Ever since Jewel started publishing books of her verse, and stocking-capped slackers began swapping doggerel in coffee-house poetry slams, we could tell it was in the offing. Poetry, we knew then, was on its way to becoming cool. And now, here we are. Today, poetry is magnetic, arrayed in sine-waves of phrases on your refrigerator door. It’s the stuff of Internet haiku contests and random-word generators. And, above all, it has become the side-project of countless actors, novelists and rock stars. These days, it seems, famous creators think about writing poetry in the same way that architects do about designing furniture: Once you’ve worked wonders on a grand scale, why not try your hand at the small stuff?
Only the latest example of this trend is The Chinaman, the debut book of poetry by famed stage-and-screen writer David Mamet. Right off the top, you have to admit, if there is one pop-culture hero who you would like to see take a stab at writing verse, it would be him. After all, who else could breathe some sooty, nicotine-flavored life into poetry than the man who wrote such gritty classics as House of Games, Speed the Plow and Glengarry Glen Ross? So perhaps we’re lucky that, here, poetry seems to be at least a little more than some Sunday hobby for a Hollywood hack.
Over the course of 48 pieces, David Mamet tests his mettle at several of poetry’s most standard forms, each of which he meets with varying success. There’s a luckless lark at love poetry (“My love is like a raven/Black against a sky of gray”), a somewhat better attempt at metaphysics (a seven-line piece called “Epigram”), plus some pointless lectures about society’s ills, poignant dedications to his daughters, meditations on everyday objects reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, and enough gravelly imagery to remind you that it’s still David Mamet behind those lines (“It pissed cold rain the whole time,” the opening poem begins).
But perhaps what’s more impressive about The Chinaman is the fact that, in the end, it offers very little of what you would expect from Mamet. Although Mamet is known for his phonographic dialogue and figures of desperation, much of what you’ll find here is something altogether new. Almost everything here seems airy and plaintive, rather than cold and concrete. Even Mamet’s attempts at fomenting controversy (namely, a couple of stereotype-ridden bits, including the poem of the title) are done with a transparency that admits much more irony than fear. While rock stars are regurgitating their lyrics as poetry to boost record sales and novelists are using poems to use turns of phrase they never got to publish, Mamet, to his credit, is writing poetry to expand his work, rather than reinforce it. It’s a shame that a lot of it is amateurish. But given what else you’ll find among the rest of today’s celebro-poets, The Chinaman is probably as cool as it gets.