Monday, May 11, 2009

Enviable Mania: The Poems of Denise Duhamel (Part One of a Series)

I can still remember when I saw my first Denise Duhamel poem, The Difference Between Pepsi and the Pope, and my shock that someone could write such obnoxiously long lines. Here’s a link in which you can hear her breathless reading, as she races through the poem in the way the line suggests:

How can she take up so much room on the page? I understood how Whitman could; he was an old dead poet—they always babbled. (This is probably a shameful to admit, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I read Whitman’s The Song of Myself. It always had looked long and boring. I've never been an intellectual. If SparkNotes had been around, I would have picked up a copy. That’s what I did for The Canterbury Tales.)

I don’t know why I thought such a dumb thing. Like a lot of undergraduates, I hadn’t read much poetry, and I didn’t feel like I need to really. I simply needed to see how long a poem should be. (Much like a needless term paper) And then go from there; I would eventually hit the end and be done.


In Duhamel’s new book Ka-Ching, she has a number of prose poems. I have a hunch why. Maybe the sheer length of her lines got so long she couldn’t manage them. Their sheer manic intensity didn’t allow her to pay attention. They sped past her.


I always get annoyed when someone describes Duhamel’s poems as campy. It’s a completely inaccurate description. Think back to Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp. One of her tenents states that for art to be camp, it must be oblivious to its own potential for comedy, enraptured by its own seriousness, its own self-importance. The comedy cannot be deliberate. Otherwise it’s either pretty much straight-up drama or comedy. Or a combination of the two. Not camp.

Why am I protective of her poems, from being labeled as camp? Camp isn’t a bad thing. Or is it?

Look at the first few stanzas of “Please Don’t Sit Like a Frog, Sit Like a Queen”:

Remember to pamper, remember to preen
The world doesn’t reward a pimply girl.
Don’t sit like a frog, sit like a queen.

Buy a shampoo that gives your locks sheen.
If your hair is straight, get it curled.
Remember to pamper, remember to preen.

Keep your breath minty and your teeth white and clean.
Paint your nails so they glisten, ten pearls.
Don’t sit like a frog, sit like a queen.

Camp or Light Verse?

Light Verse, no doubt. And what’s wrong with Light Verse? A lot of people are scared of it. It means you may not take yourself seriously. Or them seriously, God forbid. These same people need to be reminded that Light Verse boasts its fair share of amazing practitioners. Like Auden. Like T.S. Eliot. Like E.E. Cummings. Like Dorothy Parker.

For some reason, though, camp feels beneath Light Verse.

But there I go again. “Beneath.” This may be why: camp thinks it’s doing one thing when in actually it’s doing another. Light Verse knows what it’s up to, so there’s nothing to laugh at. You laugh with. But isn't there something more real about being oblivious? Or is that just stupidity?



  1. As as said to the Fiction Writers Review, "Denise Duhamel can make you laugh, cry, think, and want to grab a pen to write, and she can do it all within a single poem. Yes, she is that talented! Kumin, Sexton, Plath, and Bishop are all names we recognize from our high school and college text books, Duhamel will join their ranks. Denise Duhamel is a queen of American poetry."

    Denise has my heart. Btw-- They'll be a Denise interview in the next issue of the ouroboros review.

  2. Interesting perspective on her work. I have always thought of her poems not as light verse, but as both very sincere toward their subjects and also rife with social satire and critique. Kinky, for example, only works because deep down, Duhamel loves Barbie. But she's also keenly aware of Barbie's falsehoods, shortcomings, and mistakes, and the poems explore them honestly and with rancor. But still, there's a tenderness there. That's what makes her work so fucking fantastic: she never believes she is better than what she writes about.

  3. Hi Charles,

    I hope I didn't imply that I see all of Duhamel's poetry as Light Verse. I don't. Especially as I read through Ka-Ching. Or some of her better known poems like Bulemia.

    Would you say that the Barbie dolls are not Light Verse because they incorporate social satire and critique? Is that what makes it "heavy" for you?

    I would argue that Light Verse can definitely have satire and critique.

    (These are genuine questions BTW, as a blogger friend of yours once said to me, you've got to be careful of tone--I didn't realize at the time what good advice that was.)

    Or is it an issue of length: are the barbie poems too long to be considered light verse? (Similarly is the Rape of the Lock too epic to be light verse?). I have to look at an OED; maybe that'll help me.

    I agree, Charles, with her ambivalence toward Barbie. I think love is the right word, too.

  4. But "The Rape of the Lock" isn't epic, certainly not "too epic". The mock heroic, surely, is the opposite of epic, that is what it debunks (by its appreciation of the Classics). It isn't Light Verse either. The range of references is anything but light in the work of Pope. As I read contemporary American poets and their judgements on English Lit, I wonder how well English Lit is taught in America... How many can read Anglo Saxon, or Middle English, or even Elizabethan English? I was looking recently at a set of blogs set up by American university undergraduate students on Renaissance lit. The level of contextual understanding was well below UK standards: not even at A level High School understanding. These questions are put out of curiousity. I tend to agree that Light Verse can have satire...of an unsophisticated kind. Does Light Verse boast great practitioners--Eliot--or is this simply where their weaker poems end up? Is Eliot's Light Verse anything more than childish fun? Like Tolkein's lyrics? Like "Alice in Wonderland"? Like Edward Lear? Like Sophie Hannah? Like Roger McGough? Are people scared of Light Verse? Not in the UK? Is "Blind Date with Cavafy" Light Verse? What is Light Verse? Perhaps, you do have to define your terms historically.

    Someone else who is confused by your use of Light Verse.

  6. Hi,

    I don't think that poet with a day job is at all confused by my definition of Light Verse. I think she has a phobia of it. I would undoubtedly claim that Mann writes predominately Light Verse (in his first book he even makes the completely predictable even if somewhat entertaining play on his name). I've written about that book, and I would dare anyone to argue with me otherwise. Would anyone who has stayed with Mann's career not notice his poetic project? Even in a somewhat recent MiPoesias, he has a poem published that is essentially a genre of Light Verse: bathroom graffiti.

    You can even see the phobia of Light Verse on the back of Mann's book. The refusal to name the comedy for the most part. Two poets are quoted and only one D.A. Powell identifies it as somewhat comic. (He uses the word "humorous" and then backs off. I think Powell is one of our better gay writers, writers period. But I had no idea he was describing Mann's book. It sounded self-important and boring--something I would want to avoid.)

    More than a couple gay authors (and not gay) were offended by by description as Light Verse, and did not raise the argument (as you do) as to what is Light Verse. But instead that it can't be Light Verse, it's much more complicated and profound than that.

    Can't a joke, punchline be profound?

    Even you seem to be somewhat pejorative in your description of Light Verse. It can have satire "of an unsophisticated kind." If Light Verse is also considered to be pretty short in nature (which seems to be one of the conditions by a lot of critics), how nuanced can it be? Doesn't, according to your definition, in a way, make pretty much all Light Verse unsophisticated and somewhat "less"?

  7. Sean Thomas DoughertyMay 13, 2009 at 6:36 AM

    Nice work Steve, particularly the part about your initial reactions, which I think are different from anyone I know. Duhamel has an intense attraction to young writers because of her immersion in popular culture. I wonder about the use of Light Verse. I use that term as a formal term tied to metrics. I think you miscategorize her use of the prose poem. Her long lines have a different breath than her prose poems. I think the attempt to LABLE her in formal terms is problematic at best as Duhamel has so many forms she has used over the years. Honestly I'd take camp over light verse anyday. The first is a definition of attitude, a technique, the second as you say an intentional move that always, to my mind, says, look how witty I am. Camp is more absurd. calls attention to the absurd, which I think if not more praiseworthy, is simply more interesting.

  8. Sean,

    I love you.

    Having gotten that out of the way, I guess I'm wondering if there ultimately is a different breath. I would argue that ultimately what is different is The Look of the poem. Prose seems to me to signify an inability to stop, you've gotta keep talking, the end of the line no longer offers you pause, strategy, so you blow right past it, like a car out of control. Poetry requires control. I'm not saying in any way control is a good thing. (Would control allow someone to write a wonderful book of Barbie Poems, endless in their discovery of new takes on the same object.)

    In terms of Light Verse (and I probably should alter the post, because I may be giving the impression that all Duhamel's poems are Light Verse, I think actually a fairly small percentage are), I don't think saying, "Look at how witty I am" is a bad thing.

    I'm pro-exhibitionism. I like showing off.

    So does Randall Man with his new book Breakfast with Thom Gunn. He does use metrics and the poems are short and witty. I claimed it was Light Verse when I reviewed it at coldfront, and people got so angry.

    I got a few nasty emails from gay poets and as E. mentions above, people are still angry.

    I think the word camp has been elasticized to mean almost anything funny. I do get nervous, as I imagine you do, Sean, when a word means almost anything. A lot like the word surreal. I don't know what it means anymore

  9. Those are good questions, Steve. For me, I think the intent of the author has a lot to do with whether or not I perceive it to be light verse. I think many times what Billy Collins writes is light verse because his primary aim in writing is to entertain and titilate his reader, and while I think Denise does this sometimes to, I think her poetry is working on two levels.

    I think one kind of reader, probably a straight guy, would read a poem like "I Dreamed I Wrote this Sestina in My Maidenform Bra" and be titilated by it (pun intended somewhat). I think that kind of reader wouldn't look further than the entertainment value and be satisfied with her or her read of the poem.

    The other kind of reader would receive that poem in two ways: first, they would read the lightness of the subject matter and tone, but they would also read the level of critique Duhamel levels there.

    I think marginalized groups can communicate with each other this way, by cloaking critique of the majority in such a way that it's visible only to other marginalized groups...

    This is probably not as clear as I want it to be.

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  11. Hi,

    My partner and I got back from sushi this evening; I wasn't going to dodge your question, but he said I should.

    Definitely: some of my poems are Light Verse. No doubt about it.

    Common reader? What does that mean? Can you explain Schmidt more. It sounds a bit creepy.

    If you would rather go to a comedy show than read Light Verse, would you rather go to a concert than poem that claims to be full rhythm? (I would.)

    If you ever read Mann, I'd love to know what you think.

    You don't think Thom Gunn himself writes some Light Verse in the Man with Night Sweats or Boss Cupid or do you (like the people who worship Mann) "excuse" the Light Verse because it's about the Serious Topic AIDS?

    I'm worried about your logic here. Sincerely.

  12. Charles,

    I'd like to amplify what E. says about your comments, esp. how it ties into audience and intention. I love that you name a poem, too. In the next few days, I have to find the book that's in. I have all these queer books and papers littering my room, and I can't find anything.

  13. Steve, don't worry about my logic...I didn't attempt to be logical, just speculative. I guess that we live in parallel universes, so you see poets and poems in ways that I do not. Light Verse for you seems to be a form of enlightenment. I just don't see that light.

  14. Hi E.,

    First, my partner loves your posts. And so do I! And so at least 2 of my friend who are smarter than me.

    I get lonely on my blog, and you're one of the few that challenge me.

    (I still don't understand what hermetical means!)

    Don't leave me. I like you.

    I just am struggling with this idea of Light Verse and whether it can for that matter be something worthy enough to take seriously or even call art. Yeah: that's what I mean. That's the question I'm struggling with.

    I love what you say about Kleinzahler.


    P.S. Please speculate!

    P.P.S. One of my many tragic flaws is that I'm too strident when I critique what I perceive as the negatives and end up failing to boldface the positives. My students would say that. And I do think sometimes they're right.

  15. Sean Thomas DoughertyMay 15, 2009 at 8:08 AM


    you know in addition to all the great discussion above maybe Light Verse as a term also sounds so deficit to so many because of consumer culture, light= less than? Less calories, less fat, less flavor? this just occurred to me while grocery shopping. Go figure? Sean

  16. Hi,

    I love this comment. I will steal it and claim it as my own.

  17. Steve,

    I think you should write another post on Denise Duhamel.



  18. Hi Dustin,

    I didn't even skim the surface. I plan to. I think because the semester is ending, I feel the need to write about teaching.