From Inverted// Decadence: The Poetics of Nirvana (Part One)

Meg Forajter is currently working on a project looking at the connection between Nirvana and poetics, which often intersects with her own life as a poet. She has been kind enough to share a large extract of the project with us, which is split into two weekly segments.

I am a poet. I like to read books and write poems and sometimes show those poems to other people. I spend a lot of my time thinking about poetry and poets and movements and how to end a poem without sounding like you are ending. This is a largely useless exercise because poems are far more fun when you don’t have to think about them too much while you write them and instead they just play footsie with your insides. Your brain is also inside so this is okay, too. Poems can also play footsie on the outside, though, especially if the foot in this case is a brick.

I am not a very good poet. Someone once told me I shouldn’t pursue a PhD because I wouldn’t be a good fit. I think this was them trying to tell me to stop writing. I don’t really care about other poets though. Not in a transcendent way.  I don’t really care about publishing, either. I only care about writing and then forgetting to save Word before I turn off the computer. I know I am not a great poet. For instance, I think poetry readings are really tedious. I wish they passed out hard copies so I could see what the poem looks like. I wish more often they had chairs.

Mostly I write about my feelings and stories and how much I love my husband. I wish I could write about something more important but these poems never turn out very good. My little lovey things are important to me because my life is very small and I am very small. I like food and TV, too. I really like art.

One of the things I like most in the world is Nirvana. I had probably seven Kurt Cobain posters in my bedroom when I was a teenager. He meant a lot to me when I was seventeen. I wore a lot of ratty sweaters. My mom bought me combat boots from the Army/Navy surplus. I didn’t play any instruments then, but I would put on In Utero really loud when I was painting stuff for art class, which feels close enough to playing an instrument that it makes up for it.

It is the eve of my 27th birthday and I still love Nirvana. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why. I think I should be embarrassed by this. It’s one thing to admit that I loved Nirvana as a teenager when angst and punk rock come with the territory, but quite another to say that even now I have more pictures of Kurt Cobain on my computer than any grownup should. I am still thrilled by In Utero. I still screech in the car. I feel like I am too old to love something this much.

Are you still supposed to love the things you loved at seventeen? The answer feels like no. But everything I feel about the band is still raw. Perhaps things feel even rawer than they used to. I think I’m scared to be 27.  Of what it i

I don’t know. I can’t be defendant. As much as I feel like somebody’s aging dad– out of touch, painfully uncool— it doesn’t matter. I just fucking love this band.

(Verse Chorus Verse performed at the OK Hotel, Seattle. 1991.)

Another level of me is ashamed that I take such genuine joy out of something that is so pervasively pop culture. Like I should know better. As a poet, and an unwitting part of the academy, I shouldn’t deign myself to lie in mud. I think poets think you are a little uncouth if you unironically like anything pop-related, or worse, sentimental. I don’t ironically like Nirvana for nostalgia sake. It’s not about fond memories or trends.

This shame is stupid because the idea that poets are elite in any way is repulsive and so far from the truth that I shouldn’t even give the thought a millisecond of my attention. I think most poets are aware of this, too. However, the sentiment still lingers if even unconsciously.

Part of that elitism is personally seductive because I am afraid poetry will be commercialized and that what makes it special will be somehow diluted by people who seek to make money rather than art. It is a fucking terrifying thought. I think there is a similar fear in music, as their art is so often rifled through for the sake of other people’s monetary gains. It is what I think many of us in poetry are afraid of, too.  Thus the academic, wash-your-hands-of-these-pigs, facade remains.

It’s changing, of course. The internet has roped us all in. But those attitudes are still so strong and so prevalent. I hate that I feel ashamed for watching TV or enjoying  popular novels. I hate that it makes me feel like a bad poet.

“I mean, there were a lot of things that we wanted to do. we wanted to be more experimental and diverse with the ‘Bleach’ record but there was just so much pressure from Sub Pop. It just wasn’t cool to play pop music if you’re a punk rock band and I wanted to mix the two. I was really too intimidated by what the crowd response might be if I were to do more pop stuff. I’d been burdened with the bohemian philosophy of musical revolution for so many years by living in Olympia That I started to resent it. I just wished, people wouldn’t take us so fucking seriously.”

(Cobain in an intereview with Michael Azerrad, 1993.)

So why care so much? Why should a poet feel so invested in a punk band from 20 years ago?

It is confusing. I think this love would make more sense if I were in the music industry in some way, as a musician or a critic. Nirvana is important to our cultural legacy, to the formation of contemporary rock music. I feel like so much of our popular music is a response to them in some way, and thus the fascination with Cobain for music-types makes sense. He popularized a new dynamic. He changed the pop landscape.

But I am not a musician. I am not a music critic or theorist. My career or artistic livelihood does not depend on musical affinity. I go to concerts and listen to my ipod and turn up the stereo in the car. In all respects, I should be writing this essay a la Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. Hell, even writing about someone like J.K. Rowling would make more sense. There is no real reason for me to be this invested in a band beyond for the sake of entertainment. I just really love the music, the dissonance, the punk angst, the bulky sweaters, the sing song growl. I love Kurt’s sunglasses. I love Dave’s stringy hair. I just do.

So how does this all relate to me as a poet? Part of my brain says it’s the language. The logical thing would be to do a straight up literary analysis of song lyrics. Being a poet, my interest is of course in words and their functions. However, I think poetics is bigger than just how an artist crafts a poem. It’s the attitude in which art-making is approached, its influences and inspirations, cultural heritage, an idea towards clarity or obfuscation. I don’t want to look at Cobain’s lyrics because poetry and song lyrics are two different genres. They are both assembled from language but do different things, have different families. It is emphatically not okay to rhyme in my poems. Cobain can rhyme all he likes.

At the same time, the lyrics thrill me. There’s something decadent lingering there, and I think that may be because Cobain engages with the poetic pretty freely. I don’t think poetic sensibilities (as in traditional poetry’s values) are very common in pop songs because that’s not usually what matters. Language in song lyrics is usually a direct statement of feeling, tweaked to fit a certain melody or rhythm. (Baby, I love you; baby, I want you, etc. set to a beat.) But strong images are a hallmark of most Nirvana songs. The hooks themselves often rely on the poetic ability to conjure literal images in the minds of listeners/readers. Songs like ‘Heart-Shaped Box,’ ‘Drain You,’ ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,’ and ‘Breed’ all have particularly strong imagery that communicates auxiliary information beyond the literal meaning of the words. They paint a picture. They become a poem.

Chew your meat for you
Pass it back and forth
In a passionate kiss
From my mouth to yours
I like you
With eyes so dilated, I’ve become your pupil
You’ve taught me everything
Without a poison apple
The water is so yellow, I’m a healthy student
Indebted and so grateful – Vacuum out the fluids

(Drain You, 1991.)

Cobain also engages with alternating diction, between decadent and infantile like a romantic fairy tale that someone inadvertently wipes their nose on. Between this word choice and a sing-song cadence that shines even on the page, there’s real playfulness in Cobain’s work which shines through even some of the most angst-ridden songs. The word play between dilated eyes and becoming someone’s student in ‘Drain You’ might be groan worthy, but it’s also fun. I think this intimately links back to the concern Cobain expressed over taking music (and probably more directly, himself) too seriously. That sort of serious political/revolutionary investment to the exclusion of everything else feels pedantic and self-conscious. Seeing him as a visionary is stigmatizing in the same way. Of course art can do great things. Of course artists can be great. But they’re also molecular like everything else.

Perhaps Cobain’s engagement with art for art’s sake is too self-indulgent and small-minded to really be evocative in the politically engaged Information Age, but I think that blasé joyfulness can be important. For instance, ‘Drain You’ (which Cobain personally considered “better or just as good as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’”) describes a fantastical parasitic relationship where one partner is obsessed with the other. In the midst of this “romance” are visceral images of chewed up food, fetuses, urine, and poisoned apples. Snow White pops into my head every time I hear this song; she’s as sweet and beautiful as expected, but also peeing her pants. It’s funny and I think that playfulness in a punk rock song disrupts an ascribed hierarchy where punk (and therefore revolution) must be angry, masculine, and territorial.

The disruption of things is important and I think at the core of Nirvana’s punk rock sentiments: a little bit hedonistic, a little bit romantic, a lot gut obsessed. The body is simultaneously made funny, accessible & idyllic. The grotesque is horrific, idolized and giggled over. Nirvana aesthetic is like snot dripping on velvet.

Maybe this is why Nirvana resonates with me so much. Maybe this is what I need myself.

A way to be myself, a way to stand in the world.

Part Two of this extract from The Poetics of Nirvana is printed next Saturday.

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