Notes 58.4 (2002) 836-837
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All Shook Up:
Collected Poems about Elvis
All Shook Up: Collected Poems about Elvis. Edited by Will Clemens. Photographs by Jon Hughes. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2001. [131 p. ISBN 1-55728-704-X. $18.95 (cloth); ISBN 1-955728-70-X. $18.95 (pbk.).]
Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-1977) was not just a rock-and-roll singer, some would say the rock-and-roll singer, and not just a movie star (who made several of the worst movies ever). Because of the international impact of his early success proving that a white boy could rock and roll as well as Chuck Berry or Little Richard, the slow decline following his mandatory army service, the unexpected comeback followed by another decline, his early death resulting from an indulgence
in seemingly all the vices, and the ways he has lingered in our collective memory—
becoming even bigger in death than he was in life—Elvis is one of the most indelible American cultural icons. No entertainer in twentieth-century America, not Chaplin, not Sinatra, not Monroe, had a bigger or more lasting influence.
Because great artists inspire art themselves, Will Clemens has been able to collect forty-nine diverse Elvis poems, all but two written after the King's death, by twenty-eight poets, including such well-known names as Charles Bukowski, Lucille Clifton, Thom Gunn, Joyce Carol Oates, and Diane Wakoski. The forms of the poems vary from loose sonnets to blank verse to experimental free verse. Several describe visits to Graceland, the mecca for all Presley acolytes, while others respond to his death or consider the "Is he alive?" myth. Too many of them look at the tawdry side of Elvis culture—the sale of his wart for $500. Most focus on Elvis the myth or his effect on individual lives and most of them see him differently. Surprisingly little attention is paid to his voice or his music.
The best poems are those with striking lines, images, or approaches to perceiving Elvis. In "Elvis Presley" (1957), Gunn says that Elvis's pose "may be posture for combat" (p. 1), succinctly suggesting the battle lines drawn between generations at the beginning of the rock era. Elizabeth Ash Vélez provides insight by comparing Elvis and Emma Bovary, both prisoners of their cultures, in "Elvis P. and Emma B." (1993). In "Elvis from the Waist Up" (1995), Alice Fulton describes Elvis in the style of Emily Dickinson. Fleda Brown Jackson has the King interpret W. B. Yeats in "Elvis Reads 'The Wild Swans at Coole' " (1999).
Several poems invoke the Southern side of Elvis's world. In "All Shook Up," Don Bogen has the backup singers "blurred in swing harmony like some USO group, sweet as Karo" (p. 16), referring to the all-purpose syrup once widely used in the South. Outhouses and the ubiquitous vine kudzu appear in other poems.
Neal Bowers illustrates how all popular culture becomes intertwined in "On the Elvis Mailing List" (1987), one of the best poems in the collection. Watching Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) late at night, the speaker orders, during a commercial break, a greatest hits album. When Cary Grant rescues Ingrid Bergman from poisoning by Claude Rains, "our album was being processed somewhere in New Jersey." The film ends with Rains being taken away "by two men who would laugh at anyone wailing 'Don't be cruel' " (p. 18).
Elvis's impact on his fans is captured by Oates's "Waiting on Elvis, 1956" (1987). He touches the lace edge of a Charlotte waitress's slip, but she does not mind because "he was the kind of boy even meanness [End Page 836] turned sweet in his mouth" (p. 19). Not all the poets, however, are so kind to the fans. In "Versification of a Passage from Penthouse" (1992), Andrew Hudgins settles for easy irony with a woman's pathetic account of committing fellatio on Elvis in Las Vegas. Because of this contact with fame, one of the major themes running through the collection, she...