There should be a class required for everyone getting an MFA called “How to Be an American Artist and Stay Human” and the textbook should be The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. In this volume, put out by Library of America (which means that Joe Brainard is—yes—set alongside Thomas Jefferson and Emerson, something I consider a great coup) editor Ron Padgett collects some of Brainard’s poems, journals, sketches, and interviews, and crafts them into a kind of collage biography—the only kind of biography that would make sense for a multi-disciplinary artist obsessed by ephemera. You might call it Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the Mushroomcloud Generation. To me, it’s the most significant and remarkable and readable book to come out this year.
Here’s a section from the entry titled “Diary Aug. 4th-15th” which could just as easily be titled “Ars Poetica”:
Aug. 5–Today went to the Museum of Modern Art to study Excalibur with which King Arthur proved his right to Kingship, and to sip coffee in the Museum’s sculpture garden. I found the sword to be a most unusual object.
Aug. 6–Today I thought. A rusty old sword and a dead snake? Are they kidding? Where are the real treasures of yesterday?
Aug. 7–Today I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the real treasures of yesterday. Their major treasures are quite exciting. I found their minor treasures rather unexciting.
Aug. 8–Today I thought seriously about Excalibur and decided it could just as easily have been Prince Valiant’s or even Flash Gordon’s. I have definitely decided this to be a minor treasure.
If you’re the kind of person who thinks “But anyone could do that!” when looking at certain paintings, you’re not going to like Joe Brainard. He is an artist of minor treasures, but treasures nonetheless. The point isn’t virtuosity—this isn’t basketball or speed metal—Brainard’s subject is memory, with all its nostalgic droops and edges, its sentimentalities and its fart jokes. You’re exactly right—anyone could have done that. When Ted (“Art is medicine for imbeciles”) Berrgian, Brainard’s high school friend and sometimes-collaborator, returned his Master of Arts degree, saying “I am the master of no art,” he was exactly right, which is a sliver of what makes him an essential artist, human, and a writer worth reading. The same could be said for Brainard. It isn’t mastery that produces great art—it’s a raging of hope against hopelessness.
The artists of the second-generation New York School (as they’re sometimes referred—I’d prefer “the Tulsa School” myself, since this is all straight-up Midwestern aesthetics anyway, Brainard, Padgett, and Berrigan being from Tulsa) are to Robert Lowell what the Stooges were to Led Zeppelin: snotty brats with library cards and drugs and nothing to lose, making the elder statesmen look like a bunch of lumbering self-obsessed brontosauruses.
I’ll take the Stooges any day. Joe Brainard is most famous for one of three things:
One—His great poem/memoir hybrid “I Remember” whose subject is the strange familiarity of memories, both idiosyncratic and mundane:
I remember jungle plants that eat people.
I remember candy cigarettes like chalk.
I remember finding things in glove compartments I had looked for there before and not found.
I remember screen doors that slam. And “You’re letting in the flies.”
Three—He’s probably the single most popular dude since Jesus Christ to dedicate a poem to. Berrigan dedicated his genre-cracking first book The Sonnets “To Joe Brainard.” Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, Robert Creeley, James Schuyler, Anne Waldman, Frank O’Hara, Tim Dlugos, Elaine Equi, Amy Gerstler, Kenward Elmslie, David Trinidad, Alice Notley, Mary Ruefle all dedicated poems to or collaborated with Joe Brainard.
Point being: Joe Brainard was, apparently, at the center of it (whatever it is) and the reason for this is that he was a complete artist, an artist of great integrity—the conflict of which is at the heart of this volume. The components of his art—visual and written—are, by nature, ephemeral. How much of the iPad-toting public will recognize the character Nancy? To make art that may be ephemeral—post cards sent back and forth between Padgett and Brainard are included—is by nature a transgressive act. He was interested by the everyday horseshit that makes us human. By life as art.
Reading Brainard makes me glad to be alive, not because the “conversation happening in contemporary art” is “interesting” but because there is, here, the document of a human worth your time. There is a person whose bullshit detector is finely tuned.
I remember being shocked once when I heard Garrison Keillor on the radio refer to many contemporary poems being like used condoms on a beach—evidence merely that someone had passed this way before and had a good time of it. He meant it as a criticism, but I wish more contemporary poets used this as a goal. Brainard did. One of his blurbs on the back of a Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire reads:
Ron Padgett is a poet. He always has been a poet and he always will be a poet. I don’t know how a poet becomes a poet. And I don’t think anyone else does either. It is something deep and mysterious inside of a person that cannot be explained. It is something that no one understands. I asked Ron Padgett once how it came about that he was a poet, and he said, “I don’t know. It is something deep and mysterious inside of me that cannot be explained.”
For every person who thinks “I Remember” is a work of divined suburban-American brilliance (me) there is someone else who thinks it’s “a nice exercise” for a workshop (Read: “But anyone could do that!”). I just don’t think these people are worth your time.
In a journal entry, one of my favorite passages, Brainard writes:
It’s so hard to find people worth your time. People who know and are capable of giving and know they are capable of giving; people who are willing to have real contact; people who you can learn from; people who are people; people who are not embarrassed to vomit or go to the bathroom; people who know and accept the animalness of sex; people who burp, laugh, cry, and steal ashtrays from restaurants; those who don’t feel obligated to tip, be friendly, give gifts at Christmas, and kiss your butt; people who know what they know and want to know more; people who appreciate the shape and purity of an egg (plus its organic satisfaction); people who love red, dance to Elvis Presley, offer you a cigarette, listen for hours toDon Giovanni, people who need you; who play in the snow and are excited by the sensation of their frozen toes, hands, and ears; people who (like myself) like long hair or just feel they must let it grow absurdly for the sake of being absurd; people who realize the actual value of a rectangle with a sterile portrait of George Washington, and all kinds of frills, and detailed ornaments so it will be hard to counterfeit; people who know it’s a piece of paper and if they hurry some fool will give them a book, a tube of oil paint, great food, or a taxi cab ride in exchange.
(In this course, other subjects discussed will include “The Aesthetics of Pro Wrestling: Blue Collar Opera” and “Fuck Your Dead Grandmother, Everyone Dies.” See you next week.)
The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard
Ed. Ron Padgett
Library of America $35.00
Jacob Sunderlin is a contributing editor to Sycamore Review and a poetry fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA.