Joel Bettridge’s take on the poetry of Robert Service—near the outer historical limit of the books under recovery—twins Service’s poems of the Yukon (“the snows that are older than history”) with Sarah Palin’s description of Alaska in her gubernatorial farewell speech last year. This was the speech that William Shatner parodied with bongos and jazz bass on Conan O’Brien. The part he recites goes like this:
“And getting up here, I say it is the best road trip in America, soaring through nature’s finest show. Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun. And then the extremes. In the winter time it’s the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice-fogged frigid beauty. The cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs? And then in the summertime, such extreme summertime, about a hundred and fifty degrees hotter than just some months ago, than just some months from now, with fireweed blooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving and reminding us that here, Mother Nature wins. It is as throughout all Alaska, that big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future.”Joel reads Palin’s string of shameless cliches as “the opposite of poetry”—a use of language that, instead of defamiliarizing the everyday a la Shklovsky’s ostranenie, serves up exactly “what every American thought he or she knows about Alaska.” He sees this in part as a populist political gesture with the unintended consequence of “[making] the landscape disappear” inside her formulaic, almost nonsensical, celebration of it.
By contrast, Robert Service, who employs an equally familiar, even cliched poetic diction that revels in “the 'thrill' and 'wonder' of the Yukon’s beauty, and the 'stillness' that brings the narrator 'peace',” emerges from Joel’s comparison as an underrated champion of our desire for ostranenie, which for Service means Alaska, and which appears in a poem like “The Spell of the Yukon” less as a landscape than an occasion for “[wrestling] with the overwhelming problem ... of trying to locate what it means to inhabit, even belong to, a place that inspires a profound sense of intimacy and love in the face of its indifference.”
It’s a powerful reading that rescues Service from our condescension to his anti-Modern poetics, and maybe to his own populist politics: cranking out rhymes and ballads deep into the '50s, his dogged rejection of Modernism surely had a political edge. Service aside, Joel’s account of the opposite of poetry—an anti-poetry—has stuck with me since I read it. His analysis works so well because Palin and Service are so close in their verbal resources. Palin’s self-conscious stab at being poetic is funny and late-night-parody-worthy because it reaches back to language not unlike Service’s for its idea of what poetry is. Joel spots a “contorted reference to 'The Call of the Yukon'” in Palin’s speech, and it’s the surface resemblance between her merciless rivers and soaring Denalis and Service’s “big, dizzy mountains” and “mighty-mouthed hollows” that provokes Joel’s sensitive re-reading. One of the uses of anti-poetry, if it has one, is to help us distinguish poetry not so much from its opposite, which is easy, but from its evil twin.
Problem is, I kind of like the evil twin. I like Palin’s strangely musical repetitions (“soaring,” “summertime,” “road,” “months”), her slipshod take on the demotic (“I say it is,” “as throughout all Alaska,” “that is competing”), her staccato pile-up of adjectives (“that big wild good life teeming”), and her insouciance with sonic oddities like “Sourdough” and “Cheechako.” I’m sure Joel’s right that the poem has nothing to do with the wonders of Alaska. But it does have a lot to do with the syntactic contortions, verbal squash and stretch, embrace of the hackneyed, and ear-driven sound forms I value in a lot of contemporary poetry. It’s not a great poem, not even a great anti-poem, but it’s sort of a pretty good anti-poem that I prefer to a lot of “real” poems that aim to be great.
Where the speech goes off the rails, I think, is where it tries to conform to common ideas of arresting poetic language: merciless rivers, midnight suns, ice-fogged frigid beauty—phrases that Palin, a gifted improviser of anti-poetry, would never say off-script, and which she ejects from her mouth in the video as if they were miniature turds slipped under her tongue. Shatner’s parody proves that her speechwriter was ultimately right; these phrases were instantly recognized as a special, “poetic” use of language, and the Beat setting Conan gave it goes straight to the heart of how poetry’s thought of in the larger culture.
I guess what Joel’s article helped me get clear on is that finally I’m not very interested in sorting out poetry from anti-poetry, or in embracing anti-poetry as such, like some strands of contemporary poetics seem to call for. In the end, I’m not even all that concerned with ostranenie, a mantra that’s been chanted so long it’s become a cliche of its own. Right now, reality seems more than capable of estranging itself from us without any extra help from poetry, the rise of the Thrilla from Wasilla being one of its latest, greatest examples. It’s in the shifting dialectic between poetry and anti-poetry that the language I’m most drawn to lies, with one forever stepping out ahead to re-frame and lend new meanings to the other. A literary language is always bound to harden into set formulas; the vernacular’s condemned to seldom recognizing itself as poetic. It takes a Palin and a Service together in some weird way to make a poetry, and a poet like Joel to call out the heretofore invisible strings that bind them.