Wordsworth @ McDonald’s
This piece is 1,500 words or about 4 printed pages long.
With the advent of the Information Superhighway, cell-phones, and other Digital Now-signifiers, we have an entered an era in which all reality is virtual. Poets who give serious thought to the why of their craft are faced w/ a dilemma: how to create poems in the Wordsworthian manner (i.e. real language of people) when technology has outmoded the Romantic model that still dictates so much serious poetry. Language poetry schematized a new model — oblique, skewered, post-modern. This model was a useful innovation that has, in roughly thirty years time, grown stale & somewhat irrelevant. Poets, & what’s left of their audience, still want the Wordsworthian model to hold. They want feeling to be relevant & language to enact a mimesis of interior ( real) processes.
The problem is, that if we acknowledge a central virtual quality to modern life, real language may be an impossibility.
So, we can’t depend completely on Wordsworth anymore. For the creation of virtual poetry, it will be necessary for the poet to internalize things ordinarily seen as epitomizing crassness & “low” reality — like McDonald’s. As one sits in McDonald’s circa 2005, it becomes clear that agile minds are working to keep the corporate axles greased — minds from which it is possible to learn. Hanging in the window, a large picture advertising chicken strips; a young African-American male dangling one in front of parted lips, beaming; inscribed on the blank space above his head, a motto: “ I’m lovin’ it”. This is obviously rhetorical, in that the “I” here is general & universalized. “I” is all of us, in the contented bliss of a chicken-strip meal. So, McDonald’s is subtle enough to posit an “I” that really means “you”. How many poets left in America can say the same? How many poets are so subtle, so engaged, so virtual that their “I’s” resonate as “yous”? Poets want a perpetual striking of Wordsworth’s bell; they still believe in “real language” (even Language poets inherently must believe before they deconstruct); their “I’s” stay isolate, separate, derelict. Let’s set up a small chart & enumerate exactly the binary being portrayed here:
language/ real men)
I’m lovin’ it)
Immediately it becomes apparent that the McDonald’s ad execs are, on some level, more linguistically sharp than us, the poets. Their motto is PC, active, & moderately serious, where Wordsworth is sexist, static, & excessively serious. What I’m calling for is a poetics equal parts Wordsworth & McDonald’s. Post-modernists would resolve this binary tension by making a mockery of it (especially the Wordsworth half), in an attempt to reinforce an ethos of “virtuality” or “nothing real”. Though reality has grown to be (arguably) virtual, I am looking for an earnest attempt to implement both sides of this binary, the Wordsworth & the McDonald’s, the “I” that’s “I” & the “I” that’s “you”, the static & the active, definite & moderate seriousness. This does not preclude irony & slant; rather, they become a tool to express underlying profundities. What’s needed to achieve balance is
Negative Rhetopoeiac Capability. That is, a poem must attempt to straddle the Wordsworth/ McDonald’s binary without irritably grasping after rhetorical reason, or making a mockery of either side. This ensures a poetics both
actively virtual &
Some of these Frank O’Hara lines are illustrative of successful work in this vein:
I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with
her face on it
(‘The Day Lady Died’)
... and Leroi comes in
and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12
times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop
a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
disease but we don’t give her one we
don’t like terrible diseases...
O’Hara’s conversational diction fulfills Wordsworth binary-end, even as his affirmative, ebullient voice veers into “
I’m lovin’ it” territory (
in medias res, active, performative). This is “serious ephemeral” poetry, using Pop Culture references as quotidian signifiers that nevertheless have substantial internal (“felt”) relevance. O’Hara, though he skirts post-modern (or “Pop”) territory, does not make a mockery of anything — he’s kidding, but he isn’t, he’s at McDonald’s reading Wordsworth, he is where we want to be.
O’Hara’s oeuvre as a whole is useful, because O’Hara has a key “Wordsworth McDonald’s” quality that most serious poets lack — “ charm”. His poems, in their moderately serious/ actively engaging tenor, are charming. Why wouldn’t Wordsworth at McDonald’s be charming? Can you imagine the Bard of Tintern Abbey reckoning a “Solitary Milkshake”, finding himself overwhelmed by a spontaneously felt Big Mac? O’Hara’s charm comes from unexpected juxtapositions charged w/ feeling. He is, in this sense, a good Wordsworthian — but he lives in the present moment, always. Dualism is manifested as whim. Modern signifiers are internalized, processed, felt.
So, McDonald’s has led us from Wordsworth to Frank O’Hara, who was virtual before virtual became real. He instinctively navigated a Mannerist-space that has yet to be pursued by a substantial number of serious poets (who perhaps mistrust his merely moderate seriousness). Yet, poets who lean & cling to Wordsworthian “reality” can often be heard complaining about lack of interest. Poets who want to achieve something real in this day & age really have no choice but to get Mannerist. Mannerism is differentiated from Pop (and the post-modern ethos that followed in its’ wake) in this way — Pop is a Campbell’s Soup can, Mannerism is a Campbell’s Soup can held by Michelangelo’s David. Mannerism includes Formal Rigor, depth, gravitas (Wordsworth virtues) along with spontaneous, active, Pop-based signifiers and imagery (McDonald’s).
Claiming an essential virtuality to modern life needs some justification. What I mean to say is that image/ technology-saturation has become so rampant in Western society that even those of us who’d like to lead pure, uncluttered, Wordsworth-style existences have cell-phones, use the Internet, watch TV & movies, etc. Cell-phone communication seems particularly distressing, substituting expedience for intimacy (transpiring as it does while we are “multi-tasking”), breaking down boundaries (anyone w/ our number can reach us anytime, so long as we keep our phones on), often poisoning our relationship to the Now by taking us out of the present moment.
So, imagine — one is at a dinner party, adjourned to the living room to watch (if we are lucky) something by Cocteau or Godard. Our cell-phone rings; we’re expecting an important (perhaps career-related) call; we answer. We are living in three realms — dinner party, Cocteau, cell-phone — at once.
These situations have become familiar and common to most of us. They happen all the time, and they (for me at least) have added up to a feeling of alienation from the essential presence of the Now. This is especially pertinent for city-dwellers. The unreality/ virtual component goes way up, it’s hard to feel solid with a flux not only in the outside world but in one’s hand-bag and one’s computer. When I speak of an encroachingly preponderant virtual world, that’s what I mean.
Poets must address this situation precisely. When Wordsworth, in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, spoke of “gross stimulants” contaminating mass aesthetic judgment, could he even have fathomed our current level of emotional dispossession and image-centered “savage torpor”? I’m all for a poetry that confronts this head-on by using some of it! The architect Robert Venturi says, “ Viva Mannerism that richly acknowledges ambiguity and inconsistency in a complex and contradictory time.” Maybe we could go so far as to call O’Hara a “Mannerist” — his exaggerated reactions and humor, his implicit ethos of “ mess is more”. McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it” also has the essential Mannerist hyperbolizing spirit. Wordsworth, the sober, steady philosophe, was obviously no Mannerist — but why not keep some of his level-headed piety regarding art’s pleasure-giving, insight-shedding mission, his emotion-cherishing mind?
To me, it’s a question of letting in. Don’t write off McDonald’s for its’ Mannerist modernity or Wordsworth for his Romantic self-absorption — rather, let them both in equally, so that what we produce is contemporary and durable, Mannerist and tradition-preserving, face-to-face intimate and cell-phone expedient. O’Hara was, as far as I can tell, the greatest master at absorbing modernity-signifiers in such a way that he represented them without condescension, and with a loving eye. This has obvious ties to Warhol, Pop-art in general, Rauschenberg’s Combine-paintings, etc. Mannerism, however, has grounding in tradition that Pop lacks. Pop did away with the past in embracing glossy surfaces; Mannerism wants the glossy surface and the earthy depth. It’s an impossibly ambitious stratagem for a new urban poetics — but why not?
Adam Fieled is a poet, musician, playwright, and actor. He has released three albums: Darkyr Sooner and Ardent (all music, mp3.com and Webster Street Gang productions respectively), Raw Rainy Fog (spoken word, Radio Eris Records). He is the creator of two multi-media artists’ co-ops, This Charming Lab and the Philly Free School, that have presented shows and reading series w/ poets, prose writers, bands, acoustic acts, film-makers, painters, and performance artists at venues (such as Kelly Writers House an dthe Bowery Poetry Club) in Philadelphia and New York, featuring local, national, and international acts. His poems have appeared in American Writing, the Philadelphia Independent, Cake Train, Siren’s Silence, Night Rally, Hidden Oak, Mind Gorilla, and Hinge. Four of his one-act plays were produced by the ‘Outlaw Playwrights’ in State College, PA. He has also acted as a member of NYC’s 13th Street Repertory Theater Company. He is a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
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