We now switch channels from the Golden Girl to He-Man. Nick Thran’s a writer who infrequently pens good poems about crap culture. A quick encounter with Earworm encourages consideration of Thran’s childhood. Thran was raised on inane cartoons and disposable junk, the kind kids are dosed with until they lust for another toy advertised by the same-but-different jingle. Yet a closer read leads to an appreciation of the tremendous waste represented by a poet like Thran.
Hints of talent are here. Thran puts an important poem up front, underlining his ability to Choose His Own Adventure wisely. The opener is “House By the Railroad”, an ekphrastic poem based on the eponymous painting by Edward Hopper. The poem is imaginative, mournful, and mysterious. (I notice play in the poem too… Thran can play effectively, though the play usually happens in the sandbox.) By beginning his book this way, Thran rescues himself from what he normally chooses, for Hopper the painter felt that the contemporary world and the natural word were inconsistent, or incompatible. Thus Thran implies that his mix of high and low is a conscious choice, that he’s trying to juxtapose hack Korean animation with the subtlest emotion, and in so doing achieve real art. But for the most part Thran has sugar stains from a stack of Captain Crunch gorged during Saturday morning cartoons. After the accomplished first poem, we get the second, which reads
is an album by Pink Floyd which
you’re proud to be able to finally admit
is terrible now that you are not stoned
in your friend’s basement at age fourteen
trying your best to create an aura of coolness
by agreeing with everything they say is “wicked”
until you have built a whole wall of what’s “wicked”
made of things you can’t remember now
The problem with the above is not that it’s part and parcel of a clear strategy (just a line before, Thran takes the reader’s breath with his invocation of Rilke.) It’s that Thran thinks this character and scene are new and evocative, that this brand of maturational development is even interesting. Progressing beyond intoxicated enjoyment of bad music is something many adolescents must do. It’s an unfortunate need, and Thran wants it to be more than it is. Perhaps renouncing Pink Floyd is an epiphany for some. For most, it’s just growing up. And growing up is something this poet clearly needs to do. He chooses the He-Man option in his poems in the sly, modern way that contemporary cartoons - ie. Phineas and Ferb - invoke classical myth. He writes poems conversant with the tradition but also writes them conversant with Madison Avenue’s worst designs for little minds. If Poetry’s mansion, à la Hopper, had bedrooms for every poet in history, Thran’s would have a shelf devoted to Happy Meal trinkets and Go-Bots. The “aura of coolness” the poem mentions is, in a meta-Earworm way, a simulacrum of having something to say which is to establish a hipster identity. Identity is an adolescent concern.
Yet there are moments when Thran skinnydips into the pool of the profound. “David” resists the enclosing silly atmosphere and becomes a statement about American foreign policy, technology, and friendship. It begins as a classic lyric and moves to a dialogue-at-the-McDonalds account that, amazingly, refracts the beauty of the stanza before. Musings on Caravaggio pass to difficult statements attesting to how much strength is required to appreciate art. Then we encounter drinking and internet viewing. This is normally the critical moment in a Thran poem where the reader is entitled to throw the book at the television, but instead Thran surprises us. He delivers a subject worthy of poetry, yes, but also delivers the means: ideas and things are made new and real, their roots shown in the past, their future projected, the present wrecked. Another calculatedly provocative poem is “Dopamine” which begins in the opposite way, from low to high. We start with the seven dwarves and move to adult ideas of decrepitude, of the vagaries of love, of brain chemistry, and especially of metaphorical menace.
Yet…what’s the point when there are so many poems that are Jokey Smurf attempts at profundity, such as “The Age of the Pineapple” and its line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s pineapple?”
Earworm is like a child that has grown up enough to anticipate the inevitable criticism he’ll receive, grown enough to see how he’s grown up, and yet stayed frozen in that knowing. Adulthood is more than realizing childhood’s over, it’s about assuming the identity of responsibility. Thran chooses a static pop irrelevance. The final stanza of “Seven Cicadas” reads, “It thrives on its own emptiness/ It never had to choose.” In fact, we all do choose, and Thran chose Retrotoon Verse. Even Peter Pan made a choice: he wanted Wendy to stay with him.
The content of the book is objectionable, but there’s more wrong than junior high chronicling and vacuum tube reminiscences. “I Have A Computer…” is of a grade comparable to the automatic writing of a stoned junior high kid. A sample:
I have a computer. My computer hurts my eyes.
I have a fan. When I turn on my fan there is wind.
I have a painting by my sister of the human heart. My sister
works two jobs because her landlord doesn’t charge
the same rent anymore.
I have a poem by Mark Strand. “Black Sea” is a wonderful poem.
What is the point of writing a mentally-handicapped poem like this, except to say, “Poetry Schmoetry?” Not a whit of a care given to alliteration, to metaphor, to image, to any poetic device. Even cartoons have colour.
But back to content. The most unbelievable poem of the bunch is “Cartoon Pyramid.” This poem is evidence that Thran saved the iconic plastic He-Man sword his mommy bought him, only to be dug out again (or perhaps taken down from the wall) when he got the contract with Nightwood for Earworm. He raised that sword to the sky and said, “I have the POWERRRRR!!!!”:
Ninja Turtles were assassins who still had the option
of cowering inside their shells.
Thundercats told the story of a feline-blooded young swordsman
who learned to control his unwieldy phallus. I ask
what star-eyed little pecker could ever
un-fuddle the hullabaloo stirred up
by the plum-tree-in-silk figure cut
by Jessica Rabbit?
Perhaps there is a pyramid scheme at work here, started by David McGimpsey, and Thran came in as a late investor. But the lyric is often busted at the stage of conception, be it at the level of spin-the-bottle or that of cane-and-walker. Our lyrics can aim as low or high as they wish. I don’t think either of these poets have anything to teach one another, except to change. I don’t think Helen Vendler right when she wrote about young poets, “They’re writing about the television cartoons they saw when they were growing up. And that’s fine. It’s as good a resource of imagery as orchards. Only I’ve seen orchards and I didn’t watch these cartoons. So I don’t feel I’m the best reader for most of the young ones.”
There is only one reader. It’s posterity. It takes the long view.
– Shane Neilson