Natural-born rhymers

Outlaw Bible of American Poetry
Ed. Alan Kaufman
Thunder's Mouth Press, 685 pages
$34.95 hard cover, $24.95 soft cover

Move over, ye canon of English literature. Roll over, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. The outlaws of American poetry have rolled into town like Brando on a hog. The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry collects the baddest, meanest slashers of sonnets and writers of free verse – from the beats to the slammers. But what exactly makes a rebel for The Outlaw Bible? Does the cause make the rebel, or does the lack thereof?

The Bible uses an inclusive definition of "the outlaw," since anybody with something to write on and the balls to talk is included. These are, by and large, people who override the unspoken contracts of respectable literature, men and women who Plato says are menaces to society because they question the ideals of truth, those on the fringes who don't sit in lofty towers overlooking the hoi polloi. Many of these "poets" (cited in quotes, since some would protest the use of the honored moniker for these rabble) ride the bus, penning their odes on the back of bus schedules and tattered notebooks, pages and ink spilling out of every nook and cranny.

But this is not what greets students of literature across the country, as they open their mammoth Norton anthologies to read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography and Edgar Allan Poe. What do they learn about current poets who will become tomorrow's canon fodder? Educators teach zilch about the poets who bust their cascarones opening veins on the page. The Outlaw Bible steps in to fill the gaps between the classic and modern for a more complete, clear vision of ye grande old American alchemaic art of the word.

The Bible spans many generations of renegades. Some now mainstream visionaries stand together with their modern counterparts; Woody Guthrie, for example, officiates a shotgun wedding of two similar but impressive rebels, in "Jesse James and His Boys" and "Jesus Christ." One must contextualize the fact that these poems were written in the '30s and honored sacred archetypes through the most mundane practice of wordsmithery: "Jesus was to preach like He preached at Galilee, / They would lay Jesus in his grave." "They" refers to heretics who also preach what Jesus preached, but certainly don't practice. Perhaps this is The Bible's answer to Norton: live what ye preach.

But on a more quotidian note, Hunter S. Thompson records hauntingly a night of binge drinking with a strung-out junkie in "Collect Telegraph From a Mad Dog." A "doctor" of journalism who made his name in the '70s, Thompson reminisces about the night that he spent in the diner partying with the fellow indigent, then crashing a California mayoral lunch. Thompson sat in a diner afterwards, scrawling his poem down on a napkin, later typing it up, publishing it in The Nation, and marking that prestigious publication with such notions as: "Norman Luboff / should have his nuts ripped out with a plastic fork." Such images spit in the formalist's eye.

A more recent poet to surface in The Bible is Sapphire, a black writer. Her poem "Wild Thing," a lyrical ballad of a ghetto teen, was so controversial when it was published that the head of the NEA at the time was fired for funding it. Splayed images surface from the narrative, as well as funky line rhythm and breaks, as manifested in: "Christ sucked my dick / behind the pulpit, / I was 6 years old / he made me promise / not to tell no one."

The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry can be a supplement to the other, more classical American anthologies out there. It can also be seen as the rebel itself, challenging the notion of "real" literature, bombasting the fortresses of "high art." Heralding the change to poetry being casually read in saloons, this is one hardcore biker book to belly up with at the bar and impress everyone with a hog of a poem.

Scroll to read more Arts articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.