There is a scene in Sofia Coppola’s 2013 film The Bling Ring that has, over time, become what I might call my favorite piece of dance. In a short, distanced, single shot that lasts for around two minutes, the audience is provided an arguably voyeuristic view of a celebrity’s home elevated above the sprawl of Los Angeles, nestled in the Hollywood Hills, as if looking down upon the entire valley below. The scene is set at night. One can hear the crisp sound of insect wildlife—punctuated by the howl of a dog or faint, distant sirens. The camera peers directly through full-panel glass windows and doors—at first dark, quiet and still. The home radiates wealth, and very quickly we are provided with two shadows slinking quickly through the backyard. We know these are teenagers. We know this is a burglary. We know that here, in this place, is a fiction built upwards from a foundation of truth. And if I am being honest, I find it absolutely beautiful.
As the teenagers move into the light, they begin to move with a mix of excitement and urgency. They flit about the house, the lights coming on as they systematically make their way through the bedrooms and living spaces. They stuff objects into a duffel bag. At one point they come together, each on the other side of a glass door. One unlocks the door, and they attract, then repel. They become caught in a space of mutual orbit, drawn to a thing that provides proximity to a different, more desired thing. There is a push-pull, as they quickly escape the house with their bag full of a celebrity’s possessions. Why? To possess a slightly different thing; to nestle themselves close enough to a necklace, a fur-lined coat, a pair of wildly expensive—one-of-a-kind—heels.
When I say there is beauty here I mean it. An Isadora Duncan-esque performance, the movement of two bodies that in turn moves us, the viewers staring at a screen. Something we can feel is so close, but at the same time so far away. There exists a bundle of reactions—all these neurons firing off, saying, This leads to that leads to this and Oh! What beauty in this desire to be close to beauty.
But we should back up. This is a trick I learned a long time ago from a poetry instructor: start in the middle and work your way to the edges.
If you asked a hundred contemporary poets working today to define what they meant by poetry you would find yourself orbiting a hundred differing, often conflicting definitions. Formalists will define a poem by its technical elements, such as rhyme, meter, cadence and metaphor, while free-verse poststructuralists might discuss poetic elements of authenticity, voice and self-expression. The best definition I can give for a poem is that it is: “a bundle of ideas excitedly slamming against each other like atoms exchanging electrons, creating new ideas and opening fresh avenues of inquiry.” But that’s just me. And I have often found myself in conflict with my peers, especially when it comes to writing.
The first time I quit writing poems was when I was 25. I was a nonacademic poet in the short post-internet, pre-web-based literary community that existed in the late 2000s and early 2010s. As a teenager, poetry had seemed like the perfect medium to cut through the challenges of my ADHD and burgeoning gender dysphoria. Reading poets like Pound, Eliot, Rilke and Ginsberg allowed me to engage with ideas in a way that was both brief and deeply meaningful. When I later became part of the “poetry world,” however, I realized that no one cared about my ideas. Rather, audiences wanted my traumas punctuated by millennial irony and a kind of wink-wink cleverness. My adoration for the intellectual rigor of Modernists such as Pound and Oppen was (perhaps rightfully) seen as antiquated and out of touch. They wanted me to be something else.
In the age of the internet, we are more than ever acutely aware of our potential to be something else. We craft tweets and watch endless streams of YouTube videos promising whatever brand of pre-authenticated selfhood one might dream up or desire. We place ourselves in proximity to things we desire, but mistake that proximity for a kind of personal-emotional ownership. This is a process that can be expressed as an equation: that by the illusion of possession, be it material, philosophical or metaphysical, happiness will follow like the cart behind the horse. The construction exists also in an inverse: we craft avoidance alongside our attachment. Drawing constantly shifting lines upon the self that delineate a symmetrical force, a push-pull that if we can just balance like a teetering see-saw, we will be fashioned into the selfhood that will ring authentic and true. “I am this, I am not that.”
The teenagers in The Bling Ring make themselves at home in Paris Hilton’s “Nightclub Room,” a small parlor with flashing lights and a center-mounted stripper’s pole. Here there is a nightclub that is itself a “nightclub” only by its hollow, faint approximation—its proximity to the spacious, operating nightclubs depicted at various times in the film. More importantly, we can see the aspirational framework that says if the teenagers possessed the trappings of fame then they would be happy. They would possess happiness the way you put a quarter into an old machine so it can spit out a gumball—with texture and taste, limited and constantly diminishing in return.
The real teenagers who burgled celebrities’ homes and were later fictionalized in The Bling Ring desired things such as celebrity, fame, a sense of belonging to a world for which they possessed a possessive attachment. The hard work of attaining celebrity can be shortcut. Simply donning an expensive dress stolen from the overflowing closet of a Hollywood actor or social starlet is an act of protest, as well as a process of attainment. The teenagers position themselves in proximity to the things they desire but cannot truly possess. The metaphor, when applied to poetry, is perhaps too close. A different kind of proximity predicated on the employment of art as a means to mediate hierarchy. A different collection of provoking anxieties that rise and abide and eventually might, if we are lucky, become subsumed into the background chaos of our crisis-mediated lives.
The Bling Ring does not just exist as a film, nor is it simply a collection of real-world events and phenomena that led to national media coverage. The two stories are too intertwined, too reliant upon each other to easily unravel. Coppola provides a disruption, an imposition of structure upon the larger phenomena. Motive is inserted, inferred. At each step deeper into a tunnel-like present, nothing fundamentally changes: the characters eat family dinners, discuss schoolwork and engage in the mundanity of day-to-day life. Proximity to an aspirational spectacle is never relinquished as there is no mechanism to make good upon the aspirations presented. In fact, Coppola includes this home life full of unrealized aspiration as it appears organized around the mid-2000s self-help phenomenon, The Secret. While popular notions of homeschooling focus on often conservative religious and political ideals, in The Bling Ring we are given a different perspective: the liberal, upper-middle-class religion of “energy” and “attraction.” This is the hook into feeling, described in the film as a focus on “how we need to be really careful about who we surround ourselves with because we wind up being the average of those people.”
The origin of the self-help genre can be traced back to didactic poetry like Hesiod’s Works and Days or the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East, but the internet has brought forth perfect conditions to merge disparate pieces of pre-internet life into (supposedly) cohesive wholes. If the economic frenzy of the Eighties gave rise to a cultural thrust toward aggressive economic activity, then the fall of the Berlin Wall refocused that energy into reparative New Age spirituality: in the absence of ideological conflict, a space opens, demanding to be filled.
The process of creating “selfness” is constantly seeping, liquid, into that space, replacing relations between individuals and their communities with a constantly inward cycle of personal growth. And of course, this growth is expansive. There is a distinction brought to bear by Spinoza, between the action of a body itself moving and feeling and the felt impact of affective states as they leave their varying marks and impressions. This is perhaps why, as the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart observes, “Self-making projects proliferate at exactly the same rate as the epidemics of addictions and the self-help shelves at the bookstore.”
The Secret suggests that we exist in a web of unseen, incalculable social-spiritual force. That there exists a certain truth in what otherwise comes across as New Age mumbo jumbo: our emotional-psychological state effects our interactions with the world, materially. If we can all just say and think the “right things” we can solve existential socioeconomic problems or rebalance certain axes of cultural oppression. It is no surprise then that poets, in their monoculture of internal politicking and virtue signaling, working under the long-cast, wildly popular shadow of “self-help,” have adopted outsize conceptions of the reach and impact of their mostly ignored work; that they have learned to believe that their effort and attention can, in some cases, literally change the world.
On Friday, September 5, 2021, I shot off a barely considered tweet to my then roughly 1900 Twitter followers, before going into an appointment. The tweet read: “I wish poets understood that the general population has no interest in what we do, so when we speak we are speaking only to each other. The delusion that poetry is something powerful is a straight line to all kinds of toxic positivities that are really just us lying to ourselves.”
I was mostly responding, emotionally, to the hyperbole present in the world of niche art: how the register of our collective artistic temperament has adopted the aspirational constructions of pseudo-metaphysical self-help. How every poem is hailed as “powerful” and “important,” as if to preemptively defend against the sting of cultural neglect. Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of the dictum to “MAKE IT NEW!” Within the confines of our poststructuralist literary culture, the only newness to be found must be constantly asserted as the expression of individual identity, selfhood.
Thirty minutes later, as I exited the appointment, I learned that my tweet had made me poetry’s momentary public enemy #1. Perhaps what was most striking to me, a minor, emerging writer and an editor at an obscure poetry magazine, was that, for whatever reason, it was determined that my tweet posed a kind of existential threat—as though the wound needed to be cauterized before more damage could be done.
Like the teenage burglars depicted in Coppola’s film, contemporary literature (and perhaps all art, but I am focused on the art I am told I understand) situates itself in proximity to what it desires to be. The confessional, the personal, the autofictional: we have so many ways to describe the kind of willful internality that wants to lend importance and meaning to subjective assertion.
Ezra Pound’s Cantos, described in his own words as an attempt to record “the tale of the tribe,” was poetry’s last prominent, futile effort to create a unified, unifying theory of not just art but the development of world culture on the precipice of eventual globalization. In the postwar years, fueled by his embrace of Mussolini’s Fascisti and subsequent charge of treason, American poetry repudiated Pound’s desire to move forward by looking back. Having abandoned that grand project, however, poets after Pound found themselves awash in failure: the inability of elite romanticism to capture the mundanities of everyday life; the floundering of universality in the conservative modernist model; the slow dereliction of received form in favor of individualized, personal cadences.
As the relative cultural power of the literary arts diminished in the face of the accessible and ever-growing power of film and television, efforts were made to adjust. As an appealing stay against the cynicism and conservative positions of European continental poetry, the Eighties and Nineties were marked, in the United States, by the rise of a desire to bring poetry back to the people. Assisted, eventually, by the burgeoning internet, we saw the rise of slam poetry and the efforts of figures such as Robert Pinsky and his “Favorite Poem Project.” I distinctly remember Pinsky’s enthusiasm to share with a small group I was part of almost twenty years ago the poems selected and read out loud on video by individuals who were defined by their work outside of the arts: construction workers, housewives, grocery-store clerks.
But the internet, it turned out, did not encourage the sort of decentralized and democratic exchange that was dreamed of by its early advocates. Instead, it became an endless stream of the same variations of self-making, slightly different (or even not different at all) depending on secondary and tertiary social factors too disparate and minor to list. It is right there, always: a world full of people, all very literally believing that if they grasp onto the right words, the right utterances, they can make things happen, phenomenally and/or spiritually. Success or failure at this individualist endeavor is ironically marked not by an internal measure but by external engagement, tracked through clicks and propagated via little buttons marked “share.”
Nowhere is possibility more burgeoning than in poetry. This is the core of our understanding of a poem: the poet says, “In my poems, I am in control.” The narrative exists under their direction, in a space which gives primacy to the authorial self with the belief that the message cannot be hijacked or stolen by machinations like capitalism or cynical national politics. In short, the belief is that, in a poem, anything is possible. At the same time, the poet insists that the poem can bridge between the imaginary and the real. The proximity to actual activism is what makes the poem “powerful.” The proximity to suffering is what makes the poem “brave.”
Possibilities explored in a poem become outcomes desired outside of the cycle of feel-think-speak. Poetry provides its practitioners with a sky in which to dream, and does not delineate between the dream and waking.
Here we can see how contemporary poetry promises a kind of “good life” to its adherents. Through the compounding and open possibilities present within a poetic process, a loose collection of beliefs emerge: that poetry is special, that it represents knowledge that is esoteric or otherwise unknowable, that engaging with or composing poetry is evidence of an elevated spiritual/emotional/individual experience. Poems “speak through time” or “catalyze revolt” via abstractions of a life depicted as possessing spectacular superpowers.
The Secret, which has sold over 35 million copies worldwide after being adapted from a documentary of the same name, posits an if/then condition: if you can control your thoughts—or as the kids would say today, if you can control your “vibes”—then those vibes will return to you, providing to you your now-manifested desires. The activists plug into their activism. The fan plugs into their fandom. The poet plugs into poetry. Each an example of a closed loop that dreams of breaking open but never will.
The general irrelevance of poetry is a shame, but there is no use in assuring oneself of the opposite. The question is what you do in response to that understanding, and throwing one’s hands up in despair is only one of many possibilities. Certainly for most folks it is not the best possibility. The suggestion in my tweet that pursuit of power within poetry is “delusional” was certainly more antagonistic than it needed to be in order to make my point, but the antagonism it inspired in turn suggests that we have never truly moved past Pound’s insistence that poetry can be a vehicle for great cultural and political change.
Poetry remains poised in the position of being poetry. As the poetic project of culture-shaping remains a niche, mostly ignored effort, we can see the way an aspirational desire for poetry to take on meaningful political impact represents a kind of psychological affirmation, while at the same time rubbing, coarsely, against the bristles of someone else’s opposing aspiration, which arises within the same logical frame of “validity” as any other. If the poet can bring a world into being by putting lines into another person’s head, there exists the real fear of these things we do turning about and doing to us, instead. This is eerily similar to what The Secret teaches about our need to carefully curate our proximity to others. Every moment scrolling through Twitter or rooting around Reddit scratches against our desire, reminding us of how little impact the thing we want so badly to have impact actually possesses.
The poets who responded critically to my tweet do not care about me. What they care about is seeing their own ideas about poetry reflected back upon them. Poetry, as an industry, has become stuck in the cycle of self-rationalization, always approaching the world while recoiling at anything that comes close to reaching out to touch it.
I enjoy art because I enjoy standing in proximity to things that are not me, and do not come from the well of my own selfhood. But I desire them, I stand close, study, allow them to wash over me like greasing a pan or lubricating a trapped limb. What is important is understanding that the representation of the thing is not the thing.
In the end, the teenagers depicted in The Bling Ring attain a kind of celebrity of their own, but it isn’t the celebrity they worshiped, nor does it fulfill the desires they initially sought out to feed. Instead of a gaggle of photographers snapping pictures of those walking a red carpet, their photos are mug shots or perp walks. So close, so proximate—but not ever the thing they wanted.