“The Glittering Sodom-Stroking City”: On Poetry Los Angeles

Laurence Goldstein’s Poetry Los Angeles (U Michigan Press, 2014) contends that the city of Los Angeles has been neglected as a subject of modern poetry.  Although Los Angeles has a thriving community of poets and independent poetry presses, along with hungry actors and fledgling screenwriters, Goldstein says that poets lack interest in writing about the city.  The reason for this, he thinks, is that poets don’t have models that spotlight “essential” features of a Los Angeles poem.

In addition, few poets write about urban landscapes because of a postmodern ambivalence toward first-person lyrics that are primarily “retinal,” which aim at photographic verisimilitude and the mimetic representation of reality.  Many traditional lyrics tend to be expressive and anecdotal, arising from a culture of egoism and, as Goldstein says, “militate against identity and don’t break down formulas of exchange between a sovereign self and static location.”  Since many poets and critics emphasize the subjective “unheimlich,” the homelessness or placelessness of the self, poems about urban identity tend to elude “essential” definition.

Another factor is a prevailing attitude that the city is unworthy of poetic treatment.  According to Goldstein, a majority of poets consider LA to be a “suitcase city” of tourists, tramps, transients, and migrant workers, a cast of carnival characters with fleeting participation in the social imaginary.  Tourists often give the city bad rap reviews.  Also, L.A. is geographically spread out and lacks cultural cohesion.  To outsiders it’s often a confusing place; Gertrude Stein’s comment on another city in the Golden State is apropos of Los Angeles: “There is no there there. Entertainment industry simulacra contribute to its lack of urban definition.

Among the poems written about L.A., many repeat local mythologies and cliches, empty signifiers, and stereotypes of the “narcissistic fantasy of the California dream,” as Goldstein says, disseminated by the Hollywood propaganda machine.  Many reflect regional bias toward a “subliterate society.”  The challenge for poets is resisting glitzy paradisical stereotypes and the rhetoric of Hollywood spectacle to promote the city as a blockbuster in the geographical imagination.  For example, Bertolt Brecht’s poems about Hollywood could serve as appropriate models of socio-cultural commentary, blending surrealism, critical realism, and modernist practice.

Of course, Los Angeles stereotypes are hard to overcome: its a location of pagan pleasures, an orgiastic Shangri-La of eternal sunshine, beaches, swaying palm trees, and celebrities at exclusive salons surrounded by paparazzi.  Common generalizations conclude that Angelenos are predominantly young, ditzy blond, and sculpt perfect bodies.  They’re obsessive gym-goers and have at least one cosmetic surgeon on speed dial.  Even the homeless drive luxury automobiles.  They prefer shopping on Rodeo Drive over literary and cultural pursuits.  L.A. literacy amounts to surfing lessons, Bikram yoga, organic smoothies, and knowing which taco stand is open after a night’s clubbing.

Typical of this stereotype, Goldstein includes lines from an early poem about Southern California, Karl Shapiro’s “Hollywood”:

Farthest from any war, unique in time

Like Athens or Baghdad, this city lies

Between dry purple mountains and the sea.

The air is clear and famous, every day

Bright as a postcard, bringing bungalows

And sights.  The broad nights advertise

For love and music and astronomy.

Written by a soldier on his way to being deployed in the South Pacific, the poem recreates mass media formulas and the ironies of cruel optimism, offering a timeless city of surfaces and airy dreams, a prefabricated sense of place, exotic and fantastical.

However, Los Angeles isn’t exactly a city of angels.  In fact, as Goldstein says, the city is often depicted as an evil empire.  Outsiders expect to be victims of a gang drive-by or witness a freeway chase.  They consider donning flak jackets as would be appropriate in a war zone.  Nonetheless, visitors often refuse departure until they have had a flip-flops, bermuda shorts, sun-tanned  “genuine” Los Angeles experience, a strangely ironic proposition in the land of make-believe.  Most often, even the gridlock seems unreal to them.

As a former LA resident, I’ve heard most of the stereotypes and outsider perspectives on the city.  My favorite characterization is from the syndicated television show Seinfeld.  In one episode Kramer exclaims that L.A. is a femme fatale.  That is, once lured by her no one ever leaves: “she’s a siren, she’s a virgin, she’s a whore.”  Eventually, Kramer visits L.A. and is immediately arrested by the LAPD on suspicion of being a serial killer.  In novels and popular media, L.A. is depicted in contradictory terms: it is a dreamworld of limitless transformation and altered egos and, on the other hand, it is a hard-boiled western frontier fretted with homicide and fraud, a sprawling inferno snatching minds with “hyperreal” attractions, magically morphing bodies into daft fashion clones.

Goldstein’s critical intervention debunks stereotypes and addresses a significant lacuna in scholarship on the poetry of Los Angeles.  He provides enthusiastic readings, generous and often apologetic, on a collection of forty poems.  The chapter layout is random and amorphous like the city’s sprawl.  His editorial choices do not always convince me to share his opinion of their aesthetic merit.  For instance, in regard to several poems Goldstein seems to admit the folly of critical effort, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether he weren’t making much ado about nothing.

In the chapter “The Pacific Ocean of the Poets,” Goldstein maintains that songwriters and not poets have generally addressed the West coast and L.A.: “Modern poets have fallen short of evoking in memorable language the unique features of the sea-edge from Santa Barbara down to Baja California, and the complex culture of coastal municipalities.”  An exception is Walt Whitman’s manifest destiny lyric, “Facing West from California Shores,” which describes a mythic landscape.  Poets writing about the coast often symbolize the Pacific Ocean as a cosmic force, a sacred omphalos, defining land’s end and the beginning of spiritual lifecycles.

No study on the poetry of California would be complete without including the Carmel poet Robinson Jeffers who, as Goldstein remarks, “owns the Pacific Ocean … who gazed at it day after day for decades from Hawk Tower atop a granite house he and his wife built with their own hands above Carmel Bay.”  Jeffers had lived for ten years in Southern California but wrote exclusively about the northern California coastal landscape.  He preferred the dramatic mountain ranges and beautiful seascapes of Carmel rather than, in his words, “the orange groves and oil wells in Southern California.”

As Goldstein points out, “The Pacific shore is an attractive location for poets [like Whitman and Jeffers] not only because it provides beauty and sport but because it signifies the possibility of transfiguration, of ecstasy, of radical change of personality and lifestyle.”  For Goldstein, the quality of the verse matters less than the passionate intensity and persuasive rhetoric by which poets convey the marine landscape.  In the verses of Jeffers’s natural religion, for example, the ocean symbolizes the tide of human civilization rising and falling, constructing and deconstructing its fate; it is a mystical ethos by which the Dionysian animal gives birth and perishes to the rhythm of cosmic cycles.  The devotional attitude of Jeffers’s poetry has influenced numerous poets, such as William Everson, Allen Ginsberg, Czeslaw Milosz, and Robert Hass.

But poets of Los Angeles are far removed from Jeffers’s mythical, self-immolating beliefs grounded in the ecosystems of seawrack and tidepools.  Mark Jarman, for example, in “The Supremes” doesn’t speak in the voice of a remote observer and rejects popular lyricism; the poem describes Pacific waves as “little more than embellishments: / lathework and spun glass, / gray-green with cold, blut flawless.”  As Goldstein remarks, the subtle repetition of consonants in spondees resist cliches.

Furthermore, Derek Walcott’s “Summer Elegies II” satirizes the false advertising of L.A.’s hedonistic beach culture: “It fades under its graffiti, a transferred paradise. / Sharper than the smell of eucalyptus is the ammonia of the beach’s comfort stations.” The poem depicts Venice Beach as a burlesque of buffoon beachgoers, mealy-minded muscle men, a degraded landscape of false consciousness.  Whereas Walcott describes a specific locale, Eleni Sikelianos’s 190-pages The California Poem characterizes L.A. as a distracted, damaged civilization with “its industrial wastelands,” an “evil smog-choked city…lousy with devils.”  Although these “edgy” poems resist cliches, they fall short as models of cultural critique.  By mere citation, the poems seem to endorse the city’s stereotypes rather than demonstrate their irony, contradiction, or reversal with sophisticated linguistic invention.

In the next chapter, “Hollywood, “Here” and Everywhere,” Goldstein offers several poems on a specific district in L.A. that, in his words, “is hardly a place…it is more of an idea of a place, a fantasy of a place, a wish-fulfillment of a place, a geographical neighborhood belonging to the social imaginary.”  The verse collected here reminds me of James Franco’s poem entitled “Los Angeles Proverb,” published in The American Poetry Review: “Hollywood is an idea” such that the persona wants to “get into the thick of it.” Abstract language to be sure, it’s unclear exactly what the persona wants to get into the thick of, then we read these lines:

 

The movie palaces were built with the bones of ten million actresses,

And the great mansions of Bel Air and Beverly Hills and the Palisades

Are the mausoleums of naked, drugged, stupid, happy, young actors, all gone.

There are deals made, and they all mix and stink like the tar pit at La Brea.

LA sprawls:

Gangs, cars, palm trees, beaches, strip malls, 7-11’s, smog, beaches,

Secret hideaways in the hills above sunset

There are four square blocks downtown, around Los Angeles Blvd, and 4th

That are nothing but crack addicts.

 

To his credit, Franco portrayed the poet Allen Ginsberg in a relatively convincing acting role.  Perhaps we can overlook his misspelling of ‘Los Feliz’ and his non-capitalization of ‘Sunset Blvd.’  Nonetheless, the cliches of Hollywood are obvious.  But if the poem’s place-names were removed, then the lines might describe any number of American cities.

Although Franco’s poem is not included in Goldstein’s collection, those that are don’t provide any additional rationale in favor of their aesthetic merit.  Several repeat surface cliches of the silver screen, portray the exploitation of working poor actors, and others fetishize the commodification of the culture industry through overt nostalgia, such as the spectral aura of “asphalt dreamscapes” in Wanda Coleman’s “Los Angeles Nocturne,” or the rockstar entourage imagery resurrected in Frederick Seidel’s “1968.”  As Goldstein remarks, the poems attempt to “rebuke the coastal city that had come to symbolize the moral corruption of the entire United States” by showing the anguish of poverty and illusory reality of Plato’s cave, that Hollywood’s fairy tale is a misleading representation of propaganda.

The worst of the lot is Robert Hass’s “Old Movie With the Sound Turned Off,” which Goldstein reports is a poem gathered in “one of the most honored volumes of American poetry of the first decade of the twenty-first century.”  Without stanzas or rationale for line delineation, Hass’s poem begins:

 

The hatcheck girl wears a gown that glows;

The cigarette girl in the black fishnet stockings

And a shirt of black, gauzy, bunched-up tulle

That bobs above the pert muffin of her bottom–

She must be twenty-two–would look like a dancer

In Degas except for the tray of cigarettes that rests

Against her–tummy might have been the decade’s word,

And the thin black strap which binds it to her neck

And makes the whiteness of her skin seem swan’s down

White.  Some quality in the film stock that they used

Made everything so shiny that the films could not

Not make the whole world look like lingerie, like

Phosphorescent milk with winking shadows in it.

All over the world the working poor put down their coins,

Poured into theaters on Friday nights.

I’m fairly confident that these lines are not genuinely concerned with Hollywood “enchantment,” as Goldstein avows, or the plight of the “working poor,” since the male gaze telescopically traverses female bodies, the “pert muffins” of young women in French maid outfits, hardly like Degas’s dancers, who might as well be posed manikins in a lingerie shop window.  Hass’s depiction of a white skinned swan’s down mimics the momentous ravishment of W.B. Yeats’s Leda and the Swan, whereby the whole world may pay admission, luxuriate in the passive entertainment of a woman’s public humiliation, and fetishize Hollywood’s innocent orphans.

In the dim-lit sky of LA’s literary scene, a spokesman of skid row’s downtrodden is the poet Charles Bukowski.  Before dying of leukemia, he was a notorious slacker who gave poetry readings that were more like riotous back-alley cockfights.  Bukowski’s poetry can be read as a pathology of false consciousness or as low-life beerspit rants scattered with honeyed phrases for slack-limbed whores.

On the whole, Goldstein gives us the same old Bukowski that the critical establishment refuses to take seriously.  The subject matter of his poems tend to dwell on bar fights, driving the freeway, or visiting the racetrack; they are vulgar divagations into a personal hell, the backdrop of which Goldstein claims cannot be anywhere else than L.A’s milieu.  Moreover, he remarks:

If the characteristic poem of the modernist movement is the testimony of an urban pedestrian registering the swift movement of motor cars, buses, trains, riverboats, firetrucks, and “the apparition of these faces in the crowd” across his field of vision, the LA poem puts the speaker in the driver’s seat and makes him or her the camera eye, the tour guide, as the phanopoeia of city scenes come and go in vivid moments of mobile perception.

I’m not sure Bukowski is much of a tour guide.  If he is, then the reader logs symptoms of a distressed personality, the minor characters of street gutters, not city scenes.  Also, Goldstein attempts to connect Bukowski’s themes, use of ordinary language, and the short lines of his verse to modernist aesthetics, poets such as Williams, Creeley, and Schuyler.  The larger point is that Bukowski’s poems are popular with the masses–they are not going away–and in spite of the intervening years since his death the slacker icon’s star isn’t fading.

However, there’s a falsetto quality to the question that occupies the chapter on Bukowski: How good, or bad, is the poetry?  I don’t believe that anyone genuinely thinks his poetry is good.  Perhaps Goldstein believes (or wants to believe) that the question of Bukowski’s literary merit is up for scholarly debate.  In making his case, he cites the following lines from a poem entitled “beach trip” [title in lower case]:

 the strong men

the muscle men

there they sit

down at the beach

cocoa tans

with the weights

scattered about them

untouched

Of course, Bukowski’s Dick and Jane linguistic complexity is typical of his poems.  Here the persona reports on a visit to the beach with “his woman.” She gawks at suntanning bodybuilders, wondering that they are wrong to want nothing more in life than to be physical specimens.  It’s hard not to register complaint with this hasty generalization: indeed, there must be a common quotient on writers poking fun of bodybuilders.  Of course, body sculpting is not unique to Los Angeles, but Bukowski registers his distaste, missing an opportunity to dramatize his jealousy of the men’s musculature.  As Goldstein remarks, “Rather than analyze a potentially complex encounter, he retreats into a moralistic stance that discovers nothing, though it suggests the outlines of a superior unwritten poem.”

I’m sure many poets, Bukowski included, publish superior unwritten poems.  In spite of this, Goldstein’s rationalizes Bukowski’s popularity by linking his self-deprecating decadence with the “shock that Walter Benjamin discerned in Baudelaire’s encounters with passing figures in the Paris streets… Bukowski seems to be a flaneur.”  This proposition is doubtful since there are major differences between a rabble-rouser and a flaneur.  In “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire offers a succinct description of the flaneur:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.

If we carefully consider Bukowski’s work, then we recognize that his persona isn’t exactly comfortable in society since it’s nearly impossible for him for be comfortable anywhere, including  in his own skin.  He judges others, his neighbors, co-workers, and the barflies he brings home. An existential malcontent, he is disgusted with life in general–his dingy apartment, the workplace, the streets; as a disgruntled misanthrope he doesn’t fit into any society; as a lowly underdog he brandishes bloody fists against an invisible opponent that he can never conquer–the pursuit of dignity and self-respect.  Bukowski’s persona does not mirror the world, nor does he offer a “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness,” rather he confirms human contingency, offering zoological representations of depravity that make readers empathize with chimps in society’s cage, compensatory digressions on the filthy air.

In the early 1940’s, when Bukowski penned self-deprecating poems such as “The Great Slob,” Theodor Adorno emigrated from Frankfurt to Los Angeles, where he completed Dialectic of Enlightenment, started work on Minima Moralia, and formulated his thoughts on the culture industry.  Rather than the figure of a flaneur, Bukowski’s persona could be better described as an unsophisticated subject who without autonomy or substance, in Adorno’s words, “Wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy… its estranged form, the objective powers that determine individual existence even in its most hidden recesses.”  If anything, Bukowski shines a light on critterly surfaces, showing hidden pests lurking beneath the city, an underlife of negativity, which Adorno says is a truth discovered in absolute desolation.

Goldstein’s study spotlights the poetry of a hidden Los Angeles, the lofty towers of South Central, gridlocked freeways, and an apocalyptic landscape with shimmering oases, or cienegas, of  sanctuary.  He offers poems that protest typical images of the Golden State, but merely opposing stereotypes and cliches don’t erase them.  In fact, as evidenced in Bukowski’s poems, resistance is often tinged with ressentiment–the recognition that resistance against the social order is futile.

Numerous poems about Los Angeles lead readers to believe that the city is an unworthy subject of poetry, a “smoggy ruins,” as Jimmy Santiago Baca says, and “the glittering sodom-stroking city.”  However, Goldstein maintains an alternative vision: “Los Angeles becomes more fascinating, more present to the imagination, thanks to the poems written to inscribe its locations deeply into personal and collective memory.”

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