Under the hood
This is my first blog post, but I’ll begin in medias res–on the road, as it were, into new artistic terrain…
A few days ago, I uploaded my first video to Youtube, a simple slideshow movie** utilizing mostly public domain images, either as found or after I’d manipulated them. The provocation for this was a poem of mine called ‘Cuda, slang for Barracuda, a late ’60s-early ’70s American “muscle” car. The poem isn’t new, but it’s readily accessible, even has a pop-music-ballad-quatrain kind of feel to it. I speak of this as a strength even as I’m dubious, or maybe better, wary of such strengths. This is the kind of poem that the overwhelming majority of people who don’t read poetry maybe just maybe might read. On the other hand, this bridge of salvation between poetry’s rarified world and ”pop” culture might also [in the manner of Groucho Marx, or Sigmund Freud] signify becoming a member of a very large and indiscriminate club, maybe thus cheapening the art. Or so I mused as I browsed the incredible volume and range of video art on the internet.
At this point, the whole enterprise was still cold water and I was the guy standing on the pier praying with my hands pointed down. But as I listened to the mp3 recording I’d made over and over, trying to cue up the images in the sequence with the reading of the poem, I was also driving back into it, into the place I was in my life when I wrote it, and what part of a still further-back-self I had then dredged up. Or maybe it was driving back into me.
You see the poem is about someone with an older brother who works in a steel mill and owns a hot rod and is thus one of the hoi polloi I have just disparaged. Yet at the same time he’s the hero of the speaker in the poem, a narrator who refers to his brother as you, and to himself as I. The villains in the poem are ”hated college boys” and the narrator and his worshipped sibling find themselves, as they begin their drag race, excluded by the “black iron gates of the university.” But hold the phone, how could I, a Harvard grad and a physician, say anything honest from that perspective?
The answer is–I don’t know, but I think I know. Until high school, I was the stereotypical geek (sans eyeglasses), the encylopedic introvert who wouldn’t know a wrench if one hit him in the head. Then adolescence took me for a ride. I got myself adopted by some of the toughs and ”motor heads” who thought I was “funny” in a good way. I wore a leather jacket. I became well versed in headers and horsepower. Then I broke from that and from my friends, and continued along the path to and through scholastic accomplishment I’d secretly followed all along. But I believe I always knew that such branching off has to be traumatic, that like a brother injured an accident, some part of me which was loyal and real and hard as the world had been compromised.
The choice then had been between the gritty adolescent truth of high school swaggerers who went on to careers in gas stations and supermarkets and bars, and the fenced off intellectual green of science and medicine. Poetry didn’t happen on the scene until later. And this is the strange part. Pondering my choices now, I believe poems were always a hard road back to those guys with the nicked, grease-black hands. And this leaves me exactly nowhere now as I consider whether ‘Cuda is a little too macho, a little too coarse for its own good, wondering as always in my ignorance, what’s art and what’s not.
It may be that vehicles like Youtube are the hope for poetry, in all its purist’s incestuous insularity. The audience is vast, nearly boundless, and willing to be reached, vulnerable despite their rough edges because the juxtaposition of images has freed them of their prejudices, suspended them for the dream-voice of the poet.
It may be that it’s on the brink between schlock and song where poetry has to happen, like the Dead Man’s curve in the dark some hero who’ll never amount to anything risks with his cheap and precious life.