The Most Modern Poet
Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals gave me the peculiar feeling that I was reading the first true book of poetry to be published in the 21st century. I almost didn’t write about this feeling, for fear of insulting every other poet whose books I’ve read and loved in the last 14 years. But understand me: This is not a declaration of war on everything that came before, but rather a celebration of a talented writer who finally figured out a way, consistently, to distill pure music out of the business-savvy, meme-injected language in which we marinate every day.
In “The Arch,” Lockwood observes that the St. Louis landmark “of all living monuments has the fewest/facts attached to it, they slide right off/its surface, no Lincoln lap for them to sit/on and no horse to be astride…” From there, the poem runs wild in a spray of excitement, spitting out even wrong factoids (“Or am I mixing it up I think I am/with another famous female statue?”) like a disputed Wikipedia article besieged by opinionated editors, dipping into art criticism (“What an underhand/gift for an elsewhere to give, a door/that reminds you you can leave it”), and closing on a surprisingly tender image of Lockwood’s mother raising “her arm to brush my hair. Oh no female/armpit lovelier than the armpit of the Arch.”
The poems in Motherland (Penguin Poets, $20) are a riot of ideas and observations, as a glance at the table of contents will warn you, with titles like “Search ‘Lizard Vagina’ and You Shall Find,” “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer,” “The Hunt for a Newborn Gary,” “Nessie Wants to Watch Herself Doing It,” “Last of the Late Great Gorilla-Suit Actors,” and “Factories Are Everywhere in Poetry Right Now.” This hunger for disparate subjects isn’t the product of an ADD-addled psyche but simply a curious one. Walt Whitman scoured the American dream for inspiration, Emily Dickinson turned her eyes inside and strip-mined the rich veins of her loneliness, and Lockwood scans the internet’s gaudy vistas and sinister canyons. She’s not just higgledy-piggledy gluing together the results of multiple “I Feel Lucky” searches. She’s constructing sturdy monuments out of material that so many others have discarded for junk.
Because she acknowledges that the internet exists, Lockwood has been thoroughly misunderstood as a poet. (She has also become best known for a poem called “The Rape Joke,” as that poem itself predicted. It’s powerful; it’s in Motherland.) The blog HTMLGiant, unfortunately, dubbed her “The Poet Laureate of Twitter,” because she has tens of thousands of followers and because she’s a very funny and interesting microblogger. The problem with that title is it diminishes Lockwood and makes her a curiosity by tying her to a brand; it’s not like Twitter opened Lockwood up to poetry the way, say, Subway transformed that Jared guy from an anonymous schlub into a world-famous dieting spokesmodel. The logic is simple: Poets are communicators. Twitter is a communication medium. Lockwood is good at Twitter.
The Twitter connection makes it easy for some literary institutions to diminish Lockwood. Adam Plunkett, the assistant literary editor of the New Republic, wrote a profile of Lockwood in the New Yorker online at the end of May that served as a textbook example of concern-trolling. “Lockwood fits uncannily well on social media, especially on Twitter, but I worry that she fits herself to it,” Plunkett frets, noting that “the constant reinforcement [of Twitter] can hardly be without its temptations.” He also pouts when he discovers that Lockwood’s audience “claps loudly at jokes, especially provocative ones,” for fear that she will soon leave the august calling of poetry behind for the “lowest common denominator” of standup comedy. Plunkett reaches the conclusion that “she shouldn’t have to depend on what Twitter likes, anyway.” May I humbly propose that perhaps she doesn’t?
It’s disappointing to see the literary world respond with so much regressive energy when a poet comes along who dares to make beautiful and entertaining poetry out of the words and experiences of common people. What else is poetry for, but to sing us a song of ourselves in language that we can understand? And why would anyone who claims to love poetry turn up their nose at the work of a gifted writer who’s trying to drag the form into modernity? Lockwood is inspiring young people to care about poetry again, and she’s not compromising her art as she does it; the only poet laureate position she’s suitable for, in my opinion, is poet laureate of Whitman’s United States.
Originally published at www.thestranger.com.