word, filled as it is with ordinary folks, is not deeply rooted in the study of literature (which is what I assume Warland means when she writes "not deeply rooted in poetry")."--Gilpin

No. Warland discusses, elsewhere in the piece, her deisre to bring poetry to a broader public. Commendable, surely. And by what means? Education. I think her stance much too ideological (she clearly has designs on poetry as social tool), but it contradicts the claim that her approach somehow goes against the wishes of "ordinary folks".

Let's investigate those ordinary folks. (When "folks" are evoked, one can usually be confident that the speaker is assuming a stance of the patronizing spokesman for the downtrodden masses.) Click on Gilpin's home page, then hear his videos. It's ideology at its crudest. And it pushes all the populist buttons, giving "the ordinary people" what they want to hear. Corporate excess is railed against in "humourous" caricatures. It's about the message, no different a procedure (though different in tone) than the Sunday scolder, the ideology being the real focus. And the cruder the message, the more it goes with the crudest of representation (shouting, screaming, bombastic diction, shallow psychology). What's worse is when the only thing going for it -- the pamphleteering simpleness -- is wrong. Listen, if you can, to his satire (all the videos listed here are smirking, juvenile, simplistic satires) of T. Boone Pickens. Gilpin mocks him in the Texan bigger'n-the-world-accent for his orgasmic glee in successful oil speculation, yet Pickens was one of the first prominent oil tycoons to ring the bell for the harsh realities of Peak Oil. I'm sure Pickens has mud and blood on his hands (on more than one issue), but a more complex view of the man wouldn't have elicited as many smug applause haw-haws from the "ordinary folks" at the slam event. Of course, I'm being too kind. 3 to 1 says Gilpin wasn't even aware of his subject's history, on record.

Education shouldn't be championed? Look. Most people, here and in the U.S., read zero or a handful (at best) of books a year. Not books of poetry. Any book. Is that an elitist statement? No. It's a statement of fact. So if you want to reach a wider audience, you'll have to (ironically) enter the marketplace. Not the marketplace of ideas, but the marketplace of performance, which has more to do with that revolting consumer mania Gilpin and his audience decries than its opposite: economically profitless reading, reflecting, and yes, writing. Can commerce and art meet? Of course. Shakespeare made a few bucks. And good on Martin Amis for going for (and getting) the half-million advance. But that's not the driving force behind the art.

"Each old guard tries to expel the work of the avant-garde before inevitably embracing it. Ginsberg was castigated as a madman, and then canonized a few decades later with the rest of his bohemian friends."--Gilpin

Yeah, yeah, the performance poets of today are the "avant-garde". A quick comment. If you think you and your horse are the "avant-garde", you're not the avant-garde. The definition means that no one knows who the so-called breakthrough artists are, or where they are coming from. The artists are just as deluded as anyone else, actually more so. Poets are the worst judges of their own worth. It's obvious. And necessary. They have to have a thick skin to keep going. If one thinks of him- or herself as just another mediocrity, then what's the point? Others are always the judge. For every confident Pound, there are a million-and-one-plus who think they're on the cutting edge, either singly or as a member of a school.

Ginsberg's friends were canonized? Isn't that so .... oh I don't know, un-avantist? What, then, do we call former poets of the avant-garde? Oh, that's right. The establishment. Gilpin's argument is reversed. The old guard doesn't quibble about who's in, who's out. They're already dead. And their supporters have nothing to lose by heralding a new flavour. It's the new kids on the block who have that sense of outraged and outrageous entitlement. Who in the canon does Gilpin denounce? Well, that would be too "sophisticated" to descend to (note the dangling prep). Also, it would mean crafting something substantive. (Crickets.) Education?

"Robert Frost dismissed free verse as playing tennis with the net down; now it is the dominant form."--Gilpin

Frost was a grump. That doesn't abolish his argument. The larger point regarding free verse is that free verse is more difficult to do well than s0-called closed forms. As one jazz enthusiast said to another, overhearing some electrifying experimental sax player: "You have to get real good before you can play that bad!"

"Look farther back and the same story repeats itself over and over again. Even Keats and his Romantic cadre were at first written off as being little more than uncouth “Cockney School” youth whose lush whinings could not be considered proper poetry"--Gilpin

Ergo, Keats equals Koyczan.

"The great irony here is that although Williams warned that poetic forms must change with the times it is his modernist poetry (along with Wallace Stevens’ and T.S. Eliot’s) that has become the most mimicked by academic poets as a quick and easy route to publication. Donald Hall gave a name to the results of this academic mimicry in his wonderful essay “Poetry and Ambition”; he called them “McPoems.” He was right to point out that McPoems impress no one except other McPoets. They are inside jokes whispered in the back stairwells of the ivory tower, out of touch with today’s society. Yet they flood our literary market, tyrannizing our imagination with their outdated, exploded concepts."--Gilpin

In other words, "page" posts are mostly shyte. Ergo, performance poetry is the way forward.

But "page" poets have always been mostly shyte. A sense of elementary history would perhaps avail the mic-in-hand caller of some perspective.

"This is why Spoken Word audiences continue to grow. The 2009 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word featured 12 poetry slam teams—the most ever. For a week, the Victoria Events Centre was sold out every evening, 200 people inside, with a long line-up of people waiting to be let in—for the chance to listen to poetry! The finals were held in front of a crowd of 500 yelling and cheering fans."--Gilpin

World Wrestling Federation, or whatever they call themselves, make Spoken Word competitions look like a bunch of huddled basement kids screeching into tin cans, if that argument is followed to its logical conclusion. Monster truck rallies are also more popular with the "ordinary folks." The bells and whistles seems to be as garish and formulaic, as well.

"Is Spoken Word poetry? Of course it is"--Gilpin

The non sequitur, friend of any and all without a rational and developed line of thought.

"and it is rooted in the oldest of poetic forms: The oral tradition, the tradition that produced Beowulf and the epics of Homer"--Gilpin

What does Spoken Word poetry, as it exists in this time and space, have to do with Homer? If I write a bad poem (with justifiable review-pans), then enunciate it with braggadocio, is it therefore improved? And if not, why can't we reverse the process, and assess all performance poems through the written layout? Homer lives now, and is read now, because his poetry earns its way on the page. If Homer were alive today, and decided to go the Gutenburg way, the performance "poets" would laugh at him if they even knew of his existence.

"Word poets have studied these poems (three of the four of us on the Vancouver Poetry Slam Team have gone through the English Literature program at UBC, the fourth is a voracious reader),"--Gilpin

My gawd, they have BAs! (Prostrates dutifully.)

"The baby boomers of the 1960s and 1970s must wake up and realize there is a new movement afoot."--Gilpin

The boomer generation, by birth, ended in 1964, give or take two years. Even in the sub-generation (1956-1964), there's debate on how that back-half fits in with the stereotype. The increasing cynicism of the "Jones Generation" actually marks them out as being closer to the Gen-Xers. So perhaps we can coffin-retrofit the 70s into the early 50s.

The "new movement" started with Beowulf and Homer, remember? Here comes the avant-garde, again.


Anonymous said...

A pretty thorough response to a pretty shite essay, Brian. Well done.

I read it when it first came out. To paraphrase Rene Zellweger, he lost me at "vemeersch".

Brian Palmu said...

Yes, the "creative" spellers,purposely upending bourgeois expectations.

L said...

Brian Palmu
Impersonated George Bush
Rhymed "affliction"
With "addiction"
And was disregarded
In the Hindu Kush.