Poetry of the Real: Six Feet Over

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

You quite often see poetry used in contemporary culture in interesting and creative ways. For example, just last week I heard some Emily Dickinson used in the Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Tristan & Yseult at the Sydney Festival, and I’m pretty sure I heard a line from Larkin in Jerry Springer The Opera which was shown here recently. What is a lot less common, I think, is to find what one might call the poetic, or the poetry of the real, in actual television shows. Some would say that all television is poetic in the sense that it heightens the aesthetic experience in ways that can intensify viewing and listening pleasure. The mordant satire of The Simpsons or the social comedy of Frasier or Seinfeld is television of a very sophisticated and pleasurable kind. However, programs that get through to the wound of living and are equal to the realities of how we know our lives to be are much rarer.

Six Feet Under is surely one of the most effective television series from this viewpoint. Here is the poetry of the real, written and produced to entertain, but getting very close to the place where poetry lives. True, the poetry is often near to incomprehension, pain and disillusionment. There are no one-liners to relieve the cataclysms in the heart. From the very opening shots, with their intimations of Poe’s ‘Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’’ (or is it Macbeth?), and the necessary death we witness at the commencement of each episode, we are put in the way of the strangeness and unpredictability of death, and therefore of the strangeness and unpredicability of our lives.

It is a very important creative achievement to bring about this kind of intensification for five seasons of programming. Here, I feel, there are characters who could walk out of the screen and I would recognise them as of my own kind and time. They speak truly, and their silences are true too. And I like the way the characters change our perceptions of them, how our reactions to them vary. Brenda Chenowith, for example, can seem liberated and perceptive, and then self-obsessed and narcissistic—not quite the same thing. Claire’s adolescent wilfulness can be irritating until we remember we were just like that not so very long ago. But Claire is also strong enough to resist the commodifications that want to turn her generation into mindless consumers. Just as David Fisher’s forbearance is of the kind we know is needed to get through, so too you sometimes want to shout at the screen for him to tell Keith where to get off. The southern Californian skies may not be our milieu, and we may not take as many hard substances as the Fisher family and their friends do, but all the same, these people are like us with their desire and hope, their frailty and strength. There are no saints here, just people getting through the rhythm of their days, aiming for good, and often falling short. Alan Ball and his production team have done the most effective job in conveying the wing of their joys and discontents. The program has to be packaged as entertainment, but it is entertainment of the first order where there has been no compromise to get ratings points.

There is one aspect of this program that wouldn’t necessarily strike the average viewer the same way it would an independent writer like myself: the fact that Fisher & Sons is an independent business, trying to survive against the onslaught of Kroehner Service International and the shark-toothed Mitzi who is always waiting to devour the Fisher family in her maw. I have often felt every sympathy for Ruth Fisher and for the ghost of Nathanial Fisher who makes unpredictable sorties in the psyche, especially of elder son Nate. They held onto an independent family business for all their working lives, and it has often looked like the business was going to be swallowed up in some capitalist conglomeration. The poet Joseph Brodsky once wrote that some poets store up malice as a kind of life insurance. They have little to give except their bile, and rampant verse offerings. The equivalent of Kroehner Service International is well and truly alive in the arts. David and Nate have to fight off attempts to take over their business at every turn, and so far they have succeeded. Federico, their brilliant mortician who gets people looking as good in death as they ever did in life, also wants in on the action, and he is properly put out when, earlier in the series, the Fishers don’t seem to have any time left over for his ambitions. I think this solidarity against the predatory and levelling tendencies of capitalism in its late phase partly-explains the appeal of Six Feet Under to so many different kinds of viewers, just as each of the characters summons up some aspects of our own lives which can be as inspiring as Ruth’s willingness to shed her old skins or as strange as Brenda’s psychiatrist parents’ shenanigans.

To me, this series attains what is very close to a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, where all the contributory factors—the writing, the music, the acting, the sets, the editing—go to make the cathartic whole. SFU is one of those productions against which subsequent series which aim at dramatic credibility will be judged. One can’t, and shouldn’t, go around all the time with your head in aesthetic clouds. A series like Six Feet Under brings you down to earth with a thump, but the kind of thump where poetry can be real for you, and the words spoken and the feelings experienced transcend the passing moment, and you, as viewer, go through to another level of acceptance or recognition; you are somewhere beyond the crassness that some contemporary culture insists is your due. And you are over, at least six feet over, all that detritus and failure.


        Poem Of The Real

Child soldiers of sex slaves
Cut off lips with razors.
Time for some aesthetics.

Ocean rears from bad dreaming,
Swallowing your family whole.
What about hermaneutics?

Poem of the real is this world
Spun in violent fractals.
Insoluble acrostic.

Written 2005