Q & A: American Poetry
Pop and Lock Culture
Poetry that mixes "high" and "low" culture isn't something uniquely American, but some contemporary American poets like Denise Duhamel, Terrance Hayes, Tony Hoagland and Allison Joseph are particularly adept at networking with all of the forms our culture manifests itself in. When the poem requires it, these poets splices bit of our popular culture—a culture that doesn't really let poetry into its clubhouse—into poems of immediacy and relevance.
By using pop culture, the poets are able to expand the poem's conversation beyond the specific moment of the poem and into something more culturally robust and emblematic, like Denise Duhamel does in "Buddhist Barbie" when "Barbie agrees, but wonders how a man / with such a belly could pose, / smiling, and without a shirt." Or when the speaker of Terrance Hayes's poem "Mr. T.," describes Mr. T's ubiquitous blinging: "those eighteen glammering / gold chains around the throat of pity, / that fat hollow medallion like the sun on a leash—".
I used to avoid popular culture references in my own poems out of a fear of compartmentalizing or dating the poem. But like Q-Tip said in "The Chase, Part II," what we're creating is for the future and what we now consider pop culture allusion will be as mystifying as Rosebud down the line. The works of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes attest to this. Each writer reevaluated and redefined what was acceptable fodder for poetry, navigating notions of high and low culture as if they had poetic GPS. This cultural hybridism led to some grumbling and hrumphing from the top hat and monocle crowd at the time, but now their allusions to popular culture—whether they be to locomotives, Spanish explorers, or blues music—are poetic tropes.
These days, images and allusions from pop culture push their way into the folds of my poems like ostriches push their heads into sand. Because of pop culture, my poems are like a Slinky singing its own theme music. My poems work in this way because everything that happened to me as a child was filtered through a Darth Vader mask. Even now I see my poems in block yellow type, scrolling up toward the stars. Every important idea that poetry interrogates has a corollary in popular culture, and when poetry and pop culture team up like those Marvel comics, good poems can happen.