Mass Culture and the American Poet: The Poem as Vaccination

Tony Hoagland

Jan 03, 2019

I once drove around southwest Arizona with a photographer named Pedro, from Mexico City. His specialty was making ethnographic forays into North America, and on this trip he was studying the culture of RVs—recreational vehicles—and their owners. In the American Southwest especially, these colonies of mobile homes are a common sight.  Their migrant inhabitants are mostly older couples, American retirees who drive south for the winter, north for the summer—they rotate between Michigan, say, and New Mexico, or between Maine and Florida. Higher-incomed Americans often have two real homes; but these less-affluent migrants winter in places like Yuma, Arizona, which is where we were.

A standard American recreational vehicle is roughly the size of a railroad boxcar. They have kitchens and beds and bathrooms, satellite TV dishes, flower boxes on their window sills; their exteriors are personalized with slogans and airbrushed paintings of elk. My Mexican photographer friend took hundreds of photographs of these vehicles and their people; deeply suntanned, pot-bellied old men walking little dogs. Women chatting over collapsible fences between their vehicles, like neighbors in a Norman Rockwell painting. This is what Pedro said about his subjects: “Of all the North Americans I have seen,” he said, ”these ones have most fully realized the American dream—to live inside an appliance.”

It was easy enough to make fun of those people. Their RVs had brand names like Voyager, or Windsong, or Open Road, or Apache. They lived in child-free temporary “parks,” which were really parking lots, with hookups for electricity and water.  But it’s also possible to see them as legitimate American dreamers, exemplars of the pioneer spirit, restless non-conformists in their covered wagons, agents of self-sufficiency roaming over the land. These nomads have found a solution to an identity problem; they have both the containment which a human nature requires to know itself; and they have the freedom to remain unconfined, to change their circumstances at will. Thus they can medicate both the conditions of claustrophobia and agoraphobia at once. One could say that RV nomad life is a way of living inside the very belly of the beast, but refusing to be digested. I wonder: how much better can an American poet do that that?

The ill effects and anonymity of mass culture are so well known, and have been so well-described in literature and social analysis that even to bring them up can seem tiresome. We take them for granted. Isn’t this news already a hundred years old? And wasn't it, back then, poetically well-articulated by T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and EE Cummings? Hasn't this modern lament been already thoroughly sung? To complain about advertising for new cars and antidepressants seems touchingly naive. One feels like a cliché from the l950s, warning that the invention of television is going to make us into Communists.

In this essay however, I want to claim that mass culture, far from being a dead subject, is an ongoing challenge for poetry, one that remains complex and demanding of all our artistic ingenuity and confrontational resources.

The symptoms of our commercialized environment are familiar—a loss of fundamental contact with reality, an inability to think and feel clearly, a sense of proportion that is relentlessly invaded, destabilized and distorted. The end result is a sense of being both magnificently stimulated and trivialized, and an anesthetized condition of self that is, paradoxically, a radical kind of suffering. The problem we have inherited is a permanent one: how is it possible for the American poet to grapple with these aspects of mass culture, whose mind-bending presence is equal to any event in our private lives? How is it possible to include the marketplace in our report on the world,  without being engulfed by it? Is irony sufficient? Will aloof superiority serve well enough?

Many ingenious poetic strategies have been marshaled in the 20th century to engage mass culture, but Mark Halliday’s smart, discursive poem, “Seventh Avenue,” models an approach admirable for its succinct formulations. “Romance hates democracy” the poet says, and, "How can I be golden inside/ when there are so many like me? "it’s loud enough already,” he says:

Late Tuesday afternoon the romantic self weaves
up Seventh Avenue amid too many lookers, too many
feelers: romance hates democracy;
how can you be so great and golden inside
if your trunk is shouldered among other trunks
block after block, block after block—…
it’s loud enough already
out here on Seventh Avenue with that cat’s boom box
and these three giggle girls being Madonna together
and that guy hawking wind up titans wielding laser lances.
Who’s Wordsworth for any extended period on Seventh Avenue?
In this pre-dusk traffic you catch the hint
that Manuel and thou if seers are seers only
for seconds--now the steak, taxi, buttocks, headline
and wallet resume their charismatic claim to be what counts.
Soul on Seventh Avenue is a sometime on off quick flip kind of thing...
What I want is a poem long as Seventh Avenue
to sprinkle gold on every oppressed minority
every young woman’s subtly female hips
every sad and suspicious American face
and the quididity of every mud tracked pizza shop;
proving, block after block stanza by stanza,
that I’m not just one skinny nervous pedestrian
but the one who matters because he sees and says
I want that. The Avenue grins and says
“You want that? How does it feel to want?”

"Seventh Avenue" lucidly identifies one central conundrum of mass culture—the ways in which it makes our environment rich, desirable and diverse, a place where we encounter "that cat’s boom box / and these three giggle girls being Madonna together," where pizza shops and street vendors of different social classes and colors are part of the inextricable sensorium of the American Real, self-evident in their necessity and value. In some sense, we need and crave and love all this hullabaloo.

At the same time Halliday's speaker protests against the way that multiplicity blurs the definitions of experience, how it destroys the boundaries of the self without necessarily offering in exchange a valuable experience of communion. The idealized experience the speaker longs for in "Seventh Avenue" is the oceanic vision of Whitman, who could encompass multitudes without destroying their (or his own) distinctness.  In “Seventh Avenue,” however, instead of Whitmanian connectedness, the speaker has the experience of being swallowed and diminished.

It’s sometimes been suggested that the challenge for contemporary poetry is to try harder, to compete more effectively for attention in the marketplace; but that idea is so ill-conceived it is hardly even worth calling wrong. The real story of poetic modernism is the story of the 20th century itself. As so many value systems and ideologies collapsed in the 20th century—divine order, faith in progress, the veneration of family and ancestors, and belief in human nature itself—poetry's cultural authority also shrank and was destabilized. Poetry's share of the general disintegration was loss of powcr, and loss of an audience that looked to it to dispense wisdom and value. Its claim to transcendental vision was disenfranchised. The heavy oak podium from which the (yes, white male) poets sang and declaimed their poems was crated up and stored in the dank church basement. Then the church was bulldozed.

In that sense, contemporary poetry's preoccupation with individual emotional identity and narrative is a kind of compensatory shift, a revised business plan; its relocation to the realm of personal psychology—via Confessionalism, for instance—is how American poetry has maintained a claim to usefulness. Often it seems that poetry's last, viable position has become the realm of the psychological; i.e. the defense of the one non-commercial property that remains our own—the private self. To state this more optimistically, if poetry can no longer affect a whole culture, it can nonetheless reach one person at a time.

Another strategic dimension of "Seventh Avenue," is how Halliday's speaker does not disguise or omit the concerns of his own insecure selfishness from the poem. If this adds a comedic dimension to the speaker's complaint, and thus perhaps risks a kind of anti-romantic self-deprecation, it also acknowledges a complexity of poignant, even tragic dimension—how the beauty of selfhood is hindered by the competing equalities of other people. Spoken by the impure instrument of the speaker's personality, the poem defends the somewhat shabby romantic self even while acknowledging its modernity–damaged condition. "Romance hates democracy," he says—and that statement resonates with enough truth-telling gravitas to hold our attention.

Halliday's clear-headed presentation showcases one example of how a contemporary poet can undogmatically formulate and confront the complex challenge of mass culture and human otherhoods, without denying its sexy charismatic dazzle, nor over-simplifying the real danger of the individual being overwhelmed, contaminated or destroyed by such reality. It's a poem that combines seriousness, élan, convincing quirkiness, and a lasting coherence.


Artistically, as well as existentially, we might as well give our great steroidal Culture-Demon a proper name, and let that name be Surfeit. For the artist, on a sheerly technical level, that surfeit presents a bona fide problem of volume and velocity. It is difficult for a poem, or a reader, to drink from a wide open, blasting firehose. A poet needs to allow enough culture—call it raw data—into the poem to provide a credible database. Only then might she perform a kind of analytical dissection of it. In the mere activity of cataloguing American variety and spectacle, the available stories and  tones of contemporary culture, a kind of intoxication with abundance can easily set in, an imitative excess like that found in over-crowded poetic passages like "Double Album" by Scott Ruescher:

Even if a European pilgrim, from one of the crazed Elvis festivals
of Belgium and Holland, had been waiting to perform
a medley of ballads on the acoustic guitar for me
in the doorway of the Greyhound station  the day I left town,
of if the so-called "scoremaster" on the Naked Elvis quiz show
had removed an item of clothing between each round of the game
until he was naked, right out there on the live show
that I've finally managed to watch on British television;
if those Japanese hipsters from Mystery Train,
the Jim Jarmusch film from the 1980s, had shown up to do
their heavily-accented but convincing imitation
of Elvis rehearsing in from of a hotel mirror..
in the lobby of the fleabag hotel where Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Playing the part of the night clerk with such natural panache
Put such a spell on me with his method-free acting
that I never again confused him with Lightning Hopkins….

"Double Album" is a well-written, energetic poem that illustrates the potential hazard of engaging with mass culture, in all its flashy, crazy surfeit.  Reading it is like watching a lion tamer be seized, dragged into the bush, and eaten by his own lion—the poet swallowed by his own subject matter. On evidence of these opening sixteen lines, there seems little likelihood of the poet regaining control of his creation.

A skillful poem of surfeit, yes, must allow enough data in to convincingly represent the world.  But it also has to be able to shut the valve, pause, and resist, for the sake of self-preservation. In this way the topical poem can be viewed as a kind of science project, which honestly allows all the variables of the outer world into its laboratory, but limits the sample size  in order to perform its analysis. The outcome of the game must not be rigged, but it must be overseen, and orchestrated.

To put it in a more proactive way, let us ask: Can the poem function as a working model for negotiating our problem at large, instructing us in how to encounter the real, while at the same time protecting ourselves?

If Mark Halliday's poem is outspoken and discursive, Linda Gregg's poem "Growing Up" offers another model of poetic strategy in handling mass culture. By contrast, Gregg's narrative monologue operates almost entirely on levels of understatement  and implication. Here too, the desire of the speaker for the larger world is real. Here too, the existence of other people is a problem.

Gregg's protagonist features a single woman, alone at home, at night, doing two things at once: reading a book while also watching a story on television with the sound off. The movie --"I've seen (it) before," she says--is  one whose romantic plot is obvious and familiar. The protagonist-speaker is represented as a casualty of that great merchandising scheme, the myth of romantic love. Here is the entire poem:

I am reading Li Po. The T.V. is on
with the sound off.
I’ve seen this movie before.
I turn on the sound for just a moment
when the man says, “I love you.”
Then turn it off and go on reading.

It's the psychological doubleness, the split of self here, that makes Gregg's poem poignant and penetrating. On the one hand, she finds the old romantic love still somewhat irresistible. She picks up the remote control and turns the sound on at the exact moment that the on-screen man says the word love. At the poem's end, nonetheless, we see the speaker "turn off" the romantic movie, and return to reading her volume of ancient Chinese poetry. Her interiority seems ultimately intact—though it will, probably, we also understand, never be fully restored to its previous state of wholeness.

Gregg's poem delivers an elegant vignette of what we are calling cultural self-vaccination. We watch the speaker "yield" to the temptation offered by the media, yet she also retains her instinct for self-possession. If she is somewhat stuck to, or wounded by, past history, she is also depicted as a strong individual. In this poem, for a moment at least, mass culture seems like a treatable condition—treatable by caution as well as interest. Gregg's reading material—classical Chinese poetry—additionally suggests ways in which art and historical knowledge are resources which can add ballast and equilibrium to a life.

What Gregg's poem is able to do is what poetry has been always valued for: to distill, localize, and intensify crucial aspects of the collective human experience. In the cross-currents of this understated but complex moment,  the struggle of the poem's character is the struggle towards a viable position, not just in terms of personal psychology, but in terms of cultural stance. Her poem models the complex dialectic of participation in and aloofness from mass culture: first, to allow the entrance of a certain amount of cultural data, then how to practice skillful engagement with it.

The struggle of the individual with mass culture is a daunting, epic, ongoing battle—it is even mythological; one only has to think of Odysseus and his Sirens. It might be tempting for a poet to steer past such seemingly familiar, already well-handled subject matter, foreseeing the many ways in which one will probably fail in the undertaking: the temptation of easy intellectual superiority, for example. But the obligation of poets to take on the fight is undiminished, as real as the struggle to retain selfhood in our daily lives. Artists are hardly superior from this struggle with surfeit; rather, to acknowledge and enact ("act out") the struggle in the open, on the page or canvas, is profoundly political function of art. Such poetry as we must teach ourselves to write will take cunning and inspiration, effort, artful invention, introspection, and in fact, an ever-evolving sophistication—all the myriad resources of great poetry.

Editor's Note: We at Gulf Coast were heartbroken to learn of the death of Tony Hoagland, whose talents as a poet were rivaled by his talents an essayist. Since early May, we were in conversation with Hoagland about the publication of a number of short craft essays, one of which appeared on this blog—with his final edits—less than two weeks before he died. We had Hoagland's blessing to publish three more essays on the craft of poetry, including one in our next Fall/Summer issue. Hoagland was a tireless editor of his own work, so the circumstances suggest that the versions we publish might be missing a last coat of polish. We've done our best to honor the spirit of Tony's meaning and have only made the slightest corrections to the last versions he sent us.