- The Couch Poetato: Poetry and Television in David McGimpsey’s Lardcake
Twenty years ago—when an attempt to critically disassemble television still seemed like a viable project—social critic Jerry Mander pointed out that this “delivery system of co mmodity life” works exclusively in one direction: “These are not metaphors. There is a concentrated passage of energy from machine to you, and none in the reverse. In this sense, the machine is literally dominant, and you are passive” (171). David McG impsey’s recent book of poems entitled Lardcake may stand as an informal rebuttal to Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, or as proof that on at least one occasion the ingestion of artificial light has not f ollowed the dominating process that Mander claims to be unavoidable in TV-viewing. You don’t need a Ph.D. to know not to believe everything you see on television, but McGimpsey’s doctoral work in American literature and popular culture adds an interestin g twist to his collection of poems about our most vapid obsessions. It suggests, in addition to an obvious over-exposure to television light (in McGimpsey’s house the TV must always be on), a perhaps equally “unhealthy” immersion in the institution that, traditionally, most disdains the effects of the mass media, even as it inevitably succumbs to certain elements of the logic of mass culture.
As Mark Edmundson has put it in his description of the current use of liberal education “as lite entertainment for bored college students”: “University culture, like American cul ture writ large, is ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images” (40). To a new Ph.D. recipient and veteran TV-watcher like McGimpsey, the manifest ironies that emerge from this relationship between e ducation and television are useful for making insightful poetry about the most unsightly effects of our tabloid technologies. Poems that appear late in the book address the ironies directly, for instance, Master Po’s advice to Little Grasshopper—“Kill a prince & fly to USA, grasshopper / It will appear as incomplete on your transcript” (“Master Po” 72)—or the transcription of the first valedictory address at Oprah State University, in which the top graduate expounds her new learning:
Now as we head out into the world
I can look an employer square and say
don’t believe the Enquirer, feel
good about yourself!
Next fall, I will sit down
in my XXL OSU sweats
and laugh at all the ridiculous headlines.(“Oprah State University” 73)
McGimpsey’s work clearly aims at something other than an acquired knowledge of how to laugh at the headlines and the accompanying sense of empowering distance from the “ridiculou s” tabloid world. Rather, these poems reveal the overwhelming ignorance and self-deception of such a “distanced” position, and, further, how this ignorance that we all occasionally share can be emotionally poignant. A recent poetic precedent to McGimpse y’s project might be Lynn Crosbie’s Miss Pamela’s Mercy, which contains the monologue “Love Letter from Gary Coleman” and a piece called “Sabrina” about “the smart one” in Charlie’s Angels. These poems begin to sketch out the p ossibility of a serious language with which to express our experience of the purest television trash. McGimpsey’s book expands upon this possibility and actually realizes it, showing us that it is possible to speak about our lives with television in a la nguage that is crisp, elegant, and often very sad. The sadness I refer to results from the gradual revelation of the depth of our investment in the icons and images of entertainment we so casually dismiss.
The book’s first section establishes the parameters of the world of Lardcake. It is a world of black humor, white enriched flour, and especially of the myriad shade s of gray that complicate the space between what we really want and what we know is “bad” for us. To weigh the value and effect of the images we consume is ultimately to put ourselves on the scale, complete with the knowledge that our taste for...