Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Post-Avant and Personism

Frank O'Hara's Personism, though not as stringently defined as Breton's Surrealism, or our own Aughts Neo-Surrealismis another movement (a one-poet movement, in this case) that can and has had a fruitful interaction with post-avant. There are solid reasons to say that post-avant can go further than Surrealism; where Personism is concerned, I would say that post-avant does not necessarily go further, but is substantially different in its approach. Personism involves the social aspect of poems; how they can serve as links between individuals (or groups), and in doing so enact a tender (or fierce) intimacy. What is intimate about the O'Hara poems we know is that we never doubt his sincerity as a (usually first-person) protagonist. The edges come from a certain honesty at all costs; that O'Hara does not pull punches, though he is seldom brutal, either. O'Hara is sincere, overt, direct, and touchingly so. What post-avant wants to do is to take Personism and darken it. Post-avant's spin on the Personism ball often produces poems that have an edge of detachment, parody/satire, or even meanness; taking Personism and giving it an edge of experience over innocence. Rather than reality infringing on dreams, reality infringes on relationships. People's edges are exposed, their weaknesses probed, their insecurities laid bare.To demonstrate the darkening of Personism, I thought to bring in a poem by Jason Bredle, one of the darkest (and funniest) poets working this terrain.

This famous Personal Poem is taken from O'Hara's Lunch Poems. It is representative of O'Hara's vision of Personism (which he did, in fact, patent):

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid the others never
brought me too much luck though they did
help keep me in New York against coercion
but now I'm happy for a time and interested

I walk through the luminous humidity
passing the House of Seagram with its wet
and its loungers and the construction to
the left that closed the sidewalk if
I ever get to be a construction worker
I'd like to have a silver hat please
and get to Moriarty's where I wait for
LeRoi and hear who wants to be a mover and
shaker the last five years my batting average
is .016 that's that, 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, then

we go eat some fish and some ale it's
cool but crowded we don't like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don't like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville
we don't want to be in the poets' walk in
San Francisco even we just want to be rich
and walk on girders in our silver hats
I wonder if one person out of 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work happy at the thought possibly so

Now, a post-avant response; Bredle's Girls, Look Out for Todd Bernstein:

Because after sitting out for a spell
he's back with a degree in accounting and a high
paying position in one of the leading
pharmaceutical corporations in the country
and aspirations of owning that exotic yellow
sports car, license plate EVIL.
And like Dennis Meng at Sycamore Chevrolet
stakes his reputation on his fully reconditioned
used cars, I stake my reputation
on telling you Todd Bernstein means business
this time, girls. No more of this being passed over
for abusive arm wrestling stars. He's got
a velour shirt now. No more of your excuses-
if he wants you, you're there. None of this
I'm shaving my pubes Friday night nonsense-
come on, you think Todd Bernstein's
going to fall for that? He knows you're not
studying, not busy working on some local
political campaign, not having the guy
who played Cockroach on THE COSBY SHOW over
for dinner, not writing any great American
novel. He's seen your stuff and it's nothing more
than mediocre lyrical poetry with titles
like "The Falling" and "Crucible" and "Waking to Death"
that force impossible metaphors, despairing
about love and womanhood and how bad
your life is even though you grew up happily
in suburban America, or at least as happily
as anyone can grow up in suburban America,
which normally, you know, consists of
the appearance of happiness while your dad is doing
three secretaries on the side and your mom
pretends not to know and brags to the entire
town about how you're an actress about to star
in a sitcom about the misadventures of a cable TV
repairperson who, while out on a routine
installation one day, accidentally
electrically blasts herself into the living room
of a family of barbarian warloads on a planet
near Alpha Centauri who force her into slavery
before sending her on a pillage mission
to a planet of Cloxnors who capture her and place
her in a torture institution where she meets
a vulnerable Meeb whom she convinces, because of
her cable TV repairperson skills, to let her
become nanny to its impressionable Meeblets just
before it's about to rip off her limbs
with its ferocious abnons and devour her.
The results, according to your mom, are hilarious,
but come on, you and I both know the story
is just so PREDICTABLE. And Todd knows
your writing doesn't pull off any metaphors
for the happiness taken from you by some dude
who played bass and called himself a musician
when all he could really do was play a couple
of chords and sing about true love and alligators
and how the alligator represents true love
which somehow explains the legend where the guy
cut open an alligator one time in Florida
and found a golfer. There's just no fooling
Todd. Sure, he'll act like he's interested, that's
Todd Bernstein, and he'll make claims
that he too has written or been artistic
at some point in his life, but Todd Bernstein
knows all you girls really want is a piece
of good old Todd Bernstein. No longer
will any strange auras enter the bedroom
during sex and keep him from maintaining
an erection, no longer will any women
walk out on him repulsed. If anybody's walking out
after sex, it'll be Todd Bernstein, I can assure you.
He won't be humiliating himself by falling down
a flight of stairs in front of a group of Japanese
tourists anymore, but rather coaxing entire
masses of women into his bedroom. Because
that's Todd Bernstein. He's on the move.
And he wants you to know, girls, that he's well aware
you certainly can't learn Korean sitting around here
which is why he's out there right now, preparing
for the slew of women just beyond his sexual
horizon, spray-painting GIRLS, LOOK OUT
of a Village Pantry.

A mouthful, to be sure. But, as funny, perverse, and on-the-surface as much of the humor is, notice that there is an ambiguity here that is not in O'Hara. What we have is a poem mostly written in the third-person, with an "I" here and there thrown in for good measure. The effect is to call into doubt what the relationship is between "I" and the legendary Todd Bernstein. The narrative has so many edges in it that the implied relationship could not be farther from the relationship between Frank and LeRoi in the first poem. There, Personism means straightforward friendship, camaraderie, a sense of being in cahoots against the rest of the (especially literary) world. We do not learn anything embarrassing about Frank or LeRoi in the poem (unless we want to count Frank's "batting average.") Here, we learn nothing about the poem's "I," and everything (and more) than we ever wanted to know about Todd Bernstein. Frank and LeRoi are equals; the narrator in Bredle's poem seems to be looking down on Todd Bernstein from an omniscient perspective. When put through the post-avant skewer, Personism comes out twisted by the recognition of human frailties. We see so far into Todd Bernstein that he becomes a joke- his delusions of grandeur, sexual frustrations, inability to connect. Bredle's tangents (and there are a bunch) are another way of creating edge; it is the literary equivalent of playing bumper cars. Bredle includes the raw and the brutal, to hilarious effect- the gruesome detail about girls "shaving their pubes Friday night," the suburban dad "doing three secretaries on the side." The net effect is Personism shot through with black humor and satire, and it is, to my eyes, a worthwhile companion to Vlad Pogorelov's work, and at least as potent as O'Hara's original version.


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