Lorenzo Thomas and his Critique on American Media Culture as Presented in his Poetry Collections Chances Are Few (1979)and The Bathers (1981)
I. Cultural and Political Background
The media industry in the second half of the twentieth century in the U.S. possessed the power to shape opinions and change worldviews. Artists were taken aback by this development and attempted to produce and promote alternative forms of creation and expression. Poets, in particular, tried through their art to challenge or attack the newly-emergent media culture. Lorenzo Thomas, an African American poet, in his collections Chances Are Few (1979) and The Bathers (1981) highlights the effects of media culture on American society, rather than being solely interested in racial issues, being one of the main topics of the time. That is to say, Thomas, in his poetic art, does not aim at the promotion of a political agenda that would argue for the social and cultural advancement of African Americans in the United States. Actually, as he states in his interview to Hermine Pinson, he does not perceive poetry, and art in general, as a force with a tendency to draw dividing lines between groups of people. According to Thomas, “Art is not limited to any ethnicity: It’s expressed via (sic) ethnicity. It’s expressed via (sic) the specific political periods that form the historic basis of our lives” (291). To this extent, the poet does not adopt a polemic attitude towards the white American society, but rather he attempts to unite Americans, regardless of their skin color, against the distorting and, in many cases, propagandistic media make up. Even more so, through his commentary on cinema and TV of the 1970s and 1980s, he exposes the ideologies and fixed perspectives supported by these highly popular forms of entertainment as well as their impact on the individual. In this way, Thomas’s poetry manages to escape every essentialist categorization as black militant poetry. The poet finds in popular and media culture a common thread with the potential to unite, not only those people who had been racially segregated, but also the entire American society in a fight against ideological impositions and manipulation.
Thomas’s critical attitude towards the social and political environment in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s is in accordance with the spirit of questioning and challenging dominant beliefs that was so prevalent in America at that time. These tumultuous decades are viewed as a period of rebellion, when all the absolute truths of the past were put to the test. Thomas’s poetry captures the spirit of the 1970s in the American society, while it gives readers a glimpse of what is to follow in the 1980s. Chances Are Few and The Bathers, published at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s respectively, are preoccupied with the individual and his/her relation with society. During those years, Americans gradually became disillusioned with all social and political forces that had been promoting America as the land of equality and endless opportunities. Everywhere they looked they saw prejudice, racism, and a capitalist system that exploited people and drained them from their humanity. As a result, they sought ways to challenge and subvert social norms and fixed perspectives. Towards this direction, the emergent postmodern condition provided the theoretical framework as well as the tools for resisting against the prevalent oppressive norms of American society. In other words, postmodernism came to define a condition characterized by a ground-breaking attitude towards what was considered to be conventional, conformist and mainstream, bringing forward new modes of interpreting socio-political reality, and a revolutionary, subversive mode of artistic expression. In this context, artists were free to experiment with meaning and form, and they managed to present works that challenged the perception and tastes of the audience. Also, poets saw postmodern aesthetics as an opportunity to answer back to their modernist predecessors. As Daniel Kane suggests, poets were influenced “by the ‘make it new’ ethos of Pound” (263). That is to say, they felt that it was high time they presented new and innovative forms of expression, in the fashion of their modernist predecessors, in order to revise and enhance the American poetic scene. In this sense, poetry was renewed through the re-contextualization of modernist poetics into the new postmodern environment. Through experimentation, poets found a way to challenge the readers’ minds as well as make them participants in the creative process. Every poem was a journey towards the discovery of meaning, through which readers also discovered themselves as they were “forced” to grapple with their fixed mindsets. Moreover, postmodernist poets set as their primary objective the promotion of fresh perspectives on every aspect of American society. In this sense, they questioned dominant hegemonies by placing emphasis on what is marginal instead. Thus, many poets coming from diverse racial, ethnic, gender, or social groups were presented with the opportunity to express themselves freely and make their voice heard. Arguably, their works cultivate an all-inclusive environment, which celebrated diversity with the same fervor that despised authoritative views.
In addition, postmodernism offered a new lens through which the social and political conditions could be viewed in a critical way. To be sure, during the 1970s poets were seriously affected by the changing world around them and they were urged to re-assess, among other things, the position of the individual into society. Undoubtedly, the 1970s were characterized by a shift towards individualism. Of course, American society has always valued self-sufficiency and personal growth, but during the 1970s Americans turned inwards in order to find emotional peace and stability. All the more, the scandals and failures at home and abroad brought about feelings of anxiety and discomfort. To be more specific, American society was shocked by the Watergate scandal that was exposed in June 1972 and led to President Nixon’s resignation on August 9th, 1974. The corruption of the political system, mirrored in Nixon’s misconduct of power and influence, brought to the surface the ideological incompetence of political leaders to inspire Americans and provide them with hope and perspective for the future. Naturally, American society experienced an unprecedented state of pessimism and inwardness. Moreover, the same inconsistencies characterized America’s international relations. The election of Jimmy Carter in 1977 was followed by the Iran Crisis, 4 November 1979-20 January 1981, during which 52 Americans were held hostages for 444 days. This event was viewed as a major diplomatic failure that deteriorated American relations with Iran. During that period, America seemed to have lost control on every social and political front. Understandably, Americans became disillusioned with society and took a turn towards self-improvement. As Will Kaufman points out, the ‘70s were permeated by the spirit of individualism which was often equated with narcissism (177). In many cases, the struggle towards personal growth transcended the boundaries of material success and social uplift, and touched upon aspirations of spiritual elevation. From self-improvement books and lectures to yoga lessons and meditation classes, Americans tried, in a way, to regain their lost sense of the American Dream. However, the dream of an independent nation of strong, self-reliant individuals seemed to fade away as Americans were constantly faced with the shortcomings of their own sterile lifestyle, a lifestyle fervently supported by the media.
Nonetheless, the most devastating event that shook Americans and their beliefs to the ground was the Vietnam War (1955-1975.) The U.S. interference in a battle outside their territory was justified in the broader context of the Cold War (1947-1991) climate that had been formulated due to the fight against Communism. However, a large part of the American society reacted against the madness of this war, for they perceived it as a conflict that had nothing to do with their country, and yet cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers. As Katherine Newman claims, Americans “looked upon Vietnam as a war with no identifiable purpose, a war the United States had no business participating in” (178). But the Media, in cooperation with the government, presented the positive side of the American implication in the War and attempted to persuade the public to support the endeavor. Towards this direction, TV news broadcasts and documentaries were employed in order to justify America’s presence in Vietnam and, at the same time, depict the conflict as an issue of major importance for the U.S. On the contrary, poets and artists of the period were engaged in active protests against the Vietnam War and tried to expose its falsity. For example, poet Robert Lowell declined President Johnson’s invitation to a White House dinner so as to take part in the 1967 march against the Pentagon instead (Baym 2641). Also, many other poets of the 1970s through their creations condemned the orchestrated attempt to justify the premise of war, and, at the same time, conceal its devastating outcome. Lorenzo Thomas, being one of them, responded by including in his poetic collections poems that resonated strong oppositional views against the Vietnam War and its promotion by the media, while he underlined its deadly consequences. As it will be shown next, “Hat Red” from Chances Are Few and “Wonders” found in The Bathers are two of his creations that carry his revolutionary voice against the madness of the war.
As the revolutionary 1970s gave their place to the considerably more conservative 1980s, Americans found a way to shake off, even temporarily, all feelings of disappointment and despair that characterized the previous decade. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1981 and the establishment of the doctrine of neo-conservatism were perceived as a solution to a morally devastated American society. To be more specific, America turned away from the harsh war reality and tried to rebuild the glorious myths and symbols of the past. In this sense, myth and history blended together in an attempt for America to regain its confidence as a world power. The return to the past was underlined in both Reagan’s inaugural addresses in 1981 and 1985, when he invoked in his speech images of historical importance alongside icons of popular culture (Lipsitz 32). In other words, he seemed to have found a new rhetoric, able to inspire and unite people; a rhetoric in which Puritan leaders and Civil War generals were equally admired with heroes of the West and movie icons. But how was American society affected by this ideological shift? To be sure, the goal was to boost the confidence of a hopeless nation. However, the reality of the 1980s was diametrically different from Reagan’s benign visions. In this decade, Americans had already left the revolutionary vibe of the ‘60s and ‘70s behind, and they tried to find their way in an environment of recession and unemployment. In fact, the 1980s generation shared many similarities with its 1950s counterpart, as they both valued personal safety and economic stability. To be more specific, during the 1970s, the young generation, carried away by the spirit of questioning and rebellion, criticized the conformity as well as the materialistic lifestyle of their parents. On the other hand, the Reagan generation, facing an unstable world, was forced to reset their priorities in life and, in a way, understood their parents’ need for stability.
Taking the above socio-political context into account, one could claim that postmodern poets found themselves in a volatile environment, to say the least. American society oscillated between rebellion and conservatism, since the revolutionary vibe of the 1970s tried to survive in the sterile 1980s. As a consequence, poets attempted to provide new forms of expression that they hoped would function as a way out of the ideological and emotional entrapment of the era.
II. Lorenzo Thomas in the Postmodern Poetic Environment
Evidently, the 1970s marked a historical period in American society that was characterized by a revision of the absolute truths of the past, as well as a challenge of conventions and fixed lifestyles. On an artistic level, poets realized the need to respond to the new age and present their audience with new perspectives and ideas. On the same note, it was commonly felt that poetry itself had to be renewed and enriched in the broader context of postmodernism. That is to say, poetic expression in America had to detach itself from modernist conventions that were clearly associated with the first decades of the twentieth century, arguably an era of conservatism and restrain. Therefore, artists managed to give a unique character to their poetry through experimentation with form and meaning. But poetry was also renewed due to the entrance of poets coming from marginal groups. According to George Butterick and Donald Allen, in those years a resurgence was observed of the poetic “underground” to the forefront of the American poetic scene. Poets coming from the New York School, the rebellious Beat Generation, the San Francisco Renaissance as well as the Black Mountain poets contributed to the creation of a diverse, culturally and socially, environment of poetic expression (9). Thomas, coming from the African-American community, is one of those poets. The poet, following the postmodern tenet of revision and subversion, tried to incorporate in his art many elements in order to produce multidimensional works that invite a multiplicity of readings and interpretations.To be more specific, Thomas uses collage images as an introduction to his poems. In this sense, the readers are prepared, in a way, for what is going to follow. For example, the cover of his collection Chances Are Few with its black and white coloring and the multiplicity of elements in the foreground and background may refer to the poet’s preoccupation with the concepts of whiteness and blackness and the multiple layers of meaning in his poems. Moreover, he combines well-known paintings and film stills with song lyrics that attribute them a whole new meaning while putting them in a different context. However, his most innovative “intervention” in the traditional character of art occurs in the transformation of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting on the cover of his collection The Bathers. Thomas revisits Renoir’s famous painting, bearing the same title with his poetic collection, by altering its layout in a ground-breaking way. That is to say, he inserts in the original painting images, media and advertisements.
In a playful and ironic way, Thomas attempts to shock the readers as well as to urge them to see an acclaimed work of art from a fresh perspective. After all, postmodernism quite often employs the artistic strategies of irony and parody in order to revise and subvert all great works of the past. Nonetheless, in the postmodern context, the terms of “irony” and “parody” ought not to be associated with ridicule and contempt. As Linda Hutcheon suggests, “postmodern parody does not disregard the context of the past representations it cites, but uses irony to acknowledge the fact that we are inevitably separated from the past today – by time and by the subsequent history of those representations” (94). In other words, the postmodern artist does not use irony to diminish the artistic and cultural value of the featured work of art. Rather, postmodern artistic creation aims to re-contextualize the work of the past, thus imbuing it with an aura of renewed interest and relevance. Ultimately, Thomas manages to reposition Renoir’s work both temporally and spatially. Renoir’s original images blend with Thomas’s take on the socio-cultural environment of late twentieth century. This leads to a renewed artwork that aims at delivering a much more diachronically enhanced menage.
Certainly, African-American poets as a group played an important role in the evolution of contemporary American poetry. Their focus on the voice as the main carrier of meaning and their addition of distinct African characteristics to their creations, gave American poetry a sense of pluralism, always in accordance with the all-inviting spirit of postmodern subversiveness. However, the transition of African-American poets to experimental poetics was not exactly smooth. During the 1970s, African-American poets attempted, not only to express themselves, but also to establish a distinct cultural identity. The aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement urged them to search for a unique place in American society in order to prove that their struggle was not in vain. According to Thomas, black artists “were basically concerned to effect the re-turning (sic) of a purely African sensibility and a style that would develop originally from this feeling and stance” (120). In other words, African-American artists tried to retain their cultural diversity and attacked every assimilatory socio-cultural political stance. Surprisingly, though, the black intellectual elite continued to exercise its authoritative power by censoring and conditioning the creations of black artists. Some of the most important figures in African-American literature and culture, such as W.E.B. DuBois and Ralph Ellison, were harshly criticized as advocates of the basic tenets of white community, namely nationalism and individualism (Gates 75). In this restrictive environment, black artists were torn between their “duty” towards black community and their need to follow the new literary trends emerging in the 1970s in America.
Thomas follows the same mentality and his voice admittedly enriches American poetry. However, he seems to desire to differentiate himself from the main group of militant African-American poets. Actually, he tries to address issues that promote the African-American experience and deal with themes such as segregation, prejudice, or oppression. Nonetheless, through his poetry is evident his need to reach out to a wider audience and discuss issues that affect the black and white readers alike. The question that puzzles Thomas is exactly this: in what ways can a black poet break free from racial and cultural restrictions and produce work that reflects his/her unique personality? As a result, he employs mass media as a common reality for the majority of American society. Also, through his media criticism, he finds a way to extend his own criticism about the individual as the passive recipient of the messages transmitted through them. In this respect, he decides, through his writing, to turn against every stereotype and fixed form of perception, which is generated by the mass media. In order to fulfill this, he attempts to demythologize the symbols of the past, especially those relating to the depiction of African-Americans, thus enabling his readers to see past the veil that envelopes them. At this point, an interesting parallel can be drawn between Thomas’s attempt to uncover racial reality and W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of “the veil.” To elaborate, DuBois in his seminal work The Souls of the Black Folk (1903) referred to “the veil” as a barrier that keeps white society from seeing black people for what they are. Hence, the feeling of misunderstanding between the two races is heightened. Also, “the veil” restricts black people too, as they become self-conscious of their racial identity and they give in to torment and self-hatred, for they are not able to perceive themselves as the unique human beings they really are. In this respect, Thomas views the images of black people promoted by the white-dominated popular culture as an elaborate veil that distorts and misinterprets African-American identity, while it entraps people in a vicious circle of misconceptions. Arguably, the process of revising and challenging stereotypes proves to be far more painful for black people who are constantly misunderstood by American society. This is due to images promoted via the mass media, for example the overused image of the kind-hearted Tom and tormented mulatto or the bossy mammy of the Old South. For this reason, Thomas believes that it is absolutely necessary for certain popular myths to be re-contextualized so that certain historical facts are revisited and misconceptions dissolved.
Arguably, the postmodern artistic movement of revision and rebellion had at its core the tendency to take nothing for granted. Thomas employs the postmodern theoretical framework in order to re-examine and subvert the stereotypical images that imprisoned Americans in a prescribed way of life. But more importantly, he strived to present images of popular culture under a different light in a provocative attempt to awaken the audience and provide them with alternative methods of perception and interpretation.
III. Lorenzo Thomas’s Discussion of Media Culture in Chances Are Few and The Bathers: A Critical Approach
Lorenzo Thomas managed to find his place in the emergent postmodern environment of the 1970s due to his ability to detect the blind spots in the assimilatory ideology promoted by the American Media by exposing both its false character and constructed nature. As it was previously stated, Thomas’s poetic creations deal with the emergence of Media as a powerful ideological apparatus that controls and manipulates American society. While his poems provide readers with multiple approaches and interpretations on almost every aspect of life, his most interesting creations are the ones dealing with the numbing and hypnotizing effect media have on the individual. As a matter of fact, the poems discussed in this section resonate the poet’s critique of media culture. In this way, advertisements, cinema, and TV are heavily criticized as carriers of constructed ideas and shallow viewpoints. However, Thomas does not only dwell on the power of the media to shape ideologies, but also on their ability to reconstruct reality. To this extent, the Vietnam War and its justification on the part of American media is put at the center of discussion in both Chances Are Few and The Bathers.
Undoubtedly, the brutality of the Vietnam War shocked Thomas as he viewed America’s implication in the conflict as an irrational political decision, guided by greed for influence and power. In this respect, he tried to criticize American dominant political hegemony and illustrate the “side-effects” of the war on the already torn and battered American society. More specifically, in his poem “Hat Red,” found in his collection Chances Are Few, Thomas paints a vivid picture of the American reality during the Vietnam. He presents the climate of conflict and uncertainty that stemmed from the American implication in a war that the majority of the nation saw as unnecessary and foolish. As it can be understood, the Vietnam War era has always been considered as one of the most controversial periods in American history. In accordance with this climate, Thomas highlights the attempts made by the government to justify the War effort and persuade the public of its grave importance. At the same time, he exposes the integral role of the Media in presenting the War as a fight against the forces that compromised the prominent American capitalist ideology and freedom. Surprisingly, at first glance, “Hat Red” does not follow the usual poetic structure in the sense that it is not structured in lines and stanzas as there is no set rhyme. On the contrary, the poem is presented as a short story that describes the events of a day in New York City. For instance, the poet deliberately chooses to begin his poem by setting the scenery and time for the action, much in the fashion of a skilled novelist introducing his/her first chapter: “The earth remains the kind of saucer Sally saw in the decadent gardens of the upper East side on the night of the day of the great blackout […] From the rim of the saucer, the terrain dipped carefully toward a silken palisade across the Hudson. It could be seen as a darker, shiny black against the black” (112). In this sense, Thomas, with his vivid description and imagery, guides the readers through the streets of New York, thus enabling them to be immersed in the reality of his poem and become part of the environment of tension and restlessness that stemmed from the War.
On another level, the text reminds readers of a news report broadcasted on national TV or radio. Undoubtedly, in the 1970s the media have taken over people’s lives with their bright colors and loud tunes, leaving almost no space for original individual thinking. At the beginning of his work, Thomas highlights the conflict, which was the most prominent element of the time, in a fight scene between Lyndon Johnson and Mike Quills: “Lindsey was wringing Mike Quill’s bull neck in absentia” (112). President Johnson was often targeted by the anti-War movement due to the escalation of the American military involvement in Vietnam during his presidency. All the more, Thomas attempted to underline the climate of fear and confusion, prevalent at the time, in the American society. Moreover, the poet refers to the attempts made by the media to report the war and convince everyone at home that it was a just cause: “At home, the folks were listening to emergency WNEW radio dumb show broadcasts kerosene generator-style just like way off back in the country or Nha Be, Vietnam detailing how Lyndon was in Washington DC the comparatively City of Light at the moment, wringing his hands” (113). In this way, Thomas presents the power media have to distort reality in order to promote their perspective. After all, as Peter Collins maintains, the Vietnam War has been characterized as the first TV war (94). According to the rhetoric adopted by the media of the time, Americans were the representatives of freedom and light, while their Communist opponents in Vietnam were the living manifestation of the worst elements of humanity; Dictators, oppressors, people completely surrendered to their dark instincts. In the final lines of “Hat Red,” the poet tries to awaken the public in order to take action and stop the war: ““Don’t just stand there looking like a wet dream, do something! […] what the hell you want me to do! Do I look like goddam Con Ed to you?””(114). The feelings of confusion and ineffectiveness prevail here due to the atmosphere of passivity that has been cultivated via the media. People have been hypnotized, staring at their TV screens and watching their brothers being slaughtered in a war that means nothing to them. Evidently, above all, Thomas strives to raise his voice through his poem and awaken American society’s sensibility to the falsity of the war and the devastation that will certainly ensue.
On the other hand, in his poem “Wonders,” featured in his collection The Bathers, he abandons the militant style of “Hat Red” and adopts a sad and nostalgic voice. Also, he presents the War from a different perspective. That is to say, he is not referring to the people at home, but rather to all the American sons who dream of home in the swamps and jungles of Vietnam:
I know where I belong
But I been away so long.
Will I ever hear
Nostalgia In Times Square
Again, in some Avenue B
Break-in 1/2 bath flat
Will I ever sit
In the sun, high
On a Lennox terrace
And watch the Harlem River run
Away from the dope
And the crime
To the gray East
In a way, this poem can be read as a letter written by a soldier to his loved ones in which he tries to convey his longing for home. Thomas highlights here the feeling of resignation and misery felt by every soldier who saw their future shuttered beyond repair, fighting for a cause that actually meant nothing to them. Understandably, the poem resonates a yearning for home and it is full of references to American culture. For example, the poet is reminiscent of jazz music and a simple way of life away from conflict and wars. Nonetheless, the poem leaves readers with a sinking feeling due to the fact that it becomes clear that the soldier speaking here will probably never return to the life he yearns. Thus, the voice of the soldier becomes desperate:
Think of me, exiled
Almost a year
From the life. (88)
He is to return home either dead or mentally broken from the horror of the war. In any case, he and his comrades are damaged goods with no purpose in life other than kill or be killed. Nonetheless, he keeps on dreaming of home:
I feel so simple to be thinking of Harlem
New York, the apple
Where we had our own Adam
And damn near all
The wonders of the world. (88)
Despite the desolate future ahead of him, the soldier does not give up his dream to return home mostly due to the fact that he has idealized all that America represents both culturally and socially. In the end, the soldier bitterly realizes that this was all but a hopeless dream. Actually, it is this diminishing aspect of war that Thomas condemns here by demonstrating to his audience the effects the war has on the people participating in it or getting affected by it. Hence, in both “Hat Red” and “Wonders” the poet manages to give his audience a full representation of the war both at the front and at home in order for them to see it in its true and cruel colors.
Nonetheless, Lorenzo Thomas was equally concerned with the increasing power media gained in the American society of the 1970s and 1980s. More importantly, he was worried about their role in the process of construction and imposition of certain images, in order to distract Americans’ attention from matters of great importance taking place or being discussed in a political and social context. His poem “Dracula,” included in his poetic collection The Bathers, is a telling example of his attempt to use popular images so as to subvert them by exposing their constructed nature within a ruling hegemonic environment. Throughout the poem, the readers follow the steps of a dark persona, Dracula, wandering in the gloomy night. The element of blackness as well as the gothic scenery used intensifies the feeling of alienation and terror that emanates from the poem.
Passengers seeping into the dark
The city is obliged to be dark
And mysteriously desolate under
Ritualized demands of departure. (43)
In these lines, Thomas describes a mysterious and threatening scenery. Actually, his depiction is so brilliant that readers feel as if they could actually smell the decay in the air. The repetitive use of the adjective “dark” reinforces the feeling of gloominess and despair. In this sense, the city seems to be compelled by the darkness as this is presented to be the dominant element. In addition, darkness in this poem can be associated with the hopelessness and despair felt by African-Americans in their struggle to find their place in American society. Hence, the gloomy atmosphere resembles the threatening “dark” world of American society. As the poem unfolds and the mysterious figure slides through the night, Thomas paints his vivid portrait:
Coins filtering through his sheer pockets
A shroud with pockets cape
His personal state of permanent transit
Covered with decals where he ever mailed
His possessions This is serious business. (43)
The poet depicts the vampire here as a symbol of the capitalist economic system that sucks the life out of the individual. More specifically, in this stanza the vampire-protagonist strives for financial dominance; much like the contemporary individual who has lost contact with reality and others due to the concentration on material wealth. Thomas’s persona functions as a shadow of humanity. Moreover, Thomas claims in his poem that this vampire, this threatening hegemonic presence, is nothing more than a myth, a “formula STORY” (43). Theodor Adorno, in his essay “The Schema of Mass Culture,” notes that culture “is transformed into a total lie via these [popular] images” (96). What he stresses here is that the images reproduced by the media are used by the hegemonic culture in order to construct reality and manipulate the society, so as to hide under the rag every controversial political or social issue. As a result, the individual lives in a false reality, where lies perpetuated by cinema and TV leave no breathing space for critical thinking and interpretation. In the same vein, Thomas’s re-contextualization of the Dracula myth in the synonymous poem allows him to retrieve it from the abstraction of the past and place it into a contemporary context. Here is what Thomas proposes:
Start the thing over again:
DRACULA is not a myth but
Just another cheap novel
Written in the boring 18th
19th century made into the
Worst film of 1932 1958 and
Unless we get wise to our-
Selves next year over again
Then what is all this
Dracula is real! Dracula is real! (44-45)
In this stanza, Thomas exposes the artificiality of the Dracula image. His deliberate use of capital letters when referring to his title – “DRACULA” – betrays his ironic attitude with regard to self-imposing labels. As it was previously mentioned, irony and playfulness are considered two of the key elements in the artists’ attempt to revise all “serious” concepts and ideals. In this sense, irony invites a multiplicity of readings of the specific poem, making it possible for the readers to adopt alternative perspectives. Thus, the poet tackles the Dracula myth with a sarcastic tone in order to demythologize it, making it thus accessible to various interpretations. To the same extent, readers are invited to look upon the Dracula story, not as the untouchable gothic narrative, but rather as a subjective attempt to depict the struggle of the contemporary individual against all imposing and threatening socio-economic and political forces. At this point it is important to note that Thomas admits that Dracula has been turned into a myth mostly through the cinematic adaptations of the aforementioned novel. As with all forms of media, the poet takes a critical look at the film industry and, more specifically, at the ways in which it affects its viewers through the images it promotes and the icons it generates:
What is that thing we no longer discover
Effective about our own faces in the glass
Underneath the Bb chandelier
The final odors of our dinner in person
Shudder in the monotonous drawing room
Still you have nothing else to amuse you. (45)
In this sense, the movie-house is depicted as a building of isolation, where the individuals try to escape from the disheartening reality. However, according to Thomas, the price of mindless entertainment is considerably high as the viewers are so transfixed by the images and symbols presented on the silver screen that they are not able to discern reality from myth. Thus, cinema is viewed as a medium that promotes utopian visions and elaborate tales to an audience that may or may not be aware of their artificiality, but, nonetheless, chooses to believe in them so as to find a way out of their depressing reality:
It compels. It sompels
The imprint of his RNA
On physical objects and
Space he insists on it,
Insists he has been dead
Over 300 years and we
Suggest we believe it
After the trance we put
On our hypothetical
Subconscious mind Dracula
Dracula is real! good lord! (45)
As Thomas suggests, the individual is torn between reality and fiction. While he/she recognizes that Dracula is a mere fictional persona, subconsciously there is the belief that the image is actually real. Of course, the impact of media culture is so strong that he/she believes the image is also true. As a result, viewers have internalized icons via their repetitive reproduction by the media to such a degree that they perceive them as symbolic manifestations of reality.
However, it would be wrong to assume that the poet discards cinema altogether. To be more specific, he may be opposed to the content of certain films, but he, on the other hand, admires their technique and their contribution to visual culture. For that matter, he inserts movie stills in his poetic creations in such a way that a frame can stand as a poem in itself. Hence, he enhances his poetry with visual stimuli in an attempt to break away from the conventional notion of language as the sole carrier of meaning. For Thomas, a film frame can challenge the readers’ perception in a groundbreaking way. The retrieval and incorporation of images from popular culture in his poetry helps his audience see them from a fresh perspective. For example, in his collection Chances Are Few he includes a movie still coming from Invisible Man (1933) accompanied by Percy Mayfield’s lyrics:
an even break
but God. (45)
What he highlights here, taking into account the poet’s African-American background, is the social and racial invisibility of black people in American society. The realization that their dark skin makes them invisible and, hence, insignificant to the rest of the white community, is presented as a lament through blues music. As a result, Thomas communicates his message concerning African-American identity without resorting to the use of poetic strategies, such as stanzas, metric forms and rhythm. By subverting poetic writing as we know it, he accepts the power of the image to supersede the word as the only means of communication. Arguably, this combination of the film frame and lyrics enhance the meaning of Thomas’s artistic practice. More importantly, the poet promotes a multiplicity of perspectives, since the meaning of the poetic creation can be derived from many sources. Hence, poetry reading seizes to be language-restricted and becomes a multi-layered experience.
Furthermore, Thomas in both his poetic collections Chances Are Few and The Bathers is very much aware of the dangers and pitfalls awaiting the individual behind the façade of media culture. He targets American TV as one of the primary forces that create and impose fixed forms and rigid points of view on the viewers. In his poem “Personal Anthropology,” included in his collection Chances Are Few, the poet is concerned with TV and the power it exerts. That is to say, he is examining the role of TV in the shaping of public opinion through the news it transmits as well as the images and identities it constructs through the repetition of manipulative practices. First of all, the dominant image that runs through the poem is the one of the passive viewer:
Our own problems grow
As we quietly sit
Amused by the fun
Watching several deranged little people
Tormented in a box on the table. (22)
What these lines focus on here is the hypnotizing power of TV. Viewers are unaware of its hidden agenda of manipulation and they are easily distracted (Wilson 79). What is meaningless comes to the centre of attention now. As Thomas vividly depicts: “In our small rooms in fronds of TV sets/We become pointillistes of conversation” (“Personal Anthropology” 22). In this sense, the poet highlights the fact that viewers have been educated by media culture to turn their attention towards issues of minor importance, while, they are urged to take their minds off serious socio-political events that are actually presented as out of their influence and reach. Next, Thomas claims that people sit silently “absorbing the shocks, of the news” (22). At this point, the attention shifts to the shock quality of the news and their power to shape consciousness. According to the strategy followed in the presentation of TV news, certain events are put center-stage in order to create a diversion for other important events taking place in the background. Naturally, more often than not, the silencing of an issue is more important than its presentation. According to Shanto Iyengar, “by calling attention to some matters while ignoring others, TV news influences the standards by which governments, presidents, policies and candidates for public office are judged” (63). Despite the fact that the above statement may point towards an overwhelming depiction of the TV power, during the 1970s there were instances that media supported certain government policies that influenced people in order to passively accept every social and political development. We should turn our focus on the last lines of the poem where Thomas refers to President Ford and his attempt, via resorting to TV, to elicit the compassion of his audience: “At last, compassion for a President/Poor Gerald Ford” (“Personal Anthropology 23). These lines can be viewed as a reference to the Presidential Pardon to Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate Scandal, issued by President Ford. This action raised a considerable controversy in the public, since it was perceived by many as an attempt to diminish the political and social impact of the scandal as well as to make it disappear into oblivion. Actually, it was the way this piece of news was treated by the media as an act of magnanimity rather than disgrace that Thomas attacks here. By juxtaposing the word “President” with “Poor” he creates an ironic effect. The President of the United States is presented as having no significant power when compared to the media. Thus, Thomas may be suggesting in these lines that there is another dominant group controlling American media, which is actually above the representative of the highest office of state. As a result, the President becomes another media-sustained image that has no significant influence and, hence, he functions as a puppet in the hands of those in power. In this case, the sweeping power of the Media is magnified, since they are depicted as being capable of interpreting every political event from the angle that actually benefits the powerful social and political groups.
Moreover, the poet in “The Marvelous Land of Indefinitions,” in his collection Chances Are Few, highlights the ability of TV to build on its viewers’ gullibility in order to create or reproduce ideological assumptions and social credos. As Thomas writes in his poem, it feels like an incoherent “blah, blah, blah”:
Each day growing clearer
Each day blah blah blah
Hovering blah blah blah
The viewers find themselves in a disorienting environment where information and opinions, coming from multiple sources, are constantly expressed and repeated. The multiplicity of perspectives promoted via TV is the strategy used in order to confuse people and obscure their judgmental capacities. Thomas in a highly polemical tone exposes the artificiality of the messages communicated by the media:
Newspaper headlines are full of lies
And the radio is full of lies
AND POETRY IS FULL OF LIES! (79)
In this sense, reality seems to be lost in the simulated media world, and the American society is presented here as a room full of mirrors where no one can tell the difference between reflections and actual human beings. Clearly, there is no truthful source of information for Americans to turn to. Newspapers, radio and TV are nothing more than mouthpieces of hegemonic groups. Also, Thomas comes to the shocking realization that even poetry and artistic expression can be false and fake in the media environment, meaning that even poets have given in to the consumerist ethos of profit hunt. Even more so, Thomas seems to be concerned here with the role of the poet in an unstable world. What exactly is the poet’s role in American society? Should he follow the norm, or turn toward innovative modes of expression? In particular, he writes:
And the style, the form, is what’s important
Incomprehensible to everyone else
But them. Oh, in the final analysis
Everyone else is a part of the problem
And we’re in the “in” crowd. (79)
This stanza captures the poet’s desire to resist traditional forms and concepts and articulate his own voice instead. According to him, the elaborate form and style of a poem are the elements that actually drive people away from artistic expression as there is no direct connection with their everyday concerns and anxieties. Thomas refers, in an ironic way, to the “in” crowd of poetry, meaning the elitist groups that not only criticize, but also control poetic creation. On the contrary, from his part, he highlights his need to break free so as to resort to his own modes of expression. More importantly, in order to enhance his text and meaning, he resorts to illustrations, collages, and film frames through which he creates multiple juxtapositions, opening up the poetic text to multiple perspectives and points of view. At the same time, readers are actively engaged in the interpretation of meaning as they are invited to discover the hidden links between all these different kinds of text. This kind of writing creates a pluralistic experience of composing and reading poetry, since it brings poetic practice in conversation with other forms of expression.
This notion is also evident in his poem “Framing the Sunrise,” included in his collection The Bathers, where Thomas comments on the influence of TV on the construction of reality. He also focuses on TV news and their ability to shape opinions as well as disseminate a sentiment of fear. To begin with, the title of the poem reveal’s the poet’s ironic stance towards media. In a rather provocative way, he takes one of the most iconic natural images, namely the sunrise, and “frames” it in an attempt to attack the entrapment of the essence into meaningless frames of thought. At the beginning of the poem, Thomas focuses on the role and impact the TV has on the American family:
Appearing with anachronistic pomp or tragedy
in living rooms
where a magazine is thrown carelessly
by the sofa
Family Circle (126)
In these lines, he underlines the integral position of the TV set inside the family unit. According to David Morley, the use of TV can provide valuable insight into the function and principles of a family (142). In other words, TV “invades” every American home and its messages get easily transmitted to the public. As the poet suggests, in many cases, the only time the family gathers together is the time of TV watching, and the living room becomes not only a location of emotional bonding, but also a location of vulnerability. It can be argued here that TV creates and preserves a sense of community among viewers. However, TV has ended up playing an integral role in forging family relations. As a result, Thomas perceives viewers as essentially docile while he vilifies TV, presenting it as a malignant force trying to keep people emotionally and intellectually sedated. In order to make his point felt, the poet refers once again to the most important event of the 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War, and the way American media dealt with it. According to Will Kaufman, TV played a major role in both the presentation of war and downplay of its consequences (149). Thomas from his part, as he refers to the power of TV news, states that TV presented the war as:
A war that is finished
as far as American is concerned
hangs in the air like a ghost. (126)
Thomas admits that even though the media have managed to nullify the war effect its devastating impact still haunts the American society. In particular, the poet associates the memory of the War with a ghost that still haunts American society. Naturally, the emotional impact of the Vietnam experience translated in thousands of lost lives and devastation cannot be simply put aside. The ghost of the War functions in the American conscience as a constant reminder of its cruelty and greed. Quite surprisingly, however, American media managed to diminish the catastrophic outcome of this conflict through a conscious strategy of silencing through the promotion of particular pieces of information. For Thomas, it is this aspect of media character that leads to the emotional and spiritual disintegration of the individual. In this sense, viewers who are daily exposed to its power lose themselves in a sea of manipulative and manufactured conversations.
Moreover, the poet addresses the issue of the presentation of violent images on screen and the subsequent cultivation of a climate of fear:
Thursday night Channel 5
11 O’ Clock News
local high school kids
dead 9 years before their reunions
dead Lance Cpl regalia
dying on CBS NEWS
via satellite relay (128)
In this stanza, the words “dead” and “dying” are repeated in order to intensify the feeling of despair emanating from the stories presented on the news. On another note, the spatial arrangement of the words on the page reminds readers of the scrolling of the auto-cue in front of a news anchorman, who is just relaying the news without actually being affected by it. In this respect, the presentation of the news is wrapped up in a mantle of sensitivity, but in essence, every tragic story is another means of high TV viewing ratings. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to assume that Thomas holds the media exclusively responsible for the distortion of reality. In the last lines of the poem, he seems to attack the viewers themselves as they have become so callous as to accept everything without a word of protest:
I tell you and tell you
I tell you we was framed! (131)
In a final attempt to awaken his readers and force them to take action against every form of ideological oppression the poet almost shouts that they are framed. By resorting to repetition and the use of exclamation marks, he criticizes viewers as passive recipients of information. Also, on another level, the selection of the word “framed” may be pointing towards deception and fraud as the images the TV broadcasts is often constructed and fixed. In this respect, the individual is framed, trapped in an environment of distorted views from where there is no discernible route of escape. Therefore, the poem “Framing the Sunrise” may be viewed as a wake-up call against the media industry, since the poet seems to conclude that revolution starts with the realization of the magnitude of oppression.
V. Final Thoughts
Thomas manages to provide his audience with a groundbreaking view of the American media. In a period when all social and political forces bowed down to its power, Thomas stayed put by refusing to give in to the hypnotizing media world. Moreover, he aimed at presenting the media as a force American society could unite against, regardless of racial or social differences. Thomas, despite his African-American heritage, avoids using poetry in order to pit black and white people against each other. On the contrary, the poet manages to highlight the fact that people have to move beyond racial boundaries and work together so as they are able to face up to the new media-dominated reality. In order to achieve his goal and highlight its mind-numbing effect, he resorted to the emerging postmodern experimental poetics of the 1960s and 1970s. The subversion of both traditional poetics and stereotypical modes of expression helped him present his views on the chaotic, often confusing, world of mass culture. Arguably, his poems, which target the oppressive power of the media, are arranged and printed on paper in such a way so as to depict their disorienting character by allowing his readers to ponder on the effects they create. However, the poet strives not only to attack these forms of information and entertainment, but also to raise the readers’ awareness so as to motivate them to act against their overwhelming power. Through his poems, he suggests that media are mere carriers of hegemonic ideologies, striving to entrap people in stereotypical views and images. Thus, he passes the messages that the individual must begin with the demythologization of their power so as to find his/her true identity, away from every essentialist notion.
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MA candidate, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
 Ezra Pound introduced the “make it new” ethos in his essay collection Make It New (1934). More specifically, the poet put forward the idea that poets ought to find new ways of expression in order to renew their artistic creations. Arguably, Pound’s cry for new artistic modes away from the conventions of the past inspired the majority of Modernist poets who felt the need to provide their readers with revolutionary works that challenged their perception of poetry and art.
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- CHOULIARAS YIORGOS
- CHRYSSOPOULOS CHRISTOS
- CONNOLLY DAVID
- DELIGIORGIS, STAVROS
- GEORGIADI, ANTHIE
- GOUTΖOU, SOFIA
- KALTSA, MARIA
- KLEIDONA, EVGENIA
- KLEIOTIS, ARISTEIDIS
- KOUKOURAVA, CHRISTINE
- KOUTSOURELIS, KOSTAS
- LIBERI, KLEOPATRA
- LIVADAS, YIANNIS
- PETROCZI, EVA
- RACHEL BLAU DuPLESSIS
- RAPTI, VASSILIKI
- RESPONSES TO AMERICAN POETRY
- THILYKOU, SARAH
- TSITOURA, MARIA
- TSIVILTIDOU, ZOI
- VEIS YORGOS