All That Glitters: I Read Billy Corgan's Blinking with Fists So You Don't Have To

From Smashing Pumpkins to Smashing Poems (I'm So Sorry)

Welcome to the second installment of All That Glitters: (Re)appraisals of musicians, actors, and other culture-makers who have written and/or published poetry. You can revisit the first post on Jewel’s A Night Without Armor here.

All That Glitters is a semi-regular feature of PopPoetry, a poetry and pop culture Substack written by Caitlin Cowan. You can learn more about it here. Check out the archive to see other TV shows, movies, and films whose intersections with poetry I’ve covered. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox, subscribe so you won’t miss a post!

When I first heard that Billy Corgan would be publishing a book of poetry, I was certain that it would be good. It was 2004, and I was graduating from high school. I was an enormous Smashing Pumpkins fan still bummed about their 2000 breakup. Blinking with Fists promised to be as moody and expressive as Corgan’s lyrics, and I was eager to check it out as a poet myself.

But I hadn’t even gotten my hands on it yet before the reviews made their way to me. In short, it sucked. The book, that is. In a brief review for Entertainment Weekly, Thom Geier graded it a “D” and quipped:

Corgan is a random-metaphor generator whose poems are both pretentious (”a twixt the twine and flowers divine”) and confoundingly esoteric (”armadillo trains rustle underfoot”). Where are the guitar riffs?

“Where?” indeed.

It took me years to get up the nerve to peek into it to see how bad it really was, and I had never really read it seriously until I began the research for this post.

I would happily rescue Corgan from the critical fate that he suffered if I thought the work merited it. But it doesn’t. Some 17 years later, I regret (?) to inform you that Blinking with Fists is not a good book. But that’s not all that interesting.

What is interesting is why the book’s a bomb, and what Corgan’s work tells us about the popular conception of poetry.

Billy Corgan Doesn’t Understand Poetry

When celebrities or artists who work in other forms move into poetry, I think they tend to kind of show their hand regarding their assumptions about what poetry is. And by this token, Billy Corgan seems to think that poetry is and should be:

  1. Mysterious and difficult to understand

  2. Rooted in the relics of the past, linguistically speaking

  3. Interested in language first and meaning second

  4. A demonstration of one’s genius

Corgan’s poems are deeply self-conscious and seem to be written by someone who is donning their perceived affectations of poetry without grounding the work in any real substance.

Jewel’s book, for example, is less interested in “sounding like poetry” and more interested in conveying emotion, story, and image. And I would take that kind of book over the kind of book Corgan wrote—one that’s full of itself and impossible to understand—any day.

I mean there’s a poem that’s literally titled “A bunch of words.” And y’all it’s… just a bunch of words. Is this supposed to be provocative?

Fascinatingly, the blurb on the back of the book was provided by none other than JT LeRoy. Here’s a rundown of that whole situation here, but just a year after the publication of Blinking with Fists, JT LeRoy would be exposed as nothing more than a persona of a writer named Laura Albert. A literary “hoax,” as the Guardian puts it.

Is it a stretch to say that Corgan is pretending to be something he’s not here, too?

Songwriters have long forayed into poetry (and vice versa) and the two art forms share so much: a commitment to sound, emotion, repetition, and more. But Corgan could get away with so much more with the Smashing Pumpkins than he can in these pages. The music of a poem is much subtler than an electric guitar. And throughout Blinking with Fists, Corgan seems intent on announcing that he is a poet rather than attempting to really craft anything of substance.

There are several kinds of poems in this book. Let me tell you about them.

Poems that are just song lyrics.

When I teach poetry, I often say that if you’re going to use anaphora—the intentional repetition of a word or words—it’s got to be worth saying twice. This poem fails that test, and the fact that it’s mostly anaphora would make it much better suited to song.

The parentheses even put me in mind of backup singers giving a refrain.

Poems that speak in antiquated diction and strained syntax.

Hear me now: the word “twixt” doesn’t belong in poetry written in the year of our lord 2004. Hell, it doesn’t belong in poetry written after 1904.

Poems that resist interpretation of any kind.

This one really irks me.

Poems like this are offenders of the worst kind because they uphold a really damaging stereotype about poets and a deep misconception about poetry. Namely, that poems are supposed to be difficult to understand and your job as a reader is to “unpack” or “decode” the work.

There’s an essay in me somewhere about my disdain for the term “unpacking” when it comes to reading literature deeply, but that’s for another day.

One of my favorite pieces of advice to young poets is that they have to “film some hallways.” This is rhetorical shorthand for an idea that Laurie Sheck impressed upon me while I was at The New School. She noted that filmmakers don’t enjoy establishing shots or informational shots like the front of an envelope or a character walking down a hallway half as much as they enjoy shooting big, splashy, emotional shots of faces and action. But they have to “film some hallways” in order for the viewer to understand what’s going on in the film. In essence, the act of making sure we know what a character is doing is a generous collaboration between the artist and the viewer/reader/listener. The director would rather be shooting an explosion or a close-up of a face, but to draw you into their world and help you, they’re filming a hallway.

Corgan doesn’t film any hallways, and I can almost hear him telling me that if I don’t get the poem I’m just not that smart, not that interested in his work, or any number of other lame barbs that dudes in my college workshops might spit out.

I’m here to tell you that poems are not puzzle boxes, and if a writer is actively trying to keep you out of the work rather than teaching you how to read it, that writer is not someone worth reading.

Lastly, we have poems that are the equivalent of a bunch of piano keys ripped from the instrument and heaped on the floor.

What do I even… no. Just no. Yes, Billy, these are the building blocks of poetry. But if you’re going to spill the Legos on the floor rather than build something with them, it’s not art and it doesn’t make it statement. It just makes a mess.

Interestingly, for all of its failings, what’s missing from reviews of Corgan’s book are devoid of the pearl-clutching “how dare they!” hysteria that greeted the publication of Jewel’s book in 1998. While critics did largely pan the book and outline its faults, none of them have the white-hot anger that I found in so many of the reviews of Jewel’s book.

And why might that be? Because Billy Corgan is a white man. And even if he writes a bad book, people still buy it and no one suggests that he’s ruining poetry and the world keeps on turning. The double standard is very real. So what are we going to do about it? I’m going to start by writing this post and hoping you’ll share it. What will you do?

Say Something Nice

As far as celebrity books of poetry go, Corgan gets it right in terms of the actual object. The volume is slim, attractively designed with artwork by Corgan’s ex-girlfriend Yelena Yemchuk, and smartly avoids putting the author’s face on the cover (a decision that Jewel and other celebrities-turned-poets have made with, let’s say mixed results).

I did find one poem that seemed to forget it was supposed to be part of this bewildering book: one that attempted to speak more simply and even offered a clear image and sense of place.

I even kind of like the title? But overall, it’s still unbelievably mediocre. Rage, nature, green, betrayal… the poem still suffers from abstract noun overload, stilted syntax, and other sins. This is as good as it gets. But if Corgan were to, I don’t know, work at his craft with even one tenth of the attention he’s paid to his music, this might have been better.

It’s assumed that if you can art you can poetry. Or that poetry is just spilling your feelings” onto a page. But it’s a craft, y’all! We poets practice, practice, practice. We fail and fail and only end up putting a fraction of our work out into the world. The problem with books like these by celebs like these is the obvious sense that they have carte blanche to fill a book with words and have it published, regardless of quality. And it sells.

Remember, the second-hand paperback I have is emblazoned with the words NATIONAL BESTSELLER emblazoned at the top. Popularity, as we know, does not constitute goodness. Take Keeping Up with the Kardashians, for example.

Like any art form, good poetry is part talent, part sweat. And Corgan needed to expend a lot more of the latter to make good on any promise of the former he might have had.

Why Subject Yourself to This?

I won’t lie: this was the hardest post to write for PopPoetry so far. I hemmed and hawed. It was tough to get excited about. Billy Corgan’s poetry is not good, and what’s worse, it’s ungenerous. I have all the time in the world for work created out of a genuine desire to connect, to deepen the human experience. But I can hardly stomach the displays of ego and the empty calories of word salad like the likes of which Corgan offers us in Blinking with Fists.

Billy Corgan’s poetry is not good, and what’s worse, it’s ungenerous.

I intend to cover more celebrity books of poetry for All That Glitters features anyway. I ain’t done yet. And whether you’re laughing or crying, I hope you’ll keep reading them, too. Why?

While it’s lamentable that bad and mediocre poetry written by famous folks gets such an enormous market share while better poets languish, I think that taking a serious look at what “mainstream” poetry has been and is might give us a chance to shape what it can be. And I hope that we can continue to foreground work that speaks bravely, genuinely, and honestly and lift up the voices of those who have no platform and not just those who’ve been on stage for 30 years.

Pop Palate Cleanser

Another rocker who has written poetry is Armenian-American System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian. Tankian was born in Lebanon, and all four of his grandparents survived the Armenian genocide. After immigrating to Los Angeles as a child, Tankian formed System of a Down in 1994. Tankian’s 2002 book, Cool Gardens, was originally self-published before being re-published by MTV Books (an imprint that’s being relaunched by Simon & Schuster in the near future, interestingly).

What I admire about the poetry of Cool Gardens is its clarity of expression: a polar opposite to Corgan’s fuzzy, dissociative writing. Where Corgan strives to signal to the reader that he is writing poetry and knows what he’s doing even as he falters and bores us, Tankian writes with a rawer plainspokenness that verges into real beauty at times. He also openly addresses political themes in his writing and continues to engage in activism to recognize the Armenian genocide and promote peace around the world.

I’m planning to take a deeper dive into Cool Gardens and Glaring Through Oblivion in a future post, but for now, check out this video from 2006 that features Tankian reading a poem from his first book.

P. S.

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