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.
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.