Thursday, September 2, 2010

Assassins & Outsiders: The Obscurity of Popular Poetry

A few weeks ago, P&PC featured the poetry of Steve Pink's 2010 comedy Hot Tub Time Machine which co-stars John Cusack as one of three adult losers who get magically transported back to their high school days of 1986 and thus get an existential do-over. There's a great scene in the middle of the movie when Cusack is caught doing bong hits and mushrooms and held accountable for writing teenage angst poetry to the famous Guns N' Roses tune "Sweet Child O' Mine."

While the P&PC Office was aware of at least one more Cusack film that incorporates poetry, we didn't remember (not until Brian Spears pointed it out to us) all of the verse in the the other famous Cusack back-to-high-school flick, 1998's Grosse Pointe Blank, which was directed by George Armitage and co-stars Minnie Driver. In the film, Cusack plays Martin Q. Blank, a hired assassin who goes back to Michigan for his tenth high school reunion and falls in love with high school sweetheart Debi Newberry (Driver) all over again. There's kissing. There's lots of gunplay. And Martin and Debi reunite.

Well, Spears called our attention to a scene near the end of the movie when, while taking a break from the reunion and after making out with Debi in the nurse's office, Martin runs into an inebriated former high school bully and current Grosse Pointe automobile dealership owner named Bob. Here's that exchange:

Martin: Hi Bob.

Bob: Debi Newberry, eh? You gonna hit that shit again?

Martin: Fine, Bob! How are you?

Bob: Real smart. C’mon, let’s see how smart you are with my foot up your ass.

Martin: Do you really believe that there is some stored up conflict that exists between us? There is no "us." "We" don’t exist. So who do you want to hit, man? It’s not me. [Martin adjusts Bob’s sport coat.] Now what do you want to do here, man?

[Bob shows him a crumpled piece of paper he's pulled out of his pocket]

Martin: I don’t know what that is.

Bob [slurring]: These are my words.

Martin: It’s a poem?

[Bob nods]

Martin: See, that’s the prop. Express yourself, Bob. Go for it.

Bob [reading]: When I feel quiet, / When I feel blue…."

Martin: You know, I think that is terrific, what you have right there. Really, I like that a lot. I wouldn’t sell the dealership or anything, but I’m telling you, it’s intense.

Bob: There’s more.

Martin: Okay. Would you mind—just skip to the end?

Bob: The very end…[reading] "... For a while."

Martin: Whoa. That’s good, man.

Bob: "For a while."

Martin: That’s excellent.

Bob: Wanna do some blow?

Martin: No. I don’t.

[They hug.]

Martin: There you go.

Bob: I missed you.

Martin: Okay, I missed you too. Okay.

It's a hilarious scene made even more hilarious by the next in which Martin literally wields the power of the pen, not poetry, to kill a fellow assassin in an adjacent hallway.

What Spears neglected to mention to P&PC, however, is that there are two other, less obvious poems in Grosse Pointe Blank. And we find them very interesting as well. The first comes when Martin is driving into town. He turns on the radio and listens to Debi, the local d.j., recount her recent playlist and comment on the upcoming reunion. She ends her little soliloquy with a riddle in the form of a poem:
Hi I’m Debi Newberry. This is WGPM FM Grosse Pointe, "Window on the Pointe." You heard from Massive Attack, Public Enemy, Morphine (my personal favorite), and Dwayne Eddie’s twangy guitar. Good to hear Toots and the Maytells, huh? And as you know, this weekend is Pointe High Class of '86 reunion. So in honor of this momentous event, I’m making this an all-80s, all vinyl weekend. Stay tuned to "Window on the Pointe" and I’ll keep you posted on all this reunion-related nonsense. Hey, I know everybody’s coming back to take stock of their lives. You know what I say? Leave your livestock alone. Kick back and relax and ponder this:

Where are all the good men dead? In the heart or in the head?

So here’s “Another Cold Cup of Coffee” from The Clash.

The second, perhaps even more obscure poem in the film comes when Martin discovers that his childhood home has been turned into an Ultimart and that his mom, suffering from dementia and on Lithium, now lives in a nursing home. At the end of their meeting, as she is being wheeled away by a nurse, Mrs. Blank looks back over her shoulder and, in an apparent non-sequitor, misquotes Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Ladies." "The Colonel’s Lady, like Judy O’Grady / are twins under the skin,” she calls back. (Kipling's version, btw, reads "For the Colonel's Lady an' Judy O'Grady / Are sisters under their skins!)

While Bob's poem is used by the movie to clarify his character—it reveals without a doubt that he's not a self-confident cocky businessman and bully but a an emotionally lame cokehead—the other two verses are used (as Debi suggests) to obscure. They are riddles, mysteries, or gnomic sound bites that come from a different source than Bob's "words" do. Neither is original to the speaker—that is, we're not hearing from authors, but from users, reciters or readers—and they bespeak confusion or nonsense. How do we answer Debi's rhyme? What do we do with the misquoted Kipling? These rhymes are opaque or obscure—perhaps as opaque or obscure as Modernist poetry is if we follow one of the arguments that Daniel Tiffany makes in his awesomely cool new study of criminal slang and street-talk, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance. "By its very nature," Tiffany writes, "the problematic of lyric obscurity requires that one isolate the moment of exchange or enactment, focusing not so much on a poem's composition or construction ... as on its reception by the reader, on poetic readership, and on the social configuration of poetry" (7). The poems in Grosse Pointe Blank are really good illustrations of this point. Bob's poem is so not obscure (even though most of it is missing) that Martin doesn't even need to hear most of it in order to understand it; Debi's riddle and the Kipling (mis)quotation, on the other hand, are befuddling, in part because they happen in contexts that don't have any call for the obscurity of poetic language and no clues for how to interpert them. In fact, there's a certain way in which something like T.S. Eliot's citation of Shakespeare in The Waste Land ("Those are pearls that were his eyes.") comes from the same place, and has the same effect, as Ma Blank reciting Kipling to her son—or to the nurse, or to the rest of the home's residents. (That it's hard to say for sure is part of the point.)

All of this got the P&PC Office thinking about obscurity, poetry, memory, and youth, and so we started flying (among close friends and family) the idea that perhaps, as often as not, we remember poetry because we don't understand it, not because we do understand it. That is, maybe what makes a poem memorable is the fact that it's to some extent indecipherable. Like the Sphinx's riddle, like Eliot's quotation of Shakespeare, like gnomic sound bites from Kipling or radio hosts, perhaps we remember poetry because it gives us something to chew on and think about, not because it answers our questions and solves our riddles.

As evidence of this possibility, we'll close with a scene from another movie about youth and growing up—Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 film and adaptation of S.E. Hinton's novel The Outsiders. You remember it, right? Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) and Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio) are hiding out in an abandoned church because Johnny knifed a guy in a late-night fight. In the church, separated from their lives that lead to violence and pain, they can be most fully themselves, and they spend their time reading Gone with the Wind to each other as they wait for Dallas (Matt Dillon) to show up and say the coast is clear. One morning, blond-haired and poetically-inclined Ponyboy gets up early to watch the sun rise through the mist. He is joined by Johnny, and they have the following conversation about (what else?) poetry:

Johnny: Golly that was sure pretty, huh?

Ponyboy: Yeah.

Johnny: It’s like the mist is what’s pretty, you know? All gold and silver.

Ponyboy: Um-hum.

Johnny: Too bad it can’t stay like that all the time.

Ponyboy: Nothing gold can stay

Johnny: Huh?

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Johnny: Where’d you learn that? That’s what I meant!

Ponyboy: Robert Frost wrote it. I always remembered it because I never quite knew what he meant by it.

Johnny: Mmm. You know, I never noticed colors and clouds and stuff til you kept reminding me about it. It’s kinda like it was never there before.

Ponyboy: Yeah. I don’t think I could ever tell Steve [Tom Cruise] or Two-Bit [Emilio Estevez] or even Dally [Matt Dillon] about the clouds, the sunset. Just you and Sodapop [Rob Lowe]. Maybe Cherry Valance [Diane Lane].

Johnny: Guess we’re different, huh?

Ponyboy: Shoot, kid. Maybe they are.

Johnny: You’re right.

Johnny—who gets fatally burned while saving a group of children from the church as it burns down and then spends the rest of the movie in the hospital—chews on the Frost verse for the rest of the film, trying to figure it out. It's almost as if the mystery itself has the power to keep him alive, since he lives longer than anyone expects. And, when he dies, his last words (in a letter he's written to Ponyboy and placed inside a copy of Gone with the Wind) are about that poem. Here's that letter:
Pony Boy,

I asked the nurse to give you this book so you could finish it. It was worth saving those little kids. Their lives are worth more than mine. They have more to live for. Tell Dally I think it’s worth it. I’m gonna miss you guys. I been thinking about it. In that poem, that guy that wrote it, he meant you’re gold when you’re a kid. Like green. When you’re a kid, everything’s new. Dawn. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony, that’s gold. Keep it that way—it’s a good way to be. I want you to ask Dally to look at one. I don’t think he’s ever seen a sunset. There’s still lots of good in the world. Tell Dally. I don’t think he knows.

Your buddy,


P&PC recommends you check out The Outsiders if you haven't seen it lately. Where else can you find Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane, Emilio Estevez and Robert Frost's poetry all in the same movie? It's—what else?—a mystery how it ever happened.

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