One of the twentieth century’s paradigmatic stagings of the volatile comity between poetry and music, Langston Hughes’s 1926 “The Weary Blues” opens like this:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway....
There’s a great deal to be said about the glorious effects of prosody here — about, for instance, the way the utter iambic regularity of those punctuating three-beat lines (I heard a Negro play, He did a lazy sway) have the effect of investing the loose-jointed pentameterish lines that surround them with an undulating, off-beat rhythm: in a word, with syncopation. Yet if Hughes poaches a bit in this metrical way from the singer’s repertoire, he also works to blur the syntactical distinctions between speaker and singer. Look again: the singer is the one down on Lenox Avenue, while the speaker is droning a drowsy syncopated tune, though this does not quite come clear until after the line breaks, when the subjects of these parallel sentences at last present themselves. Down to the grammar of its assembly, we could say, “The Weary Blues” is a poem that performs not any hard divide between high and vernacular culture but, Hughes contrarily insists, a wrought, enabling mutuality.
Daniel Kane, in his new book, “Do You Have a Band?”: Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City, orchestrates a similarly vibrant encounter, though with different players. He tracks the collisions and collaborations between New York poetry and punk (or pre-punk) scenes, looking especially closely at what transpired, roughly between 1964 and 1980, in and around two now-legendary downtown venues: St. Mark’s Church, where “second-generation New York School” poets participated in the Poetry Project reading series, and CBGB, where punks made their furious, joyous noise (13). Kane’s volume reaches back to the anarchic, Beat-influenced rock of The Fugs —whose records “opened up the possibility of making passionate, literary, and simultaneously hilariously stupid music to any number of unskilled, intellectually minded, and deeply irreverent kids” (39) — and lands in the crucible of the early 1980s with virtuosic queer punks such as Dennis Cooper, Eileen Myles and Jim Carrol. The result is a generous, non-dismissive, but also exacting account of that vexed and unstable crossing-point between “music that aspires to the complexity of weird poetry” and poetry galvanized by punk (18).
Kane assesses the careers, and complex aesthetic ambitions of Lou Reed, Richard Hell, and Patti Smith, and also of next-generation, downtown poets such as Anne Waldman, John Giorno and Myles, who understood themselves to be decidedly after the New York School. Generations, it turns out, are crucial to Kane’s story, which is one of vivid, oedipalish micro-generational rivalry. It discloses post-Beat proto-punks borrowing from the New York School a potent aesthetic of sociability — of art as best fomented in scenes and mixed worlds — only to rebuke that scene’s genteel, high-cultural aspirations, only then to be rebuked in turn by the new aesthetes to follow. As Kane tells it, this is less a uni-directional trajectory than a series of messy, intriguing convulsions. His story thus rests on a handful of generative and entangled oppositions. There is that between New York School sociability and a more classically individualizing aesthetic of solitary Romantic genius; and that between aspirations toward high-cultural or even avant-garde artistic credibility and that commitment to belittling, amateurish, antisocial assault on anything remotely “elite” that many of us continue to identify with punk. Kane’s narrative unfolds between these several shifting poles.
For my money, the exemplifying figures here are Patti Smith and Richard Hell. In Kane’s agile reading, Hell emerges as a young writer inspired not only by symbolist effusions but also by the unfettered writing cropping up around St. Mark’s Church, as young poets threw off the yoke (real or imagined) of New York School gentility. But Hell appears energized above all by a galvanizing refusal of that cultured milieu. “Hell’s music and lyrics,” Kane writes, “are predicated on a consistently ambivalent play between poetry and punk that accepts, even invites, links to be made between relatively obscure lyric practice and punk rock but that simultaneously wants to cleanse punk of any associations with high culture” (104). Smith presents an illuminating contrast. As Kane tells it, she is in fact something of a punk outlier, not least in her unabashed commitment to what is essentially an ethos of stardom.There is a form of critique in Smith’s stance, to be sure. “That Smith wanted to imbue poetry with the bigger-than-life theatrics of the rock ‘n’ roll show,” Kane writes, “suggests a creative intervention into and critique of the avant-garde poetics and attendant principles of the period” (133). But what Kane calls “Smith’s efforts to imbue a vatic romanticism back into poetry” (138), and her concomitant devotion to “venerating a pantheon of star-touched men” (139), had other effects as well. Kane’s bracing and polemical (and, I think, convincing) claim is that Smith’s agile rechanneling and reclamation of the essentially romantic Male Rock God posture had at its core a rather conventional savoring of elite distinction. “Smith was invested in the mechanics of stardom,” Kane writes, “and the reification of hierarchies that always and forever raised the performer — materially and ideologically — above the audience. The narrative of Smith’s rise to prominence was predicated on an initial engagement with and ultimate rejection of a poetics of sociability that determined one didn’t have to be an inspired mystic to engage with poetry” (144). This is, I think, an artful, exacting reading of Smith’s career, and it gives you some sense of the critical strengths Kane brings to the scenes he discusses.
But Langston Hughes is still on my mind, as is the earlier demimonde he inhabited. Kane’s book provides us with a welcome reappraisal of punk’s literacies, one that is enhanced by the generosity of its archive. (We go from The Fugs to Jim Carrol but get there through a rich trove of scenes, pamphlets, poetry booklets, advertisements, and the like.) And this makes it only the more strange that the book would have as little to say as it does about race. Its topic is New York City between the mid-sixties and the early eighties, and this, to say the least of it, is a time of hyper-racialized contestation about the nature of American urban life and culture. The salient matter here is not that the book reflects the whiteness of its chosen demimonde — it is a strikingly (though not wholly) homogenous little world — but that, to steal a phrase, it does not reflect upon it. It does not, I mean, invest much in whiteness as a category, or think especially hard about proximities to blackness and racialization as themselves complex modes of self-authorization, woven round with the very questions of authenticity, sociability, mimicry, elitism and anti-elitism that are Kane’s subject. (Lester Bangs’s vexing, irreplaceable “The White Noise Supremacists” (1979) is only one on-the-ground wrestling with this tangle of concerns.) Kane’s inattention to the play of race and racial authority, credibility, enmity, and envy — as they worked themselves out within this homogeneous but also intensely racialized scene — seems to me a missed opportunity, given the fact that his archive is otherwise so generous, and his readings so capacious, and his sense of the environing force of culture so persuasive and acute.