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Pop! : Go Southern California's Poets

August 23, 1987|NANCY SHIFFRIN | Shiffrin is a Los Angeles writer and an occasional contributor to Calendar. Her collection of poems, "What She Could Not Name," will be published by La Jolla Poets' Press

"Walt's Parties"

\o7 I became a Disney character

palling with Mary Poppins.

The three little pigs

doffed their hot costumes.

We drank beer near the kingdom.

To my innocent dismay

I found out through Mickey

Alice has been around

and so has Snow White.

Oh blue sea come rescue me.

\f7 --Paul Trachtenberg, "Making Waves," Cherry Valley Editions 1986

"Making Waves" is a sequence of poems whose territory is the sea, Disney and Laguna. The time is the '60s and '70s, or actually, the '50s turning into the '60s and '70s. The narrator dreams of Annette Funicello, envies the Beach Boys, becomes a flower child, resists the draft, measures social transition by the Beatles "shooting a different tune."

Paul Trachtenberg, who wrote the Disney-image-filled poem above, is one of a number of Southern California poets making high art out of pop culture. Their cumulative message is that the life of one's time, not the art of the past, forms the imagination.

Born in Lawndale in 1948 and educated in horticulture at its community college, Trachtenberg has lived in Southern California all his life, though he has traveled extensively. "Write about what you know," Trachtenberg was told in poetry classes, and so, after his first book ("Short Changes for Loretta," Cherry Valley editions, 1982) he felt more confident dealing with his pre-literary life.

"I'm an expert on Disneyland," he says. "I worked at the Candy Palace, the Market House near fantasyland. I also worked as a sweeper and I liked that best because I could end up almost anywhere. It's really a Peter Pan syndrome.

"Warhol felt it necessary to document soup cans, and I think he'll be known in the 21st Century," Trachtenberg says. "And look at Liberace--someone should write poems to Liberace--I grew up reading comic books, Mad magazine, watching television and going to the movies. I have to admit I wouldn't know Lewis Carroll if it hadn't been for Disney. I can't deny that part of my life."

There are many other Southern California poets finding their central metaphors far away from the ivory stages of traditional "high culture":

Poet Dennis M. Dorney explains that his early education in literature consisted of Classic Comics and Cliffs Notes. Movie stars, rock stars, comic book characters, characters from movies, television shows, have formed the imaginations of a generation of poets and they are not afraid to tell the world.

Amy Gerstler is disarmingly vulnerable about her crush on "Dear Boy George": ". . . Not to embarrass you with my raw American awe / . . . but you're the plump bisexual cherub of / the eighties."

David James writes about Tina Turner: "She continuously relives / the opportunity of Annie May Bullock / naive in St. Louis and 17 / . . . for her reality will always lie / in a confrontation with Tina Turner."

Godzilla haunts the dreams of Dean Clark: "One hundred million year old antediluvian / Slumber, awakened / Just in time for the '80s."

Robert Peters writes lyric poems in the form of obsessive fan letters to Robert Mitchum.

Actor/poet Harry Northup's "john voight poems" attempt to document Hollywood's neurotic competitive fear.

Paeans to Marie Osmond, Mae West, Houdini, Tonto, Roy Rogers, Marilyn Monroe, pepper L.A.-based journals and anthologies like "Poetry Loves Poetry," "The Webs We Weave" (an anthology of Orange County Poetry), "The Southern California Review of Poetry," "Electrum Magazine" and "Asylum."

Pop-oriented poetry may be seen as part of a larger trend in the arts to validate the impact of pop art on the formation of the imagination.

The recently deceased Warhol, with his pictures of soup cans and Dick Tracy, is probably the best known of the pop visual artists. Film Critic David Thomson wrote a novel, "Suspects" (Knopf, 1985) whose characters are all characters from movies. There is a museum of advertising artifacts in San Francisco, the star item of which is the model for the Jolly Green Giant.

Is it useful to distinguish between Pop Art and high art? "Art," said Warhol, "is a man's name." Yet, in the way it originates, its purposes, its impact, its market function, in the way artists relate to it, in the way the public relates to it, Pop Art is significantly different from both high culture and folk culture.

Probably the most useful differentiation is in degree of self-consciousness. Folk culture is the least self-conscious of the three forms. Fairy tales are folk culture when grandmothers recount them to little children. When they are gathered into volumes by the Brothers Grimm and others--to be preserved for eternity (however long that is) they are high culture--work usually created with posterity and the history of art in mind. Pop culture is usually intended to make lots of money in its own time. Fairy tales are pop culture when Disney makes them into movies and theme parks.

Some poets use Pop Art imagery to treat high art's aspirations to immortality ironically. This irony is clear in Ron Koertge's "Ozymandias & Harriet":

\o7 "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,

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