The Bad Essay, circa September 2002- Written in email, intitally in response to a question from a reporter, Sam, from The Chronicle, a San Francisco Newspaper:
As with all major movements and genres in art and literature, inasmuch as these are characterized by variety, conflict, and change, it is impossible to come up with definitions that cover all cases and examples. However, when one sees it, it is unmistakable-- Nothing quite succeeds like "The Bad." In some ways Bad Poetry is a scavenging through the rubble of one's self, and through our cultural heritage. A way of assessing our norms and hang ups and pathetic socially regressive leftovers without the competitive sense that poetry is going on, that we are being spiritually measured and called to account by the master author/speaker. It is a welcoming environment, as I am sure you can attest to at the reading. Things were loose, and, unlike many readings, the emotional register varied, if a bit obtuse. In a very real way, the Bad Poetry reading was more participatory and democratic and contained a possibility that anything might indeed happen. There was comradely in the crowd which is often absent at *normal* poetry readings. Perhaps this has to do with the particular space poetry inhabits in the U.S.A.? A semi-cult cottage industry almost entirely marginalized within the biosphere of entertainment media -- And the participants like it that way, for the most part -- but it's nice, to use a word, to laugh at yourself through all the bad work. (Which was oft times just so sincere it hurt, and unaware of itself. May heaven smile down on, oh what's her name, Susanna Summers, and her gloriously awful poetry.)
But my thoughts toward the bad in issue #7 of VeRT, which, importantly, also includes the themes of Homage and Imitation) had more to do with examining assumptions and attempting to get at new expressions.
The Bad is an old avant-garde device. The new is often mistaken for the bad. This search for the bad can also illuminate a way toward a new form of sincerity. A new form of expression. Punk rock was this sort of phenomenon. An aggressively cryptic plunge into a counter argument in desperate search for new ways of being real. In one sense the bad is a purposeful turn into the ill-reality of being, which is our present condition. (And I do not mean that things are so horrible, etc. that we can hardly stand it, but that we are so mediated, so aware of our selves and possible motives-- so self-conscious, that the bad is in its own way a turn into the unreal self-conscious aspect of our selves that actually frees us up to be who we may also be, liberated from the pretense of the good, which is often just the same unquestioned aspects of the status-quo.)
The question is how to explode the dream? Art relies on the bad to expose new ground and question assumptions. But what does the Bad mean, when everything is bad in advance? How do we crawl out from under the invisible oppression of the good, when all there is is bad? Nothing succeeds like the bad, and everything is bad in advance. What does this mean culturally. Pop Art is about liking things, Andy Warhol said. So what is the bad? Liking bad things? How can art compete with the versions of soft-core pornography being pumped into our homes via the television and songs full of base gimmicks which we feel somewhat ashamed over for liking? How do these bad things become the wallpaper of our lives... And how aware are we to it? One thing for sure -- it can only get worse. That is the resigned national consensus, and so why not try to head it off at the pass? That is a question some artists may be asking themselves.
As for the W. Whitman quote-- I actually felt a little bad over reading that only because I didn't want it to come off like I was somehow implying that loving the smell of men's armpits is somehow wrong. Far be it for me to tell another person what their deep abiding pleasure should be. But I think that you're right, if it had been me who had uttered those words without the Whitman, it would have almost brought the house down., that was truly bad timing on my part. But because it was Whitman I think there were political considerations that, while not intended to arouse, where there in the back of my mind, and perhaps others. But I understood the spirit in which I was providing the line, and felt had it been a regular schmoo, or old Walt himself there smiling behind his beard, it would have been a welcomed light moment of intentionally great bad poetry.
And that is really the thing about poetry. It is almost always bad in some part, so why not turn into it and write something so bad that it is almost a new thing... a thing which can stand up to the pratfalls and indecencies of this world.
As for entertainment value, yes I suppose it is entertaining. I would like it if the bad tag were somehow lost and it were to acquire another title, though what I am unsure. Bad just seems too final and unbending, though I understand it to be not so.
Let me know if this is of any use. Sorry to go manifesto on you. Please continue to visit the site.
Best of luck with the article.
> Andrew Felsinger/Editor/VeRT
Date: Sat, 28 Sep 2002 02:43:09 EDT
Subject: Re: FW: S.F. Chronicle reporter with a coupla questions / The Bad in Litvert
I think it's interesting that the bad, in your examination of it, is actually a device for locating very real things in the world -- what it is we think; what it is we do; how it is we judge; and how, ultimately, to approach the world we are in.
I've been thinking about this a lot, though not consciously. Like how my mind works behind everything I'm doing, and I just have to attend to it. But my life is very regular -- not at all that of the cliche of the free artist who doesn't have to get up or go to bed at any time, who eats pumpkin seeds and pretzels for breakfast, and who generally operates according to his/her own laws. And the world be damned, even as the artist celebrates it.
I mean, I go to work everyday, I wear a tie, and I take lunch at the same time, take a walk to the same place at lunch, etc. It's a routine. And it's boring, but somehow invigorating, too. Like I know that there's no end to the world even when I tread the same ground.
But the most important part of this -- and what leads me to the bad -- is something new; that I don't hate what's in front of me, nor do I fetishize the oddness of the regular like I once did. I don't need to stretch reality in order to meet it and wake myself up.
The bad can be too easy -- like the "its so bad its good" section of the video store, or the campness of John Waters, or gossip columns. But the problem, as I see it, with these definitions of the bad, is that they are simply a way of succumbing to the real. The "if you can't beat 'em, join em" sentiment. There's nothing to beat here, though.
Yes, many experiences in American culture -- the mall, for example -- are predetermined and mundane. But the concern with hating them is the concern for some sort of authenticity that precedes experience altogether. That experience is measured by something outside of itself that determines it for me -- I would cast my vote for psychology here, but even that does not matter in the wake of the fact that I am there, that I experience what there is to experience. And the experience is only of concern relative to what I want to do with myself.
The bad comes in here because I always wonder at what point what is happening (in art) is the thing that moves me. Because partly what I want is to be dislodged -- not from experience, but back into it. So something can be mundane and have value. I used to listen to a lot of free jazz because I didn't understand it, and my first attraction was always to that which I did not understand. Then as time passed, I realized that there were hierarchies of value there, too. So the genre still relied on something that held it up against itself. Unless I walked away from it...
Look, we know that not everything laid out before us is good and interesting and fascinating and worth examining. We have an unconscious not even for psychology's sake, but just because the organism we are MUST filter consciousness to attend to it. If everything arose for you at once, you would freeze in the midst of this rising, apart from life itself. Husserl calls this "compresence" -- the parts of things that exist that we do not see, but which we know are a part of what we do see, but which we do not need to acknowledge because their existence is purpose(ful)ly hidden for/from us. But the bad does not solve our problem -- by shutting something out, by rejecting it, or by accepting it and embracing it the way as teenagers my friends and I love graveyards, we do not solve the problem of its opposite. That is why the bad scares us as much as it did the surrealists, who discovered it in the unconscious (but they never decoded it; they just turned it into language!), and then twisted the world around to point back at the horror of the modern, even as they only wanted the modern. So when we want the new -- the bad being a way into it -- we also may be wanting the destruction of the need for the new. But remember, as Bettleheim shows us in "The Informed Heart", children become autistic -- always repeating the old, though an old whose context appears to have vanished (it must be decoded) -- because they know that their parents believed that they "should not exist". Can we treat the bad this way, too? Because then it will always repeat itself beneath the level of the real on which we operate, but then become the level of the real that we refuse -- thus, the unconscious -- and thus, the real on which everything else depends, the real on which we must always weigh in...
> JONO, Poet, Prose stylist, & sometimes Editor
I like what you say here, and some of this I've thought about, especially your understanding that this is actually a kind of description wherein we access the real, through a kind of heightened appreciation of the mundane, or the "bad." But I do think too that I am thinking about the greater culture and its ability to be in a kind of tacky drive to be real, which is symptomatic of a capitalistic system where the bottom line, a tacky concept in many respects, is the bottom line. It is this drive for the base common denominator that defines us as a culture where capital, and its ever freer flow, is what's constantly at stake, whether we are aware of it or not, and largely not-- though if we also follow our thoughts, "why are we wearing a tie today?" we can tell right away why, and what for.
I think that a culture derived out of the economic system reflects that system of organization, not just in its choice of hierarchies, and such, but in its symptoms, and culture maybe the best display of symptomatic response. In this sense the bottom line is often expressed, expressed to death often times, in a culture of the bad. Where the bad is what you are more than likely going to get, a race to the bad, to the bottom of the bad. In this sense we devolve. This is what I meant by suggesting a turn into the bad maybe what is necessary to fully awaken from the dream of the good, which often is seen as an attempt to be good, but for reasons of less than pure. It seems one could be both pure and bad, where as it is often hard to be both pure and good.
From Claire Barbetti, Editor of Janus Head
It seems to me that this engagement with "the bad" is part of the first few steps past what Kostelanetz calls an era of "decadence," characterized by a disillusionment, an ennui, a sarcastic-but false- delight in the common, the sentimental, the sensational, the tasteless. From shopping malls, to Vegas, to "pleather"-the plastic and fabricated-it has been very fashionable the past few decades to take the entertainment of the everyday ordinary, call it kitsch, and elevate it to "high art." In lieu of working towards meaning, towards what is sacred, which is unfashionable by any current academic standards, the search for it has been transposed upon the object and the value system in which it resides. And this "object," through much contemporary art and theory, becomes glorified as the "alpha and omega" of the system; take Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans, or Deleuze and Guattari's theory of the simulacrum, for instance. It also becomes a fetish, similar to Zizek's description of Caffeine-Free Diet Coke (I'm ashamed to admit I'm drinking it right now) as objet petit a: "the real thing," complete unto itself, but empty of nourishment, incapable of any further transformation into something beyond itself.
It's chic, très chouette, but I think this smarmy delight in what amounts to clever manipulations of the "closed set" of system-- in effect, settling for literary and artistic status quo-- is becoming tiresome. The proliferate self-reflexivity of post modernism, the ironic commentary within and on the creative act itself, has become a symptom of stagnation. Baudelaire, himself no stranger to haute indifference, makes this point also in his "L'Héautontimorouménos," when his speaker calls "Irony" his "evil twin" and laments that he is "Doomed to an endless laugh, but never/ Able to wear the simplest smile!"
Is "the bad" new? If it's an attempt to move away from current and standard cultural perspectives, to "think outside of the box," it shares the qualities of what has been termed the avant garde. And one of the marks of the avant garde is that it introduces a new way of seeing things, finding freshness wherever it can be found, meaning in the noumenal, the everyday where normally it would not be found. It's energetic, restless-and sometimes angry- in its attempt to remember what has been forgotten or relegated to the barracks of the worthless.
I'm reminded while I'm writing this of some of the great Italian films. De Sico, Visconti, even some Fellini, have presented images and scenes that many could term sentimental, cloying, melodramatic. Umberto D.'s elderly man who is ashamed to beg in front of his little dog; lines like "when trouble starts, there's no stopping it" from La Terra Trema. But such scenes generally aren't considered shallow or "in bad taste." The simple is affected with such an earnestness that cultural prescriptions of intellectual stylishness disintegrate, and what is left is a heart-felt presentation of the human condition. "Self-consciousness" dissolves into generosity; the "precious" or "cliché" becomes viable and valuable, not something to poke fun at. Perhaps "the bad"-for lack of a better term, though I like it nonetheless-is in some sense a venture into humility.
Aaron Belz, Poet, Rock Critic
To return to Whitman-- "Song of Myself" was hated by the literary establishment when it appeared. The Atlantic Monthly printed a review in 1882 which cited "frequent feebleness of form and style which reduce large portions of the work to tedious and helpless prose" and continued: "The absurdities, the crudities, in which Whitman indulges are almost unlimited and all but omnipresent. ... [W]e cannot see that the ends of freedom in art, or grandeur of any kind, are served by adopting as the symbol for a writer the term 'literat.' To call him an 'ink-rat' would be much more forcible and original." I always laugh at this nickname for Whitman-- well, he *was* an ink-rat, and he made that into a good thing. Would that we'd all be Whitmanic ink-rats, sloppy desparadoes, instead of the obscure guardian of the ever-receding past who wrote the 1882 review.
Whitman *wanted* to be bad. He wanted to be wicked, evil, naked, barbaric -- even dead. There was nothing really camp about this desire to be bad; I mean, it wasn't tame college "badness" like Plan 9 or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. That seems to be "the bad" of a contented middle class, a kind of forgettable bad hobby. Whitman's was a full-fledged, mature self-despising, a life of the bad, coupled with an almost otherworldly sense of joy and merging with other people. It was self-renunciation. He overdid it.
Nothing in American culture today seems to me to be as bad as Whitman's bad. Not TV ads; they don't take risks at all. Sitcoms? Too refined. Malls? Too carefully and intelligently planned out. Interstates come close, if you walk on them barefoot. The early 80's Chevrolet and Oldsmobile station wagons are worthless hulks, and wonderfully comfortable in a very bad, wasteful way, and I bet they're unsafe, but not artfully "bad." I've seen movies that are really bad, and for that reason groundbreaking (movies being the supreme American form of the day)-- "Dumb and Dumber" is one, and a classic of our cinema. I saw a little movie called "Nitwit Predelick" that was terrible. I remember some bad pop music that was trying to be "good"--Daniel Johnson springs to mind. I also remember bad music that actually was good, like Captain Beefheart, Steely Dan, and early Negativland-- bad, bold, and nearly perfectly composed.
I agree with Andrew that this is the basic movement of punk rock, a kind of forceful badness for badness' sake. But then the margin widens, and soon it's retro to do punk; that's the safe zone, and you're onto something else. But I disagree that "the bad" has anything to do with "tackiness" -- or to use a similar adjective, "cheesiness." That's a rec room antler rack, a tudor-style coffee table with white circles on it. That's a flea market. I think punk music is something else, a real contrary, not a violation of manners. It's Chaucer's portrayal of a man unwittingly french-kissing a woman's butthole in the dark and thinking it strange that she has hair on her "face." It's the woman who allows it! It's Ginsberg's waitresses in "Howl." "The bad" is a freefall, and you're not supposed to know where you are or where you'll end up.
I have a J. Geils Band album called "You're Gettin Even While I'm Gettin Odd" that never made it to compact disc. I bought it on cassette when I was in my early teens. It's really a weird bunch of songs, little rhymed sermons about hedonistic Pacific coast life and culture, that are so abstracted from reality as to be haunting. One imagines the furrows of cocaine plowed through by Seth Justman and the boys during recording sessions. One also imagines the master reel-to-reel in deep storage in the basement of EMI Studios in Los Angeles. Anyway, these songs have meant a lot to my poems over the years, and I can't even explain why. There's something liberating in the concept of superfailure, of the late-career follies of someone so obviously talented as Justman, an obscure example of American pop music at its worst/best. The failure of the work creates a space I can inhabit, because after all-- I'm a failure too. I bet all poets most acutely feel they've failed after they finish their greatest work.
I do not believe, however, that anything, a work of art or otherwise, has value in its badness per se. Otherwise every Kung Fu movie would be a classic. There has to be something recognizably human in any "good" work of art; something funny, or sexy, or tragic, that is universal to our experience. It may be "bad" in the way it's done, or explained, or contained. It's perhaps a partial picture, or too much of a frontal image, something offensive in a radical way, something that defies a cultural stigma. Something like in the movie Magnolia when all the characters--in different locations around the city--started singing the same sappy song. Magical realism? Not really. That moment was out-of-boundaries in almost every sense. It was a bad idea, P.T. Anderson. But the corny pop song moment turned out to be touching. Dare I say it? The movie, in the end, was moving, and the song's lyrics echoed real human experience.
K. Silem Mohammad, Poet, Madman, Zombie
I want to address briefly two related approaches to badness that I find especially interesting in the context of both my own work and wider trends in recent practice. Both of these approaches involve a mimetic principle, albeit a mimesis that shifts its focus from a concentration on the act of composition itself to a broader gesture of cultural imitation.
The first kind of badness involves the appropriation of "amateurish," "sentimental," or "clunky" methods of versification as found on a "folk" level. Models for this approach include greeting-card rhymes, high-school love poetry, song lyrics, and so on. Of poets who have done extensive work in this vein, Charles Bernstein comes to mind. Many of the poems in With Strings, for example, with their awkward rhymes, rigid but imprecise meter, and stilted expressive quality ("The Boy Soprano" is typical) are clear imitations of sub-mainstream amateur production. A question that comes to mind upon reading such mimetic badness is whether it is intended as parodic of the people who write such "unskilled" verse in earnest, or whether it is intended to outrage an imagined set of readers who are expected to react in frustration or contempt because they are used to more "polished," mainstream work (I say "imagined," because such readers are clearly not the primary intended market for such work). Both these possibilities involve the suspicion that someone is being ridiculed, and it is thus hard to resist the temptation to read such work as satire. An added difficulty then lies in determining whether the target of this supposed satire is the crudeness of the poetry it mimics or the crudeness of the aesthetic that rejects such poetry out of hand. This difficulty is easily dispensed with if we assume (as I do) that Bernstein has no interest in making fun of amateur poets. Nor is it probable that such work is meant simply as an indictment, say, of the commerciality of Hallmark-style poetics; this may be part of an underlying rhetorical structure, but it is unlikely that Bernstein would have as his main objective the lampooning of such an easy mark. The context of his larger body of work suggests that his real aim is to problematize the values of the "Official Verse Culture," values in which there is no room for rough-hewn doggerel.
And yet, neither is it simply the case that Bernstein is calling the "establishment" on its uptight stuffiness, and thus championing a more democratic inclusiveness in poetic practice. It seems clear that Bernstein himself sees the cheap sentimentality and clichéd sensibility of the work he is imitating as precisely that: cheap and clichéd. It is this quality of abjection that makes it effective as an estranging device. If we were to stop here, the result would be to cast Bernstein in the mold of high modernist shoring fragments against his ruin, or against someone's ruin at any rate. It seems clear, however, that Bernstein genuinely enjoys working in this form. Unlike Eliot, who introduces "debased" cultural fragments into his text as if with tweezers at arm's length, Bernstein seems perfectly at home in the dumbness of his sources. Or, perhaps some would say, like someone who has made himself at home in them-implying that appropriation of the bad, like any appropriation, is always to some extent an act of colonization, of moving in on indigenous territory and converting it into an outpost.
But the colonization in question is not occurring in a space of "pure," hitherto inviolate tradition, if any tradition was ever such. It is a space, in fact, already colonized many times over, by the forces of capitalism and/or random devolution that have shaped the contemporary intellectual landscape. The "crude" verse written by the thousands of people who write poetry on a regular basis throughout America is not an unmediated outpouring of sincerity, unsullied by the sophisticating effects of institutional indoctrination; it is a learned genre. Its formal and thematic homogeneity is a clear indication that its authors, despite their typical self-claims, are not writing "for themselves" or "from the heart," but for their masters and from example. Can one be said to appropriate a tradition that is no tradition, but an internalized mass ritual of assent to a hegemonic norm?
This leads to the second category: work that mimics not the self-consciously "literary" efforts of the masses, but their larger field of discursive production, including technical communications, commercial jargon, interpersonal utterances, and so forth. Bruce Andrews' work in books like I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up consists of loosely strung-together expressions many of which seem to have been lifted from overheard conversations on public transit, or chat-room conversations, etc. The badness in this case is not perceived as a failure to formulate a viable aesthetic for composition, but as a much more general failure to establish effective social relations through language. The poetics of disgust (Sianne Ngai's phrase) is in direct articulation with this "sampling" methodology, which expresses badness both through its conspicuously "inept" structural ordering and the abjection of the social phenomena it samples.
Both these approaches are suspect in that they are capable of being reduced to gestures of elitist mockery. What I find ultimately useful and energizing in both Bernstein's and Andrews' work is that neither poet ever seems to me to valorize his own "enlightened," "conscious" perspective as social critic over the "unenlightened," "unconscious" perspective (or multiple, fractured perspectives) that he adopts or reflects in his mimetic borrowing. Their work balances the maintenance of a conviction that the culture is in fact unhealthy against an exhilaration at the possibilities for constructive synthesis that poetry affords, even in such degraded conditions.
So both these bad mimetic modes, I feel, have a legitimate application in a poetics of generous social attentiveness and responsiveness. In my own work, I have sampled source texts that exemplify extreme levels of cultural stultification, expressed in the most inarticulate and graceless ways imaginable-and often containing truly alarming racist, sexist, or otherwise destructive sentiments-in order to solicit a poetic hybridity that takes serious risks in the service of representing the state of the language. "Representing" in this way requires a strong stomach at times, as it is not just a representation of a degenerated discourse, but of degenerated ideas, values, and human beings. For this reason, the humor that invariably inserts itself as an element in this work is troubling. Why should we laugh at the oppressed, the desperate, the ignorant? But without this laugh-reflex (which is in many ways close to a gag-reflex), we don't get as close to the subjects, I think. Being able to laugh at people's idiotic inability to shape their thoughts into coherent language is one step toward getting close enough to care about them. It's also a way to distance oneself from them, of course, to objectify them. But there is an intimacy to be found in badness, and that intimacy (with the inarticulate, the inarticulable, the inarticulator) is perhaps a useful state for a poet to be