Chapter & Verse: On poetry and kitsch

With the Modern Language Association’s 2014 meeting now in full-swing, we’re pleased to publish a second installment of Chapter & Verse today. This post draws from Daniel Tiffany’s work discussing the idea and history of “kitsch” as it relates to poetry. 

“Once upon a time, long before it had been reduced to a synonym for mediocrity in the arts, the term ‘kitsch’ functioned as a lightning rod in debates about mass culture and the fate of modernism confronting the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  For a word now applied quite casually to trivial and spurious things, ‘kitsch’ has a surprising history of provoking alarm and extreme reactions.”— From My Silver Planet: A Secret History of Poetry and Kitschby Daniel Tiffany

My Silver Planet makes the case for fundamentally redefining “kitsch” as a bridge between the elite and vernacular, as opposed to something to be viewed with contempt, derision, and ridicule. As Tiffany wrote last November at  Poetry’s Editors Blog:

“Kitsch” is a dirty word, so it’s always been a little mysterious to me, even though kitsch—fake art—is supposed to be all around us. I know kitsch when I see it, I guess, but I wouldn’t know how to define it exactly. It gets confused with camp—and even with art itself (by those who never use the word, who enjoy it un-self-consciously, without feeling embarrassed). In fact, kitsch—as a term of mild reproach—usually turns out to be something other people like—stuff that is stupid or pathetic or silly. I, too, dislike it—though, following Marianne Moore’s example, I could probably be talked out of my aversion. And it gets even more puzzling, or disconcerting, when you try to think about kitsch in relation to poetry. Is there kitsch in poetry? Well, yes, there must be, but no one talks much about it. And no poet I know would want his or her poems to be described as kitsch.

The modernists hated kitsch—that’s for sure—and they were the ones (literary types, mostly) who first defined it in a series of essays in the 1920s and 30s: Robert Musil, Adorno, Hermann Broch, and Clement Greenberg—who attacked kitsch as the antithesis of the avant-garde. (Did you know that Greenberg was a budding poet with no training in art history when he published his famous essay in 1939?) The campaign against kitsch was in part a way of identifying and condemning artifacts associated with mass culture. Walter Benjamin, too, wrote a little piece called “Dream-Kitsch” (Traumkitsch) in 1923, but he didn’t seem to hate kitsch as much as the others. Even Benjamin, though—like his fellow modernists—conceived of kitsch as a form of degraded Romanticism. This presumption doesn’t sit very well, however, with the thesis that kitsch is a product of modern industrial culture (another common idea)—but, then, theories of kitsch have never been very coherent, except in the anxieties and hostility they convey.

Intrigued by Tiffany’s argument? My Silver Planet is available at a 30% discount directly through JHU Press using code HDPD. Simply enter the code at checkout.

Daniel Tiffany is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. He is author of seven books of poetry and literary theory, including Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance and Neptune Park. He is a recipient of the Berlin Prize from the American Academy and has translated works from French, Greek, and Italian.