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I can almost remember the Sid and Marty Krofft Supershow: slipping downstairs in my pajamas on Saturday mornings, grabbing a bowl of dry Cap’n Crunch and wrapping myself in a blanket in our energy-starved house, and gaze at the television nestled in its gigantic console while my older brothers told me to shut the hell up. Almost. I certainly remember Land of the Lost and Wonderbug, but the other shows in the Krofft canon are just beyond my recollection.
I certainly don’t remember H.R. Pufnstuf and Jimmy with his talking flute, or The Bugaloos, or Lidsville, or Dr. Shrinker. Bryan Dietrich does and he uses them all in an entertaining poem in the October 13, 2008, issue of the New Yorker.
Dietrich, after coming so very close so many times winning the Yale Younger Poets’ Prize (he was five-time finalist), published his first book, Krypton Nights, with Zoo Press, the now-defunct press that left poets hanging in the worst way. In this book and in his second, Universal Monsters, Dietrich is reworking the stuff of popular culture–examining it from unusual angles, making it personal.
It seems, as a culture, we like to keep our popular culture popular and our high-culture far, far away from the seething masses. If you’re trying to entertain the general public, we, the literati, in our fancy smoking jackets shouldn’t take you seriously. Except, you know, Chaucer and Shakespeare and Lord Byron were all wildly popular in their day.
Dietrich’s first charge in the little I’ve read, seems to be to entertain. He has an affinity for popular culture and he’s not afraid to use it. But he’s not afraid of working toward a larger milieu. In an interview posted on his website:
“Part of what I’m trying to do in the [Krypton Nights] poems is to tell my own story, talk about the life of a boy grown to man, a man about to graduate with a Ph.D. (I was nearly finished with it at the time), a man who still hadn’t come to terms with his origins and his responsibilities. The other part is me attempting to draw parallels with all the rest of human history, attempting to bridge that gap between the past and the now, and, in so doing, bridge the gap not only between eras, but also between what my fathers must have once been and the men they became.”
Generally speaking, I prefer formal poetry (that is, poetry written in received and nonce forms). Most of the time it appeals to my ear more than free verse; it also adds another layer to the poem (or perhaps more accurately, gives the poems a solid foundation.) Dietrich’s poem, while written in free verse, could be considered formal; he’s constraining the poem through subject matter (rather than by meter and rhyme).
The constraints are the references to the Krofft shows (and I’m sure I’m missing some, particularly the witch reference):
“Freddie the Flute” – Jimmy’s talking flute in H.R. Pufnstuf
“flipped your lid” – Lidsville
“gone a bit bugaloo” – The Bugaloos
“Jimmy” – teen character in H.R. Pufnstuf
“Dr. Shrinker” – Dr. Shrinker
“dinosaurs and dancing sleestaks” – Land of the Lost
“cling and clang” – characters from H.R. Pufnstuf
“crystals align…portal closes” – Land of the Lost
“Pakuni” – chimp-like creatures in Land of the Lost
“like your puffing stuff” – H.R. Pufnstuf
And it’s all very cleverly done: take live-action cartoon characters and put them in a Times Square moviehouse before Times Square was Disneyfied. Seedy, racy, but also something of a rite of passage. “Freddie the Flute’s all sticky.” Disgusting. Wonderful.
Using shows designed for children and viewing them from two distinct points in time is the crux of the poem. The medium is the same (children’s shows and movies) but how we perceive them through our ever-changing lenses, is, I think, what Dietrich is getting at. And how our imagination develops and changes over time. Electra Woman, in the sexed-up brains of men, looks very different than to the five-year-old boy eating his Cap’n Crunch.
Absolutely. We should join in, embrace our whacked-out faculties, and then reflect (maybe) during the commercial break on, as Dietrich says, what we must have once been and what we become.