I know I'm behind the times on American Horror Story, but this girl cut the cord with cable. Many Roku-having horror fans such as myself watched the franchise's second-most recent franchise this fall (AHS: Apocalypse is currently airing on FX). The other night I finally finished AHS: Cult on Netflix, then promptly went to sleep and dreamed that a man who looked not unlike Donald Trump was chasing me with a knife. I did it to myself, watching it so late at night. But it might also be true that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk did it to me. I admire the way that this season was able to tap into contemporary American fears about politics, sex, and violence in a way that felt contemporary.
As usual, I want to talk about poetry and pop culture, and more specifically, poetry and television. It's one of my weird obsessions, and maybe it's yours too. You can imagine my delight when I learned, via my liberal use of closed captions, that Ally & Ivy's son was not named "Ozzy" as in "Ozzy Osbourne" but "Ozy" as in "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
The son of main characters Ally (Sarah Paulson) and Ivy (Alison Pill) is named Ozymandias, which is the name of the most famous poem by English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Ozymandias is a Greek name for Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. Not only is "Ozymandias" Shelley's most well-known and most anthologized poem, I would argue that "Ozymandias" is also one of the most frequently referenced poems in contemporary pop culture in general. It's popped up in the aforementioned Frisky Dingo, The Watchmen franchise, and elsewhere. The most famous reference to this particular Shelley poem, I would say, is in another relatively poetry-heavy TV show: Breaking Bad. I plan to say more about the poetry of Breaking Bad in some subsequent blog posts.
I've seen a lot of folks trying to offer close readings of the Shelley poem in response to this season of AHS, and most of them are performed by non-practitioners (one EliteDaily writer even morosely confessed, "I feel like I'm writing a paper for an English literature survey course right now"). I think a number of these interpretations are either too stuffy or too fluffy. I'll do my best to stay somewhere near the middle and keep it brief. Spoilers ahead:
This seems like an excellent way to jump into one of the new major focuses of this blog: poetry in popular culture. Though there's certainly nothing "lowbrow" about Call the Midwife (I leave the closed captions on to catch every inscrutable turn of phrase, from British slang to the spelling of "Mother Jesu Emmanuel," "Akela," and "Babycham") but to me, the intersection of poetry with television, even verbose British period pieces, is fascinating because of one's mass appeal and the other's undeniably niche status.
And yet, even writing that phrase feels untrue, which is what has spurred me to, at last, revamp this blog and share the fruits of my longstanding interest in the intersection of poetry with popular culture...
Around that time, the city grew quiet.
*WARNING: CONTAINS WALKING DEAD SPOILERS*
My mother recently discovered the glory of Netflix, and has been making her way through The Walking Dead. As a longtime fan, I love hearing her experience the characters and their struggles anew. The other day she called me as I was strolling through the well-stocked aisles of Target (that red-and-white symbol of capitalist, first-world, everything-is-ok safety) to talk about Hershel Greene (played by Scott Wilson), the stubborn, patriarchal farmer the group first encounters in season two.
"It's so ridiculous," she said on the other end of the line. "He doesn't want to kill the zombies because he thinks he can save them. He's hauling their snapping corpses out of the swamp and keeping them in a barn. I mean, come on!"
"But don't you think people are like that?" I countered, "In the way that they hold onto what they know? In their desperation to believe?"
"He's out of his mind. How could you look at one of those things and think you could save it?"
She had a point.
My mind drifted to her incredulity again when I was rereading one of my favorite poems, "Apocalypse," by Kevin Prufer, from his 2008 collection National Anthem. The world we enter in this poem is a blasted one. There are no undead creatures here, but the real danger of violence between human beings is very much alive. The dominant speaker (the "I") and the submissive "you" character traverse an empty landscape where we learn that "the TVs stopped bothering us," where "it rained and all the bodies in the graveyard washed away." In a world where little makes sense, these characters cling desperately to their humanity, to at least a semblance of normal, if menacing, human relations.
Even in what appears to be an apocalypse, the speakers relate to their circumstances through the metaphor of narrative, of cinema, particularly when the speaker says "As in a film of the apocalypse..."
CAITLIN COWAN has been getting way too excited about setting poetry up on a blind date with popular culture since the early 1990s. This is her website.