Television writers are writers, so you might expect that they’d have some sense of how the larger world of literature functions, but Transparent’s attempt to put together a poem worthy of The New Yorker would seem to indicate otherwise. I’m three episodes into the fourth season of the show and so far, it’s continuing to deliver its particular blend of poignance and absurdity that can only come about via its messy, solipsistic characters’ attempts to self-actualize.
But a major plot point of the second episode, which ultimately drives Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffman) to flee the country, rang pretty false for me. Ali finds out from her fellow graduate students that Leslie Mackinaw (Cherry Jones), the poetry professor with whom she had an affair, has, after years of rejection, finally published a poem in The New Yorker.
She reads the poem aloud, which is always one of those, “Hey! This is TV!” moments for me, like when someone’s phone number starts with 555. Below, I’ve reproduced to the best of my ability Leslie’s poem, which is apparently worthy of publication in one of the most respected and widely-read high-brow magazines in the world:
My Ali, My Garcon
Garcon. Garcon, you cried,
and I came running with my bad old knees.
Little white towel starched perfectly over my arm,
not knowing the mess that awaited me.
You were a child without a booster chair
wanting to play garcon.
You were so cute when you asked,
I said, ‘Yes ma’am, of course.
No problem, right away. ‘
I didn’t know that you had the intellect of a commoner,
the smarts of a wooden clog
Eclipsed by your pedigree
You stupid girl
Your pussy ate the salad fork
then the dessert fork
then the fork-fork
You gorged, then walked away
I mean… you don’t have to have an MFA to recognize this as a truly appalling piece of writing, at once obvious and incoherent, not to mention the work of someone whose goal is to exact revenge on an ex rather than, say, shine a light on what it means to be human or even just craft a striking image.
Leslie is based on the actually good poet Eileen Myles, who really did strive for decades to break into The New Yorker. She did, in 2015—you can read the poem here—and while it might not be your cup of tea, there’s nary a “fork-fork” to be found.
The misfire of a scene reminded me of another show’s total failure to understand how getting into a prestige publication like The New Yorker works. In 2007, a first season episode of Gossip Girl featured proto-hipster Dan Humphrey having a short story accepted for the magazine’s “20 Under 20” issue. (Gawker has an “excerpt” of the story here. RIP Gawker.)
Perhaps even funnier than the premise of a random teenager getting into The New Yorker is the idea that they’d even have a “20 Under 20” issue, as though what middle-aged Upper West Siders really want isn’t medium-funny humor written by Frank Rich’s son or “Talk of the Town” pieces about what Judy Collins eats for breakfast, but an elevated version of Highlights for Children.
Anyway, we all know that when Dan grew up he abandoned his writing dream, got a job at Y Combinator, and today spends his evenings doing blow and cheating on Serena with women that look like his childhood friend and true love, Vanessa.