Missing the Boat to Bohemia | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Missing the Boat to Bohemia

What does it take to be a rebel? Ann Powers and Alan Kaufman don't have a clue.

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Can there be anything more audacious in this day and age than proudly pronouncing oneself a bohemian?

Well, sure. I can think of about 50 or 60 things just off the top of my head, many of them actual bohemian deeds, ranging from living in a tree for two years to covering a late-period John Coltrane album in its entirety to making out with one's same-sex lover in a suburban mall. Other audacious things to do--assassinating a world leader, playing high-risk stocks with embezzled money, spectacularly stalking a celebrity--are not so strictly bohemian, although someone with a talent for costuming, casting, and public relations might be able to spin them as such. If there's anything second-tier bohemians the world over have mastered, it's the art of the manifesto, the dazzling rationalization, the attention-getting press release.

What's a bohemian, anyway? Is it--to take one decent example from the recent anthology The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry--60s poet and zinester D.A. Levy, who was hounded by the authorities into a suicide that very possibly wasn't? Or is it--as Ann Powers posits in her sociological memoir Weird Like Us--Greg, a Seattle anarchist who married his girlfriend Kate "at a mountain lodge with a troll theme" and made guests wear Halloween costumes? "By having a wedding, and not just a big anarchistic party, Greg and Kate demanded membership to a powerful club," Powers explains. "By reconfiguring their ritual, they modified the rules of membership."

In fact the vast majority of bohemians--artists, activists, and DIY philosophers who live unconventionally for their times--do not wind up with their brains splattered on a wall like Levy, or shot and dumped in a river like Rosa Luxemburg, or raped and murdered like Teena Brandon, or fill in your own favorite tragic and brutal bohemian death--maybe the one you've envisioned for yourself in your most paranoid moments (paranoia being historically endemic to the bohemian state). But to read Powers's account of her own so-called bohemian life, you'd think rage, fear, and mutual contempt between you and the dominant culture had nothing to do with bohemianism--at least not after high school. Powers, a pop critic for the New York Times, writes like Oprah runs her talk show: she is an expert on one topic--herself--and is convinced that this one subject branches out into everything of interest in the universe. "Our scamming barter circle operated on the potlatch principle," she writes in "Soul Trash," a chapter nominally about alternatives to mindless consumerism. "Just like a Kwakiutl chief, I would offer bounty at Planet Records without asking for anything in exchange, and my buddies would return the favor when I wanted food or a new shirt."

Alan Kaufman, the editor of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry--a black-clad, tattoo-bearing doorstop of a tome--takes the opposite rhetorical tack. To him every hippie rambler who ever wrote down a 'shroom vision and every rock star who ever name-checked Rimbaud is an "outlaw," an edgewalker with a price on his head. "Welcome to the Wild West of American poetry," he starts his introduction, "a two-fisted saloon of New World dreams."

Their respective poses are so transparent they're laughable. Powers takes the ladylike angle that everything is OK if we just sit down and talk about it: the mainstream culture will come to understand the love in our queer families of choice (her own marriage is monogamous and heterosexual, and she seems slightly defensive about it) and she'll learn to make peace with her job at the Times and her $100 shoes (about which she also seems defensive) because look, she wrote a whole chapter on the subversiveness of buying used clothes. Kaufman takes the pop-culture-macho position that the life and work of the poet, or at least the kind of poet he likes, are dangerous, untamable, full of adrenaline and prophecy, and forever incomprehensible to the squares. They're both pretty damn bourgeois in their tired, media-friendly gender-role enactments, their gee-whiz unreflectiveness, and their optimism that the stars of their respective "movements" are rising.

Kaufman's anthology is shaky on lots of grounds--why not even a nod to major structural, conceptual, formal outlaws like Jackson Mac Low or Jack Spicer or Hannah Weiner, who spent most of their careers just as far or farther outside academia, that accursed pit of straw-man souls, as, say, Frank O'Hara or Allen Ginsberg? If there's always room for one more fiercely political hippie sage, how to explain the nonappearance of Antler, who's spewed in every anarchist zine and photocopied poetry broadside from Portland to Puerto Rico, or Lyn Lifshin, who seems to daily give birth to at least 40 poems on sex and philosophy, like Lilith spawning demons? Or for that matter African-American anarchist Joffre Stewart, who's been writing since the 50s and whose stentorian declamations on the "ANGLO AMERICAN WASP JEWISH RULING CLASS" have gotten him hustled out the door of many a Chicago poetry venue. Sure, their poetry's not that great--but then neither is Maggie Estep's, and she's not even an interesting character.

In a way, any anthology that tries to suggest that Luis Rodriguez and Jim Morrison have anything in common besides Los Angeles is doomed to fail. I almost have to respect Kaufman for trying, because it's quixotic, and quixotic is very "outlaw"...but then I notice that of all the Lou Reed songs he could have included, he's chosen "Video Violence," one of those verbose, literal, hey-look-I'm-political screeds Reed was prone to in the 80s, which leads me to believe that he may just be prone to lapses in taste.

Kaufman's book at least collects the fruits of bohemian labor, but in Powers's Pollyannaish anecdotes it's very rare that I get a sense of what it is she thinks bohemians do--I mean, besides redefining culture and family and all that shit. The only time she really examines any interesting theory or practice is in her chapter on sex radicals like Mark Pritchard, founder of the no-holds-barred zine Frighten the Horses, and writer and activist Carol Queen, both of whom she approaches with overweening concern for how they might come off to the vanilla straights that threatens to neuter what makes them radical and interesting in the first place. Strikingly missing from her autobiographical writing is any sense that Powers and her friends draw any self-definition from their work, that they've worked long nights to develop any sort of subterranean vision or utopian ideals or new form of art or anything at all that they're passionately devoted to--the stuff that's the reason that the classical bohemian deals with all the poverty and alienation and hassle in the first place. I know Powers is a rock critic, but she talks about the aesthetics and drives and perceived missions and self-doubts and ambitions and burning questions that she seeks to address through her medium so little and so late in the book that until that point it seems like her greatest passion is thrift shopping.

By using her life as raw material--which is a perfectly legitimate starting point--she sets up the expectation that she'll be transforming the clay into something that transcends clay, but she never quite does. Which makes her book dramatically unlike just about every boho bio I've ever read. From Rimbaud to Emma Goldman, from Sun Ra to Patti Smith, bohemian heroes and antiheroes have been those who have used the raw material of themselves to try to get beyond themselves. And the conciliatory coziness Powers aspires to falls apart frequently: people who sometimes attain a state of being beyond themselves are quite likely to come off as weird or scary or rude in a true, unnerving, fated sense, with a work ethic that can frighten anybody's horses! horses! horses! and other ethics more or less out of phase with the perceived mainstream culture of the time. This is probably more or less what Kaufman is trying to get at, though he loses the all-important subtleties in a mudslide of bad-boy rhetoric.

The marketing of poetry--the redheaded stepchild of the arts--is something poets have been concerned with all along. Confrontational rhetoric is a traditional part of the package--sometimes important to the form and content of the work itself, and sometimes not. Poetry, like everything else these days, is niche marketed: those watercolor-and-calligraphy books of sentimental rhyming verse appeal to one group; the thick, neatly organized literary journals of carefully crafted modern verse to another; black-clad tomes full of shaggy guys and incantatory slogans to yet another. None of them resolves the tension between personal expression, appealing to an audience, and actually trying to advance the art form in a completely satisfactory manner.

Kaufman does a lot of the poets in The Outlaw Bible a grave disservice by boiling down their various and complex moral and artistic stances and antistances into overly familiar antinomianism in an attempt to sell them to the same demographic targeted for beer, corporate rebel rock, and midlife-crisis Harleys. The anti-intellectualism he flirts with does a dishonor to his highly (and often self- ) educated cast: "Though, for the most part, they display a savage antipathy to the poetry establishment and its values, there is a lot of well-hidden craft in their work. Many are avid readers who have thought a lot about what constitutes a poem, but just try to engage them in literary chit chat and their eyes grow cold. They have butchered the sacred cow of literature and eaten its parts. They want their poetry to inspire the kind of fever normally reserved for the Superbowl and hot sex."

In the name of devouring filet mignon and potted meat product alike, we get "James Dean and Jackson Pollack [sic], glittering gutter icons of American culture, knocking off visionary statement poems, respectively, in a bathroom in Tijuana and the bawdy Cedar Tavern in New York City." While touting James Dean, a "glittering gutter icon," as a poet is indeed a cold splash of water to highbrow definitions of poetry, it also demonstrates a silly devotion to poster-shop pop-culture iconography that's as slavish as anyone's thesis on T.S. Eliot. I mean, if you're going to include James Dean's poetry, why not Leonard Nimoy's? He's certainly served as an outsider icon for decades. Wrong demographic, I guess--though in truth the line between "outlaw" and "nerd" is just about as thin as the one between "outlaw" and "sellout."

Powers has a better grip on these relationships, but she acts like she discovered them. She tells the story of Sub Pop and the rise of alternative rock in a breathless tone ("He found a partner in Jonathan Poneman, a college-radio deejay and secret Ozzy Osbourne fan; the two set forth in search of artists that would make Seattle seem like the source of something big...."), as if it hasn't been spelled out a thousand times already--as if most of her readers didn't live through it themselves. And predictably, she weaves in hair-shirt laments about her own lifestyle: "One glance at my expensive haircut would make it clear to any purist that my principles, nurtured in the lovely spiritual greenhouse of the Bay Area, have collapsed. They gave way the minute I stepped off that plane into mean-spirited New York, where the smell of money and status overwhelms the senses like napalm in the morning....If only the story of my corruption were that simple....Then at least I'd have an innocent self I could try to resurrect, if I were to renounce my rotten ways. But my secret shame as a habitue of modern-day bohemia is that I sold out from the beginning."

And then she's off again, into a reminiscence about how the only real punk boy in high school thought she was a sellout because she was new wave and later, a clique of experimental poets didn't like her because her poems "constantly displayed sellout tendencies like pretty imagery and direct emotional expression." She sounds like she's still pretty bitter about it: "I never wrote another line of poetry again." After that level of painful self-revelation, it seems a little churlish to suggest that maybe she should've hung out with some poets whose work was compatible with hers instead of chasing after the in crowd, but it's relevant: painfully lacking from Powers's cloying stories is the hint of any real outlaw spirit, of that rebellious core of self that draws strength from defying not just the "mainstream" but also one's peers.

Commercial culture leaches bohemia's lifeblood by appropriating its style while dumbing down and oversimplifying its substance. Powers and Kaufman, for all their kicking and screaming against commodification, have both oversimplified their own demimondes so much that there isn't even much left to steal. He could use a bit of her perspective on the complexity of selling out, and she could benefit from a shot of his idealism. Ultimately, though, despite its programming idiocies, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry is still a decent collection. It's huge, it's generous, and among the work Kaufman has screened through his smoke-colored lens is plenty of very good, very exciting, very magical, very important poetry. It's worth its price just as a source of names for further investigation. But Powers, no matter who she's interviewing or what grad-school tangents she's tying into her personal anecdotes, never really gets beyond investigating herself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.

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