Nineteen-seventeen, Viktor Shklovsky called for defamiliarization. Reconsidering the world as if with new eyes. An ethos poets have widely accepted, one closely related to punk’s often misunderstood “weaponization.” Weaponize against what? Defamiliarize what, one may ask. Generally, the improperly challenged. Poems and music can acknowledge their existential power in confronting ideologies and actions, questioning knowledge and value systems. One wields what one has—a subpoena, garden hose, or, here, language and sound. Suggest the green rubber tube’s the flaming rim of the sun, and some are terrified and some are intrigued.
Asking for alternatives necessitates imagination. A retiree studies the room while refusing to play bingo. Punk’s contrariness can be forward thinking. It tackles political, social, and aesthetic issues impassive theoretical avenues have also pursued. The sleek postmodern novel. Academic essay. Grating burst of guitar and voice. The poem. Is a creation that’s harder to digest and discuss a more valid foundation for poetic confrontation? Punks embraced an answer in the nineteen-seventies. Relentless skepticism extends to self-scrutiny. Complication—dense noise with unintelligible lyrics growled on top, or John Ashbery’s poetic logic critics have wrestled with or dismissed. The heated questions, where heat shouldn’t be excised from the question.
When considering the presence of punk’s distinctive musical decisions and aesthetic in poetry, I have in mind distortion, unevenness (like time signature changes), syncopation, and weaponized language and sound. These elements surface, perhaps unintentionally, in some of the most exciting poetry.
Let’s start with Joyelle McSweeney’s new collection Percussion Grenade. Those two words alone seem to borrow from the meaty lexicon of punk, while pointing toward literature’s ability to be its own sonic, visual, and notional tool of movement. Taping notes to bricks and flinging them through one’s own window during a block party. But the brain’s the house and the brain’s the brick. McSweeney writes, “I’m tricked out like a valkyrie banshee” in poems meant to be read aloud, or translated into a sign-language too gestural to be less than performance. The title poem lives up to its phonological promise. “Opeeeeeeeentropy! / … How your guts spill out tells me how you die” springs from exclamation and an after-the-fact divination of entrails. A tragic confession. “tellmeifyouknow / If everything that lives is holy / How I know more about celebrity divorce cults than what’s happening in / Baghdad,” the speaker asks with seeming self-incrimination and indictment of our cultural climate, dragging in idiom, prayer, and skepticism. The poem continues punctuated with exclamation marks, breathless proclamation, and inquiry, as “The blood unfolds like paper from the hewn lawn of the skull.” More than description. More than an accurate depiction of society’s obsession with violence and death. An insistence on the material aftermath, which erases “eightmonths gestation / And the sixteen years horniness / and the ninety years senescence.” A dismissal, deletion, willful advancement: “Okeydoke Yes Yup Alright Alrighty SureThing.”
Not only does the political charge and aesthetic sentiment match, but punk’s rapid-fire density of music also appears in McSweeney’s poetry. Extending high vowel sounds. Condensing multiple words into one breakneck mash-up. Juxtaposing brisk and unraveling lines: end-stopped and punctuated phrases versus run-on clauses. This unpredictable, even aggressive cadence is natural to punk music. The stanza
In my gondola of clouds
I loaf and invite myself to lock and load
dine under the table
stir the alphasoup with my epiphaneedle, the thick hours with my riflebutt
is characterized by lurching pauses in the first three lines, while the final appears to build on itself precariously, gathering elements to form compounds (alphasoup, epiphaneedle, riflebutt) and then parts of speech. The reader goes from clipped to more generous pacing, like the sudden breath marks or time signature changes of punk. I hear improvisation or the simulation of it. Editing a poem toward the sound of unedited, easeful first production. Playing a song that, in its structure and performance, sounds spontaneous. Both instances aim at an appearance (though some poems and punk songs truly are impromptu) of unmediated, honest expression.
In McSweeney’s earlier collection The Commandrine and Other Poems, the reader encounters similar musical traits. “Maidens rhinocently down the cowpath clomp,” the speaker intones with neologism, archaic syntax, and an ambling cadence that mimics the maidens’ movement. In “Bureau of,” forced rhythm and rhyme smack of defiant mockery that
… lopes left
off the phonepole, woodenly.
we rise above the wind park,
our whorled fossil, pinned open.
our emergency kit
holds aspirin. digitalis. adrenalin-in-in.
McSweeney’s poems play with words’ borders and expected music, weaponizing each. How far can rhinoceros and innocently be pushed? How much will a reader tolerate in order to fulfill conventional rhyme or meter? Such brazen challenge in the sphere of sound reminds me of punk. Not to mention the untamed diction. “Limequick eviscerating grave!” “bucket-hatted clowns…” Distilling language long enough for potent syrup. Glass. “Desert tilting like the face // of the desert reassembled as a tomb.” And a reworking of Dickinson: “Mine by the white erection.” A reassembling. Kaleidoscope enabling scrutiny from various angles and perspectives. These poems rush and blare with intelligence. They take advantage of our language’s toughest phonemes, throttling themselves in hopes that a reader’s anchored vision shakes loose. A listener might say the same of punk music blasting down the block.
Nick Demske’s self-titled debut collection (selected by McSweeney for the Fence Modern Poets Series) likewise distorts, interrupts, bulldozes, reworks, and appropriates clichés, cultural references, and violence to re-sensitize. “I hope you’re happy,” begins one passage of reconstituted idioms, “Now think about what you’ve done. / I love what you’ve done // With the place, with the splintery, flammable porch.” Seizing the widely available, Demske reinvents it, makes it his own—a new tool, wild and, in his hands, controlled.
Content, enjambment, and music operate under the same mode. “Our disbelief’s feet jangle from a gal / Lows, eyes bulging,” Demske writes, following his poem’s jagged cadence so well he breaks a word in half. A technique employed often in the book. Imparting speed and suddenness to the speaker’s voice. A disruption resolved aurally when the reader continues to the next line and completes the word, but one not easily forgotten. Plus, forceful diction (jangle, gallows, bulging) matches the thick music of d, b, f, and g or j sounds. Beyond content even, the phonology and enjambment are unsparing, a syncopation that rears then sinks before one grows accustomed.
Other passages, offensive on their faces, work similarly. “Does this fanny pack make me look fat? / No, but it makes you look like a big fucking idiot” progresses over the course of the poem “Hotdog,” settling on more serious—though no less provocative—investigations: “Does this hard won // Prosperity make me look fat? … Do these priorit / Ies make me look fat, these scars, these explosives beneath my sweatshirt?” In a string of questions like that, one’s interrogated with appearance versus cause. “This megamart once was a for // Est. These teeth marks, once a kiss”—exposing the before and after begins to illuminate “what a hot / Dog is made of.” Also, the prosody, capitalization, and line breaks enact an occasional, jerking syncopation that doesn’t fully supplant more natural rhythm. Here, no one’s safe, including the speaker.
Such boldness spills into the speaker’s self-awareness. “Nick Dems / Ke, …your / Greatest achievement in life has been disappointing your / Parents.” Sometimes scolding. Sometimes disingenuously or magnanimously praising. Sometimes dissecting the poems’ workings, as in “I have hyper-extended my met / Aphor like gold to airy thinness beat.” A fragile surface bolstered, rearranged, sung loudly. “I shatter the glass only / To mend it reordered,” he states, or “I plucked these shards from my flesh, licked / The lacerations. Fashioned this glowing mosaic.” Strong word choice and cliff-hanging line breaks fuel these image concepts of the weak and powerful. And when poems include lines such as, “I want to eat // Your excretia,” or “I’m a lady in the streets and so nas // Ty in bed,” or “I will beat these / Precious children back to life,” the reader’s reminded “what it’s like to be offended” cuts both audience and speaker, the multitudinous Nick Demske, who admittedly licks his wounds and attempts to fashion a redefinition, a stunning artwork out of shards. With this sensibility and fierce diction and music, Nick Demske may belong in a punk record store.
Playing with convention seems a pattern here. Michael Robbins’s Alien vs. Predator polarizes by employing yet complicating traditional metrical and rhyming form. That and his content bring punk to mind. Titles like “Appetite for Destruction,” “My New Asshole,” “Pissing in One Hand,” and “Shrimp Boat to Limp City” could be mistaken for punk songs. And as blurbs on the back of the collection indicate, Robbins’s poems are “as aggressive as a circular saw” and “direct…brutal…wild” for engaging “musical vulgarity.” Offense works best in large doses or through surprise. All three poets discussed here opt for both, though Robbins to a different degree. Consistently sticking to traditional form (unlike McSweeney’s and Demske’s conspicuous and jarring pressing against meter and rhyme), Robbins may appear to be a joker or genuine devotee hoping to reanimate form. Either way, his poems relentlessly problematize, sneer, and belch:
The boar’s inside the mosque and then
the RPG has martyred him.
His favorite song was “Crazy Train.”
I pity the Lord, pity the Flash,
I sleep through gynecology class.
Despite satisfying metrical expectations, the stanza jerks forward. Perhaps due to its insistence. A contraction in the first line is countered by “has” in the second, as stress falls on “then” to ensure a rhyming position with “him.” Diction illustrates the same exertion. Boar, mosque, RPG, martyred, crazy, pity, Flash, gynecology. A newcomer to poetry may expect, with such noticeable rhyme, to find Romantic or pastoral images, lush words, and a tone RPGs would eviscerate. Shock. Resistance. Humor.
The speaker dangles a Robert Frost quotation and seduces the reader with melody before a head lock in blunt vernacular: “I look into my heart and creep. / My heart is lovely, dark and deep,” he begins, “I kiss your trash. My boobs are fake. / I have promises to break.” Hooliganism to defamiliarize. To provoke reconsideration of harmony and discord. The classic punk technique of a down-tempo, quiet prelude shattered by the eruption of vulgar scraps.
A daring music rules these poems. “I love the word chum. By Kinko’s early light, / the Korean children say swim, swam, swum,” the poem “Modern Love” moves forward unflinchingly, “I’m tangled in the jasmine of your mind. / I’m trying to heat the whole neighborhood.” This poem, like many in Alien vs. Predator, complicates form. Its fourteen lines stretch the sonnet’s rules—with internal rhyme and shifting schemes—and don’t rely on narrative or repetition, as in a ballad or villanelle. Meter and rhyme brand the poem, but an I bludgeons its way from one declaration to the next. That momentum clashes with the traditional form. It suggests a frank, impassioned song rather than a regulated or manufactured one.
Robbins’s poems inhabit the world of Pizza Hut and CSI:Miami, not a sterile marble room. They—like McSweeney’s and Demske’s work—appropriate and weaponize what surrounds us, mutating cliché, including pop culture: “This is Uncle Tom to Ground Control.” An invitation to reimagine what seems indelibly chiseled. A yelp. Prank. A mannerless query over dinner at Buckingham Palace. But isn’t that puerile behavior, someone may ask. The whole disruptive spectacle simpleminded? These antics are more complex and critical than one may assume, though. Baffling distortion in a field preoccupied with palatable strains of logic. What sense do we expect or deserve? A shriek transcribed in ink. Words broken at the line. Rewritten rules of poetic musical tradition.
“The morning slathers its whatever / across the thing”— What better way to express suspicion of standards? To collaborate with the unsanctioned thing, with noise? To ceaselessly invent through confrontation and examination? To watch the show from the wings, laughing? What more intuitive way than with punk and poetry?