Outlaw Poetry?

How to keep poetrys wild frontier wild

The most pernicious image of all," British writer Grant Morrison has said, "is the anarchist hero-figure. A creation of commodity culture, he allows us to buy into an inauthentic simulation of revolutionary praxis. . . . The hero encourages passive spectating, and revolt becomes another product to be consumed."

The evidence of that might be summed up in any of a thousand commercials, including the recent 7 Up come-on, "Are you an 'Un'?"

What, then, to make of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, edited by San Francisco poet Alan Kaufman and LA poet S.A. Griffin? Putting aside the questionable adjective in the title, it's a striking collection of poems, encompassing an enormous range of poets—from Walt Whitman to such local contemporaries as Gerald Locklin, as well as the oddly fascinating likes of Gil Scott-Heron, Abbie Hoffman, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Hunter S. Thompson.

The premise of the book is to present a diverse cross section of American poets, all of whom developed their skills and reputations outside academia.

"At best," writes Kaufman, "outlaw poetry is an ongoing record of streetwise sensibility and tough tenderness. These poets have given form to incoherence, made a song of ugliness, and shown that unbearable pain is something we can survive. In their best work, the poetry achieves a gentleness and compassion despite that pain."

Notwithstanding the execrable trend toward mere cleverness in much 20th-century poetry, compassion should be poetry's great gift. But literary semantics aside, these are poems —a few terrible, a few magnificent—that have been allowed to blossom without the mainstreaming influence of an academic hierarchy, a process that in many cases rips every hint of real passion and emotion from a poet's writing and replaces them with the literary analogue of a strip mall. Here, academia becomes 7-Eleven: fine, if that's your taste, but nigh-identical whether in Irvine or Boston.

The question, then, is how authentic—and desirable—is the Outlaw Poets' criminality? Wisely, the editors leave the answer to the reader, and frankly, there's an enormous field to consider, as they explore nearly every possible interpretation of the title phrase. Crammed between the likes of literary giants Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso are unlikely renegades such as Maggie Estep, a New York writer popularized by MTV circa 1994, whose poem "Emotional Idiot" is highly entertaining in performance but falls flat in print. ("I'm an Emotional Idiot/so get away from me./I mean/ COME HERE.")

Other bits are amusing but read like literary curios. A poem by the original "Rebel Without a Cause," James Dean, titled "Ode to a Tijuana Toilet" is barely coherent—more adolescent ranting than a well-honed expression of anger ("Oh Great Crusty bowel of no end/SHOWING HIS BALLS TO THE WORLD"). Another, by rapper Tupac Shakur, is charmingly earnest and chillingly prophetic ("I will die before my time because I already feel/the shadow's depth"). But the poem isn't as deep as the shadow.

These are mostly exceptions, however. The Outlaw Bible doesn't find its strength looking for depth in artificial pop-culture icons sold to the public as "renegades." It finds it seeking out poetry from surprising sources, focusing on little-known poets who have struggled hard outside the literary establishment. There's a glorious assortment of barely acknowledged poets denied the prestige and fame others less talented have been granted —poets like d.a. levy, Jeff McDaniel and Ellyn Maybe. Placed next to the likes of Ginsberg and his Beat Generation cohorts, it becomes obvious that the so-called "renegades" of today's poetry—those most marginalized by academic "law"—are really the most likely to define poetry for future generations.

This is one of those truisms that have echoed throughout poetry's history: it's not the "establishment" that's remembered. We could list a dozen Romantic French poets right now who were giants in their day, and they would mean nothing to most of us. Odds are the name Arthur Rimbaud, who toiled in poverty and obscurity in his day, is at least familiar; but poor Rimbaud would be incredulous if you told him that one day his ideas would become poetic "law."

Same goes for Richard Pryor, whose bit here transcends standup comedy and achieves poetry, not from any pretense at being a poet, but from speaking a truth so eloquent that it shakes the reader's bones. "Everybody should go home to Africa," writes Pryor. "Everybody. There is so much to see there in the eye and the heart./The one thing I got out of it was magic, it was like I was leaving and I was sitting in a hotel and a voice said to me, 'Look around what do you see?'/'I see all colors of people doing everything,' I said./'Do you see any niggas?' the voice said. I said, 'No . . . and you know why? Cause there aren't any.'

"It hit me like a shot man. I started cryin' and shit. I was sitting there sayin', 'I've been here three weeks and I haven't said it. I haven't even thought it. It made me say, 'oh my God, I've been wrong.' I got to regroup my shit. I ain't gonna nevah call another black man nigga 'cause we nevah was no niggas."

They say that anyone who would refer to himself as a Buddhist most likely ain't. Certainly one should be wary of anyone labeling themselves an "outlaw." The world—racked by pain and violence—has no need of media-created "revolutionaries." It needs the real deal, poets who can look a country's demons straight in the eye, like Boston's Patricia Smith, an African-American who tries to see racism from the inside in her poem "Skinhead."

"I come off looking like I'm Hitler himself," she writes, taking on the monstrous persona of her subject. "I ain't that lucky,/but I got my own beauty./It is in my steel-toed boots,/in the hard corners of my shaved head."

Of this sort of true outlaw, The Outlaw Bible has several.

The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, edited by Alan Kaufman & S.A. Griffin; Thunder's Mouth Press. 685 pages. $24.95 softcover.

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