Hipster Magic: Notes, Reflections, and Confessions on Neil Hilborn's Performance Poetry

This essay discusses Neil Hilborn's viral video of his poem 'OCD' and the poet's volume 'Our Numbered Days' from a perspective informed by the work of Susanne K. Langer. Issues of genre, form (written vs. performance poetry),
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  HIPSTER MAGIC Notes, Reflections, and Confessions on Neil Hilborn’s  Performance Poetry  Christophe Van Eecke Millions, including myself, have watched and been charmed off their feet by the YouTube clip of Neil Hilborn’s   performance of his poem ‘OCD’, which first went viral in 201 3. On the strength of this clip, Hilborn has become a celebrity in the field of performance poetry, while his first poetry collection, Our Numbered Days  (2015), has become a bestseller.  ‘OCD’ is a poem about obsessive compulsive disorder. It speaks through the voice of a young man who falls in love with a woman who is initially charmed by his compulsive behaviour, until first love wanes and his tics simply become a nuisance and she moves on to pastures more still. Hilbo rn’s reading of the poem  in the video is compelling, in no small part because of his acting out of compulsive tics and gestures. The poem contains several phrases that are repeated up to five times, in the repetitive manner of a compulsive who cannot move on to a subsequent act, and Hilborn, who was diagnosed with OCD and with a bipolar disorder as a child, brings all the conviction of personal experience to bear on the reading of his own poem. But it is still a performance: if you check the printed text of the poem in Our Numbered Days  you find that the phrases that are compulsively repeated in the performance are also repeated in the written poem. Whatever Hilbo rn’s afflictions may be, what we see in the c lip is a controlled performance and his seemingly compulsive gestures are performed, not experienced. ‘OCD’ is quite a strong poem, and ea sily the best one in Hilborn’s  collection. Many of the other pieces in Our Numbered Days , however, do not live up to its promise. Hilborn regularly confuses confessional statements, or emotional truthfulness, with poetic expression. His poems are often achingly sincere, tinged with wry humour and quirky anecdotes. These are poems that believe there is intrinsic value, even poetic value, in honest accounts of emotional turmoil. Consequently, the collection has a very millennial feel to it: each of the poems is about our hang-ups and bust-ups and screw-ups and feel-bads, but often with only limited effort to shape these feelings into a compelling poetic form. Many poems derive what power they have from the sincerity of what they say, and only to a limited extent from how it is said. But as Oscar Wilde (an indifferent poet but a sublime critic himself) once observed, all bad poetry is sincere. Which is not to suggest that Hilborn’s poetry is awfully bad (or, perhaps, somewhat less than sincere) . It’s just not very exceptional, and certainly  not as exceptional as his performance of it might lead one to expect. And this should give us pause. The most significant fact about Hilborn’s poems is , after all, that they are written for performance. Hilborn holds a degree in Creative Writing from Macalester College, Minnesota, and became College National Poetry Slam champion with the Macalester team in 2011. He has often competed in poetry slams and has become, thanks to the online success of ‘OCD’, one of the luminaries of performance poetry: poetry that is written expressly with performance in mind. Perhaps this explains why  Hilborn’s text s appear less powerful in print: by presenting them as a volume of poetry the nature of Hilborn’s artistic achievement is overlooked. If performance poetry is written for performance, it is only truly achieved when it is performed. This means that a volume collecting such texts will at times be closer to the published lyrics of pop or rock songs than to a volume of poetry. Just like the lyrics need the music and the performance to reveal why and how they are powerful, so, too, Hilborn’s texts need performance to come to life.  To get an exact sense of Hil born’s achievement with ‘OCD’ it is worthwhile to briefly pursue this idea. In Feeling and Form  (1953), Susanne K. Langer argued that every work of art only exists as an integrated whole. A work of art is more than the sum of its parts: everything that is integrated in a work of art loses its individuality and becomes an element in something new. This is especially clear in “impure” works of art that combine elements from different forms of art, such as film, but obviously also rock or pop songs, the Lied  , or opera. ‘When a composer puts a poem to music,’ Langer writes, ‘he annihilates the poem and makes a song. That is  why trivial or sentimental lyrics may be good texts as well as great poems. […] Schubert has composed the undeniably second-rate poems of Müller into a song cycle just as beautiful and important as his settings of Heine’s and Shakespeare’s poetic treasures. Müller’s works are much poorer literature, but just as good texts; and in the musical works […] their inferiority is redeemed, because as poetry they have disappeared ’  (153). Langer calls this the ‘princip le of assimilation, whereby one art “swallows” the products of another’ (157) . A good illustration of this principle ’s dynamics  is Billie Holiday ’s recording of the   song ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’, the lyric of which, like so much of the material that Holiday was given to work with, was decidedly humdrum (and, yes, I know the song was written by Ira and George Gershwin). This song, after all, is to a considerable extent about tomatoes and potatoes and how to pronounce them. In terms of poetic expression, Holiday might have been better off reading out the phone-book to a beat. It is George Gershwin’s  musical arrangement, however, and especially Holiday’s rendering of the vocals, that lifts the song onto a different level (it is included on the 1957 album Songs for Distingué Lovers , which is universally regarded as one of the greatest jazz records in the entire history of everything). The fully achieved work of art is the performed song, and the banal lyrics have been completely swallowed up by it, to the point that their banality has been neutralised. It is undoubtedly premature to compare Hilborn to Billie Holiday, or even to either Gershwin, but this brief Langerian detour does clarify something about both my disappointment with his poems and my enthusiasm for his performance. Just like an opera is not dialogue melodiously rendered, nor a play with musical accompaniment, so, too, performance poetry is not poems read out loud: it is an art form all to itself, and should be addressed as such. Obviously, much great poetry can be performed on a stage without losing its power as poetry in print. What distinguishes performance poetry, however, is that the text, even as printed, was always already conceived with a specific kind of performance (such as competitive slams, their setting, and their specific kind of audience) in mind. The printed text is itself still a tool towards a performance, which is where the work of art is achieved. In that sense, one could argue that Hilborn’s texts are closer, genre -wise, to the script of a stand- up comedian’s performan ce than they are to poetry. This is especially clear if one looks at some of Hilborn’s other performances, where his reading of the texts introduces pauses to allow for audience laughter when the text  makes a comic point. In conceiving these texts, performance for an audience was always foremost in the author’s mind.   Hilborn’s performance of ‘OCD’  is powerful because the performance is the thing. Just as important as the text of ‘OCD’ are the gestures performed,  the tone of delivery, the theatricality of the performance (which would often entail the adrenaline factor of a competitive slam event), and even Hilborn’s ow n physical presence. Of course, it helps that he is a very handsome hipster type. He is cute and adorable (and he has an illness!). But it is equally important that his poems are of a confessional nature, which gives his performances an air of intimate personal disclosure. These performances are presented as revealing accounts of a life tarnished by illness. In a culture such as ours, which applauds and rewards emotive displays of traumatic private information, from the social media through reality televisi on and public counselling on Oprah’s couch, we value authentic expressions of the personal, or what is perceived as authentic and personal. This is also clear in the videos of Hilborn’s performances, where the audience predictably responds with exclamations, cheers, sighs, or applause at the emotional high or low points of the poem(s). It is not his poetic prowess that is being cheered, however, but his honesty and the funny-sad elements in his tales of woe. This raises the question of whether Hilborn’ s poems would retain their power if performed by someone else. If ‘OCD’ moves us in part because it is presented as a personal account it remains to be seen if an audience would be equally moved if the poem was performed by, say, a professional actor who sh ares neither Hilborn’s afflictions nor his ex -girlfriend. The intensity of seeing Hilborn’s poems performed is to a large extent connected to the fact that it is Hilborn himself who is performing them and getting (regrettably only metaphorically) naked in front of his audience. This highlights the way in which the personality of a performer can become entangled in what makes a work of art worthwhile. In this respect one could think of songs that have become identified with a specific performer. While other performers have sometimes also recorded these songs the results inevitably pale in comparison. For can we really imagine anyone other than Shirley Bassey giving a credible performance of ‘Goldfinger’ or ‘This Is My Life’? ‘My Way’ will always be Frank’s wa y. And imagine the sacrilege of anyone other than Nina Simone singing ‘Four Women’. When one performer has made a song their own (even if they were not the srcinal creator or performer of it) the song becomes stamped with their personal signature: it has been swallowed up by the performance. Sometimes this is done to detrimental effect. Everybody now knows Whitney Houston’s very loud rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ from the pedestrian film The Bodyguard   (1992), although the song was written and srcinally recorded by Dolly Parton, for whom it was also a hit in 1974. But Big Dollars, saturation promotion, and bombastic over-production have now clouded, perhaps only temporarily, Parton’s srcinal recording , which is infinitely superior to Houston’s technically flawless but clinically detached belting. Interestingly, Parton’ s song was srcinally written to mark a parting of the ways with her partner and collaborator, Porter Wagoner, which makes it a very per sonal statement (and one not dissimilar to that in Hilborn’s ‘OCD’). All of this is lost in Houston’s version of the song as streamlined power-ballad. It is not difficult to imagine, along similar lines, how another performer’s rendition of Hilborn’s ‘OCD’ ,  no matter how emotive, might strike us as fake and contrived, at least for as long as there is a living memory of Hilborn ’s own very intense performance  of his work. All this should serve as a reminder, for the critic, of what messy and complex affairs works of art can be. It also reminds us that the first duty of the critic is always to determine what kind of work she is dealing with. To judge well one must know what one is judging. While we can all happily agree that it is great fun to live in a postmodern world where categories have been exploded and eccentric forms are constantly emerging through endless cross-breeding of genres and formats, any successful work of art, no matter how syncretic, always presents itself to its audience in some form. All criticism should begin with the attempt to grasp this form and determine whether the work of art achieves it well (in which case it may be a good work of art) or not (in which case it may be failed art). In the case of performance poetry, it is only in the live reading of the text that the work is achieved: this is the form. Everything else in the performance poem, including the text, but also the performing style and personal charisma of the performer, is subordinate to that. It is therefore on Hilborn’s  performance, and not on his published texts, that any ultimate evaluation of his artistic achievement will have to be based. BIBLIOGRAPHY  Neil Hilborn, Our Numbered Days , Minneapolis: Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press, 2015. Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from “Philosophy in a New Key”  , London/Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953 (seventh impression, 1979).
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