David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Things They Do Look Awful Cold — Talking ‘Bout My Generation


About eight or nine years ago I caught a ride from Northampton, Massachusetts to New York City with the poet Matthew Rohrer. We’d given a reading a few nights earlier with a third poet, Talvikki Ansel, at the Broadside Bookshop. Traveling with us was my son, Lucas, then around 12 years old. The conversation meandered from poetry and tales of living in New England (me and Matthew mostly), some lurid interpretations of Genesis, and some back and forth about music (Lucas chiming in here, he was dead into the Beatles back then, and a ripping good Suzuki violinist — which he has stuck with and now is a sophomore at Berklee College of Music in Boston), and then we went a few rounds on baseball (all of us bandying, but Lucas taking the lead with an encyclopedic recall of stats).

One exchange I remember: Matthew and I gabbing about what our generation of poets (born between 1960-1970) was most influenced by that wasn’t poetry or other poets. I said we were hungover from the Cold War. Matthew said it was contemporary rock and roll. To which I thought, contemporary rock and roll? Really? How is that possible?

Know about me that, growing up in Texas, I generally set the radio dial to KIKK which does not exist anymore, but for decades was the best country station in Harris County in and around Houston. I despised MTV when it launched in 1981. In high school I went to a total of two rock concerts: Queen and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. When I arrived for college in Boston in 1982 with a stetson and a ratty pair of cowboy boots, I had never even heard of the Grateful Dead and avoided punk.

If George Jones or Ronnie Milsap sang it, I knew it. If Johnny Cash or Trini Lopez played it, I knew it. Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, June Carter, the whole countrypolitan sound, I knew them all, plus Lyle Lovett, plus dipping far back into Hank Williams, Bob Wills, entire song books of the Grand Ole Opry, and plenty of gospel yodeling. One piece of knowledge from my Texas life is this: If you walk into a Willie Nelson concert and the band is playing “Whiskey River,” you’re only hardly late. Willie starts every show with “Whiskey River.” And you don’t have to worry about missing part of the song, since he closes every show with it too.

Top it off, I was pretty competent at riding the mechanical bull at Gilley’s in Pasadena, too. That’s the original Gilley’s not the one in Dallas or Las Vegas. For what it’s worth.

So when Matthew began talking about the music that our generation of poets was influenced by, I was just dumbfounded. I offered UB40 and NRBQ, thinking I’d sound like I knew what I was talking about, which I probably didn’t. But he gently assured me he meant something else, like Robyn Hitchcock and the Soft Boys, Camper Van Beethoven, Pavement, The Flaming Lips, The Talking Heads (them I knew — “Oh, yeah, they’re good,!” I said), The Smiths, and PJ Harvey. I mean, it’s bad. A few years ago I tagged along to a U2 concert with the editor Kevin Craft (it was like his 40th or 50th show, something like that). Three hours go by and everyone sings to every song. Me, I don’t know the words to even one. Though that “Elevation” is pretty catchy.

Now, sure, I’m lame. I can listen to Iris DeMent for two days straight without a break. I love Leonard Cohen’s “Ten New Songs,” an album that Lucas nicknamed “One New Song” because, he says, all ten sound alike. So when it comes to things like saying my generation of poets is influenced by The Flaming Lips and not hungover by the Cold War, I’m still mildly flummoxed. Though I suppose it’s accurate. Even though it seemed to me, back then and, well, even now, that the likelihood of global mass destruction was pretty pervasive, that it got under the skin of my generation, influenced the imagination of my generation as we were fretting over nuclear freeze and also, at the same, time, kind of sure, blindly so, but kind of sure still, that mutually assured destruction was pretty unlikely too. That combo of fear and dismissiveness was a pervasive feeling. Things did look awful cold. Yeah, I get it now, the feeling was like burning down the house.

So my generation got stirred up by the music, and it sure seems to me like the generation of poets after mine is influenced by music too. Or, if not music, then cable TV, by pop TV, by iTunes, MySpace, by flash mobs of indie bands. So much of the poetry written by the generation born after the Nixon landslide of 1972 feels like it was incubated inside an Xbox, doesn’t it? Or from watching the Cosby Show. So much of the poetry written by the generation born during the Carter era feels like it was influenced by afternoon reruns of The X Files, dreamy apocalyptic frights and manipulative, “Is that you, Johnny?!” closeups.

Confession: I haven’t had a television since 1985. Maybe I just don’t know much about it as I didn’t know about contemporary rock and roll. I’m a dud. I’ve nothing against television really. From all I read it seems we’re living in a golden age of TV drama and I’m just missing it. My loss. But I just don’t have the time or patience to sit still and am terrified by the distraction of advertisement-laden technicolor. Life, life, it’s just so short. My clock is ticking. I want calm. Time to think. Got to write. Got to write. When I’m not slammed by everything else, including the great, great joys of being alive.

I was thinking about this the other day while looking at a poetry website new to me, Coldfront. Probably you already know about it. It’s designed like a cross between the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report, a curated blip of a site for poets and for poets interested in music. It treats new books of poetry like releases of new albums. I like that energy. Wished I’d thought of it. It features poetry readings like events, like cultural touchstones. It cares about the zeitgeist and the savage gossip of the po-biz. It features poems from other sites. It reviews books of poetry as if reviewing poetry is necessary to the life of the art. And, well, it is. The editors are right. It is necessary. And it seems like there are editors in every city in America on Coldfront’s masthead too which is another hyper-collaborative cool thing about Coldfront. Though I do wish they’d opt for a redesign. Dudes, it ain’t hip to be an ugly book. And I say this as someone who loves you.

But I want to get with it this time. I want to be in the know. Is the know at Coldfront? Is this the future for poetry? The place where the next poetry is getting incubated because it’s looking so closely at this year’s poetry? Every year a top 40 rundown of poetry books? It’s got that clique-y feel, it must be something. Got that Casey Kasem mojo. I don’t want to miss it this time.

And yet I know that the old-timey stuff is necessary too. Who cares about Iris DeMent if you haven’t listened to Loretta Lynn? And what’s so great about Loretta Lynn if you haven’t heard Baptist hymns? No Lyle Lovett without Louis Armstrong. No hip poetry dude without Frank O’Hara. No Frank O’Hara without Edna Millay. No Edna Millay without John Keats. No John Keats without John Milton. No John Milton without Homer.

You know, like, no Bob Dylan without Woodie Guthrie. No Iron Curtain without the Napoleonic Wars.

Some days, man, I just miss the Cold War. Back in the day, you know.

David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Charming Gardeners and The Book of Men and Women, which was named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. His book of essays A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry received the Frances Fuller Victor Award. More from this author →