Pop Culture in Poetry: The Obviation of Timelessness


Recognizing how pop culture references influence poetry.
Illustration by Jordyn Flood and Dahlia Theriault, former Literary Illustrator Interns

On the first day of my senior year English class, my teacher handed each of us an anthology he compiled of poetry written by both classic and living poets; piquing my interest instantaneously was Morgan Parker’s “Slouching Towards Beyoncé”—a reference to both the pop-cultural icon Beyoncé and the essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem written by Joan Didion—and “Untitled While Listening to Drake,” which would later become one of my favorite pieces. As I recognized these musical artists, I knew I would be able to apply my understanding of their work to the text in front of me. Recognizing how these references contributed to the pieces made the process of reading these profound works even more enriching. 

Morgan Parker’s collection There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé explores Black womanhood, performance, and sexuality using Beyoncé as a poignant metaphor and vessel; however, Parker has been both criticized for and interrogated about her incorporation of the popular musician in her work. In an interview with New York Magazine, Parker pointedly defends her poetic choice: “It’s racist that people think that because I’m invoking a particular pop culture [reference] that it’s kind of new or different. Poets throughout time have included visual art and music and just the stuff of their world — but that stuff was like, the room at the Met that I skipped. We think of that as high art. It’s really just white art. That’s not art that I’m looking at; that’s not art that my friends are making. If I’m going to write poetry, it has to reflect who I am and the things that are making up my world and the things that I’m consumed by.” Parker critiques the culture by which she is surrounded in her poetry in a manner that is relevant for her and her contemporaries. While some view references to popular culture in poetry as cheap, they are truly ekphrastic; directly or indirectly, the poet has produced both a commentary on the artists and a vivid portrait of their associations with them. This is not so different from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a work historically regarded with high esteem. 

Additionally, Morgan Parker’s highlight of the prejudicial criticism is crucial to understanding the significance of this discourse, as she is not the only poet who has experienced this exclusion. Poet David Tomas Martinez discusses the challenges he faced in his own literary communities in an interview with the literary journal 32Poems: “I have my memories of cultural, racial, class divides in [the] workshop where I felt excluded because I am not the traditional creative writing student. My parents were working-class and not college-educated, so my milieu was not filled with fine art, but pop art, if any art at all. That being said, I’m very proud of my upbringing. I wouldn’t change anything in my life.” Criticism of the inclusion of pop culture in

poetry often comes from a place of prejudice, as if the only valuable references in a piece of art are those belonging to “high-brow culture,” a term that in and of itself invalidates pop culture. Martinez’s upbringing is reflective of a large population of poets, and to exclude these brilliant 

writers by dismissing their work as cheap is disgraceful to poets and to the art form itself. The inclusion of one’s surroundings in one’s work is both primal and sophisticated. The array of poets using well-known imagery goes beyond those who are living. Ocean Vuong, another acclaimed poet, and novelist, discusses the natural inclusion of popular culture in all forms of art in an interview with Houstonia Magazine: “This goes back to me being a poet. I’m a poet, so I’m informed a lot by poets. It also goes back to William Carlos Williams’ credo of ‘no ideas but in things.’ He’s speaking of the modernist and imagist movement. His belief was that, particularly as it relates to American identity, that these icons and objects and the zeitgeist are what date and amplifies a lived life. We think of Andy Warhol being obsessed with Coca-Cola. He saw it as a democratic ideal. Whether you’re the King of Spain or somebody down the block, Coca-Cola tastes exactly the same for everybody.” These images are not mere pieces of linguistic kitsch. They are signifiers of time and space, unifying reader and poet. This instills empathy within the reader, strengthening both their relation to and understanding of the poet. A common critique of pop culture references in poetry is that it eliminates the possibility of timelessness; however, the works of these living poets suggest a greater human need for planting ourselves in time with a snapshot rather than recycling vague descriptions. We must ask ourselves why we value timelessness over immediacy, especially in a country with a sociopolitical climate that feels consistently tumultuous. Morgan Parker herself expresses her thoughts on timelessness in an interview with The Creative Independent: “Folks think of poetry as this timeless something that’s in a vacuum of beauty…I guess in our current American climate there’s such a need for urgent art, and poetry has a way of getting to the point. A lot of poets are able to say more and say it more honestly. A lot of people are just ready for it. They’re ready to hear something real. I think a lot of poetry is doing that. Also, poetry is scary to people because it isn’t always about logic or understanding.” The incorporation of references to pop culture is one example of poetry at its best: a meaningful collection of thoughts and ideas about one’s surroundings. It is of utmost importance that we encourage contemporary poets to continue to critique their surroundings and express their truths using whatever vessels they desire. When poets examine some of the most pertinent cultural issues while drawing from both our reference pool and theirs, we must thank them for being a driving force for our collective reckoning with our surroundings, however beautiful or frightening they may be.

Skye Tarshis
Skye Tarshis

Skye Tarshis is an eighteen-year-old first-year student studying at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Bienen School of Music. Her writing has been featured in high school publications such as BeaconInk and The Beacon Beat, as well as choral works written by composers André de Quadros and Pulitzer prize-winning Ellen Reid.

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