I was once asked by a friend why there weren’t more punk poets. I told him that there were plenty of punk poets, that he just wasn’t reading them. He laughed, sort of. Later, though, I asked myself how punk actually applies to poetry. And were there really, as I wanted to believe, plenty of punk poets? By "punk," my friend meant rebellious, raw, urban, street-smart, innovative: descriptors highlighting punk’s keen disregard for establishment. Even the word, "punk"—originally signifying a prostitute, later something worthless or degenerate—is an appropriation of the disenfranchised. A desire for more punk poets might then signify a lack of connectedness with the status quo of poetry, a desire for revolt or at least resistance, which brings the argument inevitably back to one of highbrow versus lowbrow. Allen Ginsberg, for example, waged a similar revolt against staid tradition, and Amiri Baraka’s own brand of feistiness at times takes on a punkish tenor, but was beat escapism and political resistance necessarily the only way to be punk. Isn’t there more than one way to skin a cat? Does poetry really have a punk past and, perhaps, even a punk future? Or is punk poetry—whatever it is—already in its dotage somewhere in Buffalo?
Actually, the cultural critique waged by rock and roll punks in the 1970s proves difficult to categorize merely in vague terms of antiestablishment backlash. Underneath the facade was a sophisticated (because highly ironized) satire of the pop status quo. After all, who would call Iggy Pop or David Bowie unsophisticated? Likewise, anyone who sees in the Sex Pistols or The Clash merely puerile rage is missing the point. We might even say that the punk tendency is a bit elitist. Recall the antagonistic relationship it had with pop music’s chiefly middleclass audience, its catering to a coterie, its resistance to any "ready made" definitions of art. Punks were the minority, and they wouldn’t have existed otherwise. They nurtured their own irrelevance. Their own fans spit on them as a sign of approval. To be fair, though, even punk’s sophisticated cultural critique was nothing new. To crib some rhetoric I borrowed from David Spade: "Punk was good, but I liked it better the first time around . . . when it was called Dada." Though it liked to flaunt the garments of the commoner and the underprivileged, punk was, perhaps without knowing it, wearing the underwear of intellectualism.
Which brings us back to poetry. In his latest critical book, The Resistance to Poetry, poet-critic James Longenbach writes that, for poets, "the assumption of [poetry’s] irrelevance can be liberating," that poetry becomes an act of liberation "especially when a culture threatens either to foreclose or to exaggerate a poem’s potential for subversiveness." Just as punk and Dada attempted, poems self-consciously resist being tied to singular signification, refuse, in a sense, to be labeled; poetry, rather, becomes the rebellion of language against the tyranny of meaning. Dean Young and Mary Ruefle called this quality "sincere irreverence" in a recent issue of American Poet, but there are myriad examples. Take Gabriel Gudding’s recent collection, A Defense of Poetry, the title poem of which is a catalogued rant in pseudo-Edwardian language against limiting notions of poetry:
For I have bombed your cat and
stabbed it. For I am the ambassador of
this wheelbarrow and you are the janitor
of a dandelion. Indeed, you are a
teacher of great chickens, for you are
from the town of Fat Blastoroma, O
tawdry realtor. For I have clapped your
dillywong in a sizeable door.
The deliberate stiltedness of his lexicon, the gibberish of his mockery—this seems close to what the Sex Pistols achieved when they sang "God Save the Queen," what Nirvana (those veritable post-punk punks) accomplished with "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Or how about the recent Dada-reminiscent collaborative work of Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman, poems composed on stage, together, in front of an audience, the whole she-bang a word away from failure. Take Wallace Stevens, even, and his sophisticated defense of meaninglessness, of vagaries of thought that generated a poem such as "The Man on the Dump," which ends, "The the" (which is also the name of a band some might consider punk). Imagine Stevens with a mohawk, resisting his intelligence almost successfully.
Punk, though it celebrated its own death, is constantly reborn. Poetry, too, is continually redefining itself, continually resisting its own intelligence. Iggy Pop pops up in Jim Jarmusch films. Ziggy Stardust might be dead, but Bowie isn’t. And the artistic androgyny Bowie embodied? What better way to represent Keatsian "negative capability" or Eliotic "extinction of personality"? Punk lives long enough to annihilate itself, then repeats the feat like a god at the center of a harvest myth.
Poems continually enact the battle between the common (language) and the uncommon (multiple signification), between the social desire to please or provoke, and the individual right to assert or express. As Horace instructs, "Stroke your reader’s cheek / while you box his ears." Was Horace the first punk? Or was it Homer, whose Odysseus banged his head against a mast listening to his favorite band? Certainly both recognized that poems witness the birth and subsequent death of the self who wrote them, and become the battlegrounds for the evolution of identity. The punks always get punked, and they wouldn’t be punks otherwise..