Can Rock Stars Teach Poets?


Stuck in the rhizome: Anne Waldman and Thurston Moore at Naropa

by Logan K. Young

Remember this: Thurston Moore came to New York City to be a poet.

Tired of driving his old man’s Volkswagen down from Connecticut, it was Gotham Book Mart, not CBGB, that convinced him to make the move in 1977. Bohemia had put down roots on the Lower East Side; Moore was sure he’d blossom.

Yes, the spectre of Suicide at Max’s Kansas City, the promise of Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, et al. at Artists Space were amenities, especially for the blighted isle Mayor-elect Koch had just won. But it was readings at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery by the likes of Paul Blackburn, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Bernadette Mayer, Eileen Myles, and apropos, Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman that Moore wanted most to hear.

Soon enough, à la Patti Smith, he would learn you could be both.

Despite everything he’s since achieved in the sounding realm, Thurston Moore can’t help but surround himself with words to be spoken. Ten volumes in, his Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal has published everyone from John Sinclair and Tuli Kupferberg to Jack Brewer and Ian MacKaye to Matthew Wascovich and Twig Harper. Meanwhile, his fresh cut, newly-minted Flowers & Creme Press aspires to this same kind of Catholicism, as his personal archive of chapbooks, broadsides and other poetic ephemera spills out his Northampton, Massachusetts home.

Moore wants to be a poet. Still.

To wit, some three-and-a-half decades post-émigré, it was words once more that brought Thurston Moore to Boulder, Colorado.

For the second summer now, Prof. Moore has sat on the faculty of The Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. A private, Buddhist-inspired institution (dwarfed by the University of Colorado’s 30,000 co-eds at the top of 4/20 Hill), back in the Sixties, naturally, Naropa was ground zero for the Beats―better yet, a nirvana at 5,000 feet above the sea. For Ginsberg and his “spiritual wife” Anne Waldman, Appalachia’s Black Mountain College wasn’t high enough. With the blessing of Shambhala tülku Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, this first Beatific couple chartered The Kerouac School at Naropa in 1974.

It’s a long and winding haul, however, from the green rooms of rock up to the Rockies’ ivory tower. Whereas Moore has been one of modern verse’s most tireless advocates, his l’éminence rousse he’s certainly not. Indeed. Bereft of a baccalaureate even, he never will be. A proud autodidact, if Moore’s seated appointment next to a crotchety activist like Amiri Baraka made for a strange dais, you should have heard the strangulated strains of “Ono Soul” bookended by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Caroline Bergvall’s Vortrag Über HU and the uncreative stylings of WFMU-cum-UbuWeb’s Kenneth Goldsmith.

Luckily, apropos of the archive, fellow student Cherie Hansen caught Moore on tape:

Because this is poetry, here’s both tenor and vehicle: inviting Thurston Moore to speak at a collegiate symposium is like having Dean Moriarty sit in with Bill Nace. And, ostensibly, since this here is my review, suffice it to say that, in the classroom, Thurston Moore was hardly an “O Captain! My Captain.”

As every gig has a set list, so, too, did Moore’s course, “Caught On Tape,” have a syllabus. Of sorts. Tangent only to digression, Monday’s meeting began with Moore rambling on about a life in poesie. His is a curious life, and while heady stories with heavy names (e.g. Raymond Pettibon, Clark Coolidge, Neil Young, Gerard Malanga… Loutallica) were dropped at random, they never sounded insincere.

Three hours later, the bell rang with 15 students penning verse reactions to Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun emptying out of Moore’s MacBook.

“Bees on wind/wind round the room/pause to listen/listening to listener,” the professor, himself, scribbled.

“Untitled,” Thurston Moore

Ibid for Tuesday’s class, only it was Richard Hell and the Voidoid’s “Love Comes In Spurts” that played the muse.

“Why you are like a puppy/biting a hole into my panties/ … /haven’t turned Television/on forever,” Moore wrote this time.

“A Tiny Score,” Thurston Moore

Wednesday was a free day, except for the MFA candidates required to meet with Moore for a critique proper. Such is higher education. Thursday, though, became a free-for-all, replete with a cadavre exquis recorded in the very studio where Harry Smith squatted out his waning years. With Ambrose Bye (only son of Anne Waldman and Reed Bye) behind the board, the class took turns hollering their Brötzmann & Hell lyrics while the teacher made good on noise guitar.


“Floor Routine”

No, Wittengenstein never heard such a word game.

Friday’s class, devoted to sound poetry, favored more structure. In fact, it was the only meeting where Moore felt compelled to reference a source other than himself. That source? Julian Cowley’s primer for The Wire (Issue #339) some enterprising student-poet had shown him the day before.

“Fumms bö wö tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwii Ee” Moore pronounced, in his best Kurt Schwitters.

Not surprisingly, Professor Thurston J. Moore gave no final examination.

Ultimately, it was Moore’s, and Moore’s alone, unique dichotomy of rock star demagogue and unbridled fan of poetry that made his class worth the audit. Scansion, simile, synecdoche―such elements of praxis are lost on Thurston Moore, as they would any experimental jet set trash dressed up in academic tweed. But as a living link from Rimbaud to Richard Hell, Burroughs to, most recently, each member of Twilight, perhaps there’s no one more qualified, at least via syllogism, to helm a summer stock seminar at Naropa.

Of course, that’s precisely why he’s been invited back to Boulder as a third-time charmer in 2013; exegesis is selling-out, man.

“Rock stars can’t be poets/which sucks,” goes Moore’s laconic lament in By The Lightswitch, his brand new communiqué from the aptly named, Mondo Bummer. Alas, save for Dylan or maybe David Berman, they cannot. (And next to major label tripe from a Jewel or a Billy Corgan, some stars really shouldn’t shine.)

Call Thurston’s complaint, then, Moore’s Law. Regardless, after 35 years trying, it’s clear that this Moore isn’t going to stand for anything less.

In the end, perhaps his own poetic justice is a non-credit course best served late.

Sonic Youth―“Down By The Riverside.”

All photographs by Logan K. Young

About the Author:

Logan K. Young’s words have appeared everywhere, from the Baltimore Sun to The Brooklyn Rail to Paris Transatlantic. In 2011, he served as Editorial Director for the CMJ Music Marathon & Film Festival; later this year, he’ll be a fellow at the Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program at the University of Southern California. A lapsed student of the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, Young’s gone on to pen lyrics for the band Run DMT. His book, Mauricio Kagel: A Semic Life, is available now.