On Poetry’s Yearning To Fit In (Buy Me Designer Jeans)

David Orr’s essay on the recent photoshoot in Oprah Magazine of poets looking fashionable can be found online here.

I think Orr has a lot right in this essay regarding implications that indeed run more subtle and complex than the knee-jerk but perhaps at least occasionally forgivable reaction of shunning such things as what Orr calls ‘the debasement of art’. I’m certainly guilty of this myself, cheering on Franzen’s rejection of Oprah’s stamp of approval on The Corrections, etc. Orr rightfully declares this is the reaction of ‘idiots or snobs’, and he’s right, though to be fair being a snob is not always a position one should avoid entirely.

The more interesting implication to note is the ‘sad yearning’ Orr sees in the entire production or poetry’s often youthful-seeming (to me) desire to have a place in mass culture, which is to say poetry wants to fit in. Much like 14-year-olds clamoring for designer jeans it seems Orr considers the Ospread a gesture bridging the gap. It would seem the only thing worse than not fitting in and being ostracized (perhaps what that 14-year-old might endure sans fashion-fashion) is being invisible and ignored. After all, the ‘mass culture’, if we can really with any credibility assign anything resembling a singular agency to it, rarely looks on poetry or other art forms with disdain so much as mild confusion if they’ve bothered to look at us at all.

Past the very human and understandable yearning to ‘fit in’ and be recognized by ostensibly as many gazes as possible, I’ve never understood this yearning. I used to come from the younger, more brutish and yes snobbish position of ‘Why would we want our art tainted by mass culture?’. I do think there’s something to be said for this idea, in that any aim for the lowest common denominator should at the very least be met with skepticism if not derision. But let’s let that notion sit on the ‘small extent’ laurels at best and simply consider the liberty of obscurity. To paraphrase Charles Bukowski, we’re all the luckier that even the most famous poets can walk down for the morning paper without being recognized. The fewer gazes mean inherently fewer expectations. That we’ve seen that even inside our own sphere more veteran poets are often victims to struggling to live up to their own legacy is evidence enough that we need not be in want of even more expectation.

It seems to make sense that fashion might be one kinship poetry might try to run DNA tests on–it’s one of the rare forms of art alongside film and music that has a very central place in mass culture, and like its comrades this is invariably seen in its spectrum of ‘quality’, however we might argue the metrics and usefulness of the term.

I think it’s a mistake to see that poetry has no place right now in mass culture–our song lyrics and Hallmark cards are to some degree our Wal-Mart t-shirt equivalent to fashion. Notice that no one seems to yearn purely for ‘a’ place in mass culture, but that they want to retain the air of ‘high art’, be recognized and appreciated as such while cannibalizing their lesser iterations as ‘low brow’ via, of course, snobbery.

My point remains, to whatever degree poetry sits outside the realm of mass culture we should count ourselves lucky and be wary of these gestures of yearning, not because of notions of ‘debasement’ but simply for the sake of appreciating our own freedom of expression.

It should also go without saying none of this in the slightest is a direct criticism of the specific production in question or the poets featured in it, but more the larger gesture it might be said to be part of.


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