Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Highbro/Lowbro: Peter Klaven Reviews Brian McGackin's "Broetry"

Maybe Brian McGackin's book Broetry caught your attention after National Public Radio did a lame and unwarranted feature on it back in July of this year. Maybe you were one of the P&PC faithful who wrote in to the home office with protests like, "This man gives poetry in popular culture a bad name. Please find a way to destroy him." Or maybe you're just a connossieur of the portmanteau word and are fed up from seeing your favorite figure of speech corrupted by the supposedly subversive wordplay of commercially manufactured guy culture (cf. bromance, guyliner, and manorexia). In any case, some sort of response from P&PC to what you might call McGackin's small literary bropus certainly seems in order. We therefore sucked it up, got a copy of the book, and sent it out for review to one of our favorite bros. Here's what he had to say.

I wish I could take a page from Dale Peck and crown Brian McGackin the worst poet of his generation, but Broetry isn’t hatchet job material; its hollowed-out trunk of a conceit—poetry, for bros!—wouldn’t stand up to a short, swift kick, let alone a sharpened critical axe.

So before I go any further, let me make myself absolutely clear: Do not buy Broetry. Do not, as I mistakenly did after McGackin’s book caught the attention of NPR, mention it to anyone with even a remote interest in poetry. Broetry is diseased; I haven’t been this self-conscious reading a book in public since I was a twenty-two year old high school teacher reading Lolita in the faculty lounge.

If it’s mediocre verse you want, I’m sure there’s plenty out there more deserving of your dollar. Broetry is schlock of the most dangerous variety: an anti-intellectual, misogynist screed with cartoon accompaniment—a book that pretends language is impotent entertainment, and, worst of all, that bro culture is a breath of fresh air, not a noxious cloud of Axe body-spray hovering around us. But where, Broetry asks, are “regular guys” supposed to turn with all these “contemporary poets [singing] the glories of birds, birch trees, and menstruation”? To this “stunning debut from a dazzling new literary voice”? Let’s hope not.

I’ve welcomed Paul Rudd into my life enough times not to shudder at a ‘bro’ port- manteau, but we won’t see ‘broetry’ creeping into Webster’s anytime soon. Unlike the ‘bromance,’ Broetry—littered though it is with popular references to Star Wars, World of Warcraft, Harry Potter, hentai, Taylor Swift, and the George Foreman Grill—has zero cultural traction. McGackin’s audience is still a mystery to me, and I’ve had the misfortune of reading the book twice. I’d like to say that, at the very least, Broetry accomplishes its most basic premise—to deliver the poetry bros want—but not even that much seems true.

Sure, the mindless sexism of classics like “I’ll Take ‘Crazy Bitches’ for $200, Alex” and “Whorecrux” serve up a broetic sensibility, but the book jacket just plain confuses me ... and I've known some bros. The cover features an untitled, line-for-line parody of William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say,” replacing the undertones of sexual conquest latent in WCW’s “sweet,” and “delicious” plums with the baldly broetic: cold beer used to entertain a “hot” girl. You would think that the allusion to Williams winks at a reader more than casually acquainted with the Norton Anthology of American Poetry, a person capable of recognizing WCW’s poem and smirking at the broetic simplification of the original. This reader might even be tempted to approach Broetry as satire, convinced the joke was in fact on the bro, the guy who took WCW at his word and wrote a whole book “just to say.” If Broetry was solely a book of parodies, I might even be just such a schmuck. However, aside from some warmed over Frost (“Stopping by Wawa on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Unable to Be Taken…”) and one nod to Whitman (“O Captain! My Captain America!"), all you get are poems too weighed down with sulky angst for the diehard ‘bro’ and too misogynist for any rational human.

You want broetry that badly? Go read Stephen Dobyns’s “Desire.” The speaker in Dobyn’s poem isn’t entirely sym- pathetic either, but the core of the poem speaks to the frustration lurking behind McGackin’s broems. “Why have men been taught to feel ashamed / of their desire . . . Why must men pretend to be indifferent as if each / were a happy eunuch engaged in spiritual thoughts?” Even if, like me, you resist Dobyns’s sentiment, at least a poem like “Desire” mines the nuances of sexuality. As a rule, Broetry only recycles trite cliché, miserably troped to perfection in “Not Another Teen Movie,” a poem entirely constructed out of Hollywood film titles. McGackin would probably roll his eyes at the bird Dobyns flips in the fourteenth stanza, but he could learn a thing from someone like Dobyns—a poet capable of thinking with two heads at once.