In continuing my discussion over the four types of poetry (part 1, 2), I’d like to look at the Beats and Outsiders. When I think of the Beat poets, I automatically think of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. There are quite a few more, but my mind defaults to these two. Outside of literary styles and labels, the Beats stereotypically embody drugs, sex, and the rejection of American values/traditions/systems (do I dare go so far to say Anarchy??). In publishing Howl, Ginsberg was accused of obscenity, though not convicted. The Beats weren’t the first outsiders, and contemporary outsiders aren’t necessarily Beats. But the two are linked in their desire to resist and avoid the establishment.
While we can somewhat easily apply labels of ideology to the Beat and Outsider poets, it can be difficult to apply labels of poetic form. Stylistically they are varied and diverse. Rules don’t apply and are even discouraged–it’s part of the movement to reject rules. Ginsberg explodes with long Whitman-like lines, while Jack Kerouac wrote in the polar opposite short choppy lines (an extremely simple example, but hopefully the point is obvious). The Beats were accused of obscenity, and became pioneers in fighting against the American system, especially in literature. So when I picked up Kevin Prufer’s National Anthem, I was expecting something a little bit edgy due to me preconceptions of the Beats. Halfway through the book (there are two sections), I had to re-evaluate the meaning of Outsiders because I didn’t see anything Beat-like about it–except that it very clearly criticizes the American Empire. Ron Silliman provides a little insight here. Does it simply take a self-proclamation to be an Outsider aka Kay Ryan? Another essay suggests that Outsiders simply refuse to join a crowd, or their work is simply too ambiguous to label it. There are not necessarily mainstream sales to place an Outsider into the mainstream crowd; there’s too much resistance towards establishment for Outsiders to be in the academic P-A crowd (even though several P-A folks claim to be either victims of a system or Outsiders in the face of mainstream). So what makes Prufer, a college professor, an Outsider?
In this interview with Kevin Prufer, he explains his hatred towards the Bush administration. I wouldn’t say this is Outsider type material, as it is quite fashionable to hate Bush and Republicans. It’s also a bit cliche to compare America to a big bad Empire like Rome. I wrote previously that Tony Hoagland criticizes American life, and he’s mainstream. So what gives?
The previously mentioned interview with Prufer sheds a lot of light on this collection of post-apocalyptic poems. Again, there isn’t much pushing of the form envelope, and language is used traditionally. My first impression when reading this book was that lines didn’t really matter as the first few poems employ long lines with non-consequential endings. I wonder if the details of such pithy things as lines doesn’t matter in a post-apocalyptic setting. This collections opens with “Apocalypse” and instantaneously established a land that has been destroyed by one thing or another (flood, bombs, etc.). In the aftermath of such destruction, should one care about line endings or are there larger issues one should be dealing with? But as I traveled through Prufer’s American Wasteland, lines began to take form and stand out. It was pretty easy to figure out that Prufer is alluding to the metamorphosis of traditional American Democracy into Contemporary Materialistic Selfishness in the poems “We Wanted to Find American” and “National Anthem.” The first poem opens with “We wanted to find America through the gasps of snow that fell like last century’s angels–/and the starving horses , their shanks brittled with ice–/And the moon atop its brilliant derrick, and the poor burning so beautifully in the oilfields.” The ideas of the 18th and 19th century have been replaced (assassinated? suffocated?) by ice storms, death, oil, and a lost appreciation for once open and endless frontier. “National Anthem” states, “Sometimes, I can hear the nation speak through the accumulation of the suburbs–/Olive Garden and Exxon; Bed Bath & Beyond….” (I chuckle at the coincidence of my first two choices of books to read and analyze relate to criticising suburban America.) Prufer’s strength as a poet lies in the images present in each poem. As stated in the interview above, each poem feels like a movie script–a really weird sci-fi-ish type creation where the outside-the-Matrix-world meets the I am Legend world. Pointed teeth, dolls eyes, and mechanical things appear repeatedly. Even if the reader can’t figure out the purpose of them, he or she has something clear and concrete etched into his/her mind. However, I began to feel that the apocalypse was becoming cliche by the end of the first section. Good thing because the focus shifts.
The poems continue in the destroyed world created in the first section, but they seem to be more about the individual rather than the empire. I wonder if Prufer is suggesting that with the fall of America comes the fall, or compromise, of the human spirit (epsecially in the Faulkner sense) as evidenced in “The Mechanical Bird”:
Hard to cut the heart from the ribcage.
__________________________The skinflap opens
as a door opens to a darker room. Tease it with a finger,
___________________________________scalpel and clamp–
then coax it out and put it on a platter.
________________________Hard to cut the heart, or replace it,
though a mechanical bird suffices nicely,
____________________________nested in the chest’s
warm cavity. Intricate and Victorian, neatly feathered,
____________________________________yellow, wound tight
so it sings and turns its geared head, so the wings spread
_______________________________________and flap. Sparrow,
chickadee, songbox that thrills and pumps the blood.
Don’t you know this is a love poem?
Don’t you know this is a poem about longing?
______________________________Lovely, the bird in the chest
that sings these words to it,
__________________that beats its wings against the ribs’ restraints.
Here, the lines matter as they coincide with wing flaps, heartbeats, and brokenness. But what kind of song can one sing (in the vein of Whitman) if one’s heart is mechanical?
The collection leads towards a final death (a bird of course, another repeated image throughout the book) and various reactions to dealing with it. When all is said and done, this is a powerful collection due to the image and repetition of objects and themes. It takes a bit more work to figure out what is going on, removing this from a mainstream label. I can’t put this in with the Beats either because I don’t think that Prufer is purposely trying to offend the reader or the establishment. In terms of labels, “Outsider” seems to be more about the poet himself rather than the poems. Some of the poems in National Anthem could be mainstream, while others could be presented in a slam. Again the form and language elements are not stretched or challenged. Maybe Prufer isn’t anthologised or discussed as often as Kooser, Hoagland, or Collins in the big, bad, hate-poetry world, but by looking at this collection, the label of Outsider accomplishes nothing. Do those outside of poetry need to classify things in order to justify an attempt to make sense of it? This is good poetry, but it leads me to believe the division and labeling within the poetry world is merely rapping the analytical tire iron against the car’s frame rather than opening the trunk and letting poetry breathe and ruminate.