In the introduction to The Ancient Book of Hip, D.W. Lichtenberg states his purpose: “This book is a documentation, a case study, an oral history, or whatever you want to call it.” It attempts to document “the phenomenon of hip,” the twenty-something trust-funders who moved to urban areas, specifically Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at the turn of the twenty-first century. What follows are poems that capture the New York School sprezzetura of Frank O’Hara.
Written in direct, plain-spoken language and capturing the idioms of the young (“you know how you always say I never tell you anything? / Like, I don’t know, about my problems or something”), they portray the everyday for what it is: sometimes banal, sometimes monumental. There is a casualness to this collection, even when addressing serious issues, like in “Two Things,” which also has a visual element, incorporating sketches and text in black boxes placed alongside typewritten notes seemingly taped to the page. Even amongst party poems, like “Poem For Jon,” there is a weight to the words: “We pretend to understand / each other / and therefore do.” Throughout the collection, there are two opposite tendencies at work – there is an optimism and idealism, quickly followed by dismissal or mocking of that optimism. As the speaker notes in “Poem For Jon”:
It was always like that.
And New Years was always
Resolutions were always for people
who like disappointments.
Lichtenberg isn’t observing this “phenomenon of hip” from the outside; he’s living it. And the book, with its Belle & Sebastian epigraph and its shout-outs to Isaac Brock and Jeff Tweedy in the acknowledgements, isn’t so much a secondary documentation of some thing as it is an original document. Capturing a time before the financial crisis, a time before AdBusters declared the hipster to be the end of western civilization, Lichtenberg shows that amongst the affect there were genuine emotions, genuine pain and heartache. There was more to this phenomenon than just partying, though there was a good deal of that too.