ROOM FOR RHETORIC: Modern References

Do Lady Gaga and your iphone belong in verse? Modern references: a distraction or pragmatic response to contemporary life?

April Anderson

Modern references are the same as clichés or name-dropping any other such device that seems ill-suited to poetry: if you do it with an amazing amount of skill—meaning, if executed superbly—then its fine. However, since so few poets can execute a reference to Lady Gaga or iPhone successfully, that is to say, with a level of mastery that it doesn’t trip a reader straight out of the poem, it is a dangerous feat that I would avoid attempting. So, proceed with great caution if you must include modern references.

jajiJaji Crocker

As with all words turned into poetry, Lady Gaga, iPhones, and any other specific pop culture references should be used wisely.  Censorship, in my mind, is one word that does not belong as a descriptor of poetry (unless the poem is about censorship, of course).  That being said, throwing a bunch of pop culture references into a poem does not make you the Jonathan Larson of poetry.  An intelligent, engaging poem is an intelligent engaging poem, and hopefully every word is chosen because it makes the poem more interesting, not because the poet wants to seem edgy or culturally relevant.  So, yes, Gaga and mobile devices are fine with me, as long as the poet has good reason to include them and the references aren’t the poetry equivalent to that giant egg Gaga emerged from.  Seriously, what’s with that?

Brendan Babish.smBrendan Babish

I vote yay on both L. Gaga and iPhones. And Best Buy, Buju Banton, and Camel Lights–all of whom are referenced in Michael Robbins’ excellent poem “Alien Vs. Predator” (I am also in favor of aliens and predators). Point being: contemporary culture can–and maybe even should–be an excellent source of inspiration for contemporary poets. It dominates so much of what people talk and think about (for better or worse); if that reality was not reflected in any well-regarded contemporary work, that would speak to a failure of the art form or the critics (or both) .

childers-picJoel Childers

Nothing is sacred, or off-limits. But every word counts. If a reference to Lady Gaga fits, then go for it. If not, then—like anything else—it will disrupt the reader. Either way, don’t be deterred by what others think. Some of the best poetry today reflects the presence of pop culture in our lives, including Lady Gaga. But then again, so does some of the worst…

SchuckEmilyEmily Schuck

My first thought is a resounding No. That’s right. Capital N. Also, when considering technology and pop references, it is rare that we see them in poetry—or prose for that matter—that has lasted the ages. Aristotle’s Poetics doesn’t include an Ode to Geometry, and Shakespeare did not write sonnets praising (or even mention, that I know of) the magnet, invented during his lifetime. However, what belongs in poetry reminded me of an argument I heard via proxy on the popular radio show Kevin and Bean. What belongs in comedy? What is off-limits? Can we make gay jokes? Black jokes? Jokes about being raped? Some comedians fall on the liberal side of this argument—and I see their point. Nothing is off-limits; we enter this space to laugh and taboo things tend to be funny. Also, if you can’t laugh at it, how will it ever become acceptable conversation? On the other hand, there is the very Foucauldian viewpoint that all the words we say participate in a hegemonic system that encourages and proliferates said discourse and thereby allows all its negative connotations and unfair representations to exist (okay, I’ll put down my copy of Discipline and Punish). So I fall in the middle. I see both sides of the argument of what belongs in any given setting, and leave it to the ages to tell us what lasts. While I don’t think the lines “Oh iPhone, my iPhone!” or “quoteth Siri, ‘Nevermore,” or “Ode to a Galaxy 4S” would make it into the cannon—many poets integrate technology into their poetry (after all, what is Modernism all about?), and do it well.

IMG950022 Peter Lane

 I feel like this question addresses the notion of random references in general. For some reason, poets often feel the need to insert a random reference into their poem. They then pass over it without integrating it into the larger structure of the piece. This behavior often irritates the reader. It invokes an unruly mass of connotation that the poem does not harness and digest. To a certain extent, poets need to chew our literary food for us. This “chewing” (this is a technical term by the way) takes place in the poem’s structure. Even a difficult poem creates a context in itself that helps each element of the poem unpack the other elements. The poem thus creates its own exclusive internal chewing machine that digests and organizes connotation. If somebody can figure out how to write a poem that can digest Lady Gaga, then they should do it.

BrianMcCabeBrian McCabe

No.  Most Definitely not.

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