Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Defense of Trash

Everyone needs both Serious Literature and Trash. Confucius said that. Or Sarah Bernhart. I’m not sure. But it was said, and it was true.

Lately, I’ve been drowning myself in a sea of serious literature, and I kind of forgot to read any real trash... so earlier this past weekend, when my neighborhood started playing a new season of its favorite fairweather game, Leave A Big Box of Books By Your Front Door for People to Take, I grabbed Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver — a monstrous brick of 17/18th c. steampunk (or maybe coalpunk?) that is, apparently, only the first in a trilogy.

It’s absolutely awful. It’s mostly written in modern English, but Stephenson keeps throwing in the occasional olde spellinge: “phant’sy” to let us know it’s that time period, and then quickly follows it with an anachronism (“he’ll have to ‘get in line’ as they say in New Amster- I mean New York”) to let us know that it’s not our version of that time period. But I love it. I’m hardly 60 of the 900+ pages in so far, and I don’t want to stop reading. It’s ambitious as hell, lovely and crazy, and weird, and not at all careful about what it’s doing. It reminds me of the best and worst of Orson Scott Card, or Douglas Adams — the ride is wild and that’s the only point. Awesome.

And it’s deliberately overwhelming in the best way — here’s a list of phrases the main character finds on a set of proto-computer punch-cards (all spelling and capitalization preserved):

Noah’s Ark; Treaties terminating wars; Membranophones (e.g. mirlitons); The notion of a classless society; The pharynx and its outgrowths; Drawing instruments (e.g., T-squares); The skepticism of Pyrrhon of Elis; Requirements for valid maritime insurance contracts; The Kamakura bakufu; The fallacy of Assertion without Knowledge; Agates; Rules governing the determination of questions of fact in Roman civil courts; Mummification; Sunspots; The sex organs of bryophites (e.g., liverwort); Euclidean geometry—homotheties and similitudes; Pantomime; The Election & Reign of Rudolf of Hapsburg; Testes; Nonsymmetrical dyadic relations; the Investiture Controversy; Phosphorus; Traditional impotence remedies; the Arminian heresy...

Wonderful! It reads like one of those lists of topics “discussed” in the Believer magazine, only gone terribly, terribly awry. My heart skips a beat hoping that all of these things will show up in this endless, crazy, book. I’ll let you know.

Which leads me to an overwhelming question: where is trash poetry? I’m not talking about pretentious crap, or amateur high school bloodletting. I mean where’s the lowbrow poetry, the poetry that’s not aiming for readers somewhere on the far horizon of time? Where’s the modern version of the great, terrible, popular murder ballads and limericks and, heck, I don’t know, the sci-fi poems? The vampire/werewolf/romance love poems? The superhero poems?

I think poemtry is suffering — has been suffering — from a decidedly over-literaturization of itself. Or, more likely, I think I just don’t know where all that stuff is, because my local bookstore is a little bit pretentious, and Amazon doesn’t care enough about poetry to separate it into subgenres. But I do know this: I’ve been reading a lot of really great poetry for a while now, and my brain is full. I think I need some enjoyable trash poetry to read. I think I’d find that pretty refreshing. So if you know where any is, send it my way.