Poker and Postmodernism: The Cards I’m Playing

It was a lyric I loved when I was a teenager, from a song called “Gettin’ In Tune”, an off-track on the Who’s album Who’s Next:

I’m singing this note ’cause it fits in well with the cards I’m playing …

I understood this as songwriter Pete Townshend’s admission of his own guile as a creative artist. This admission is different from the common attitude of self-consciousness, often found in meta-fictional works, in which an author pins his or her self like a butterfly on the corkboard of their prose as an ironic alternative focus of narrative awareness. You can find that stuff everywhere (Auster, Eggers, Wallace), but lately I’m more interested in meta-fiction where the author’s self is not passive but active, where the writer is openly plotting to attack us (the readers) as we read.

I’m talking about the endless poker match between reader and writer. This is the game we play as we read. What is the writer holding back, what is the writer bluffing, what is the writer about to lay down? And how far will the reader ride, and when will the reader fold (as I’ve folded many books) and how far can the writer go before the reader will catch a fatal bluff? It’s in this spirit that I loved this lyric. “I’m singing this note ’cause it fits in well with the cards I’m playing”. I assumed Townshend was talking about his techniques, his “power plays” as an author, which in his case seemed to include the following: emotional vulnerability (Tommy), humor (A Quick One), bluntness (My Generation), spirituality (Pure and Easy). It thrilled me to hear the artist refer to these “cards”, to admit that his process of songwriting was not only an act of sincere expression but also an act of creative, manipulative guile.

Of course, I later learned that the actual lyric was this much more mundane one:

I’m singing this note ’cause it fits in well with the chords I’m playing

… which is sadly much less impressive. Oh well! Still, when I watch a movie or listen to a song or read a book I often think about the cards the artist is playing.

In movies, David Lynch is a great bluffer, with the most hilarious poker face you’ve ever seen.

In music, Bob Dylan is the supreme liar, the one always going for the long trap, the one whose next move you’ll never guess.

In literature? Well, I think Raymond Carver is the great weak-bluffer. His stories always seem to be aimlessly drifting until he suddenly drops that last page that kills you (and you realize he’s been planning that all along). Jack Kerouac pretended not to be a poker player — the scroll was his proof of sincerity — but of course he plays hole cards like “God is Pooh-bear” after all the bets are in, like any good writer would. Henry James is the old guy who beats you so slow you barely see it happening, but in the end he’s certainly won. Current writers? Well, no matter which book of his I’m reading, when I’m in the middle of an Orhan Pamuk novel I can never guess what the hell his next move will be. He could be the new Phil Hellmuth.

This has been brought to you by the LitKicks Department of poker metaphors in literature. Deal ’em up, good hand.

5 Responses

  1. sleight of handI’m reading a
    sleight of hand

    I’m reading a wonderfully entertaining book by Milan Kundera called Immortality. I had to check it out after Jamelah named it as her favorite novel here on Litkicks recently.

    I would say that Kundera writes like the poker player who is so good, he will even show you the cards he’s holding, and still play his hand so masterfully that you can’t help being impressed. He definitely deals with a meta-deck.

  2. I’m right here with you,
    I’m right here with you, Billectric.

    Immortality is one of those perfect novels where Kundera tells you exactly what is happening and what will happen, and yet, everything is still a surprise.

    Another Kundera story I enjoy almost as much as Immortality is his play Jcaques and his Master (a variation of Jacques the Fatalist). Kundera is, in my opinion, one of the best modern writers (and one of the best of all time)and he forces me to read and write from all different angles.

  3. Before Immortality I read
    Before Immortality I read Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. Very inspiring!

  4. House o’Eloquent and
    House o’

    Eloquent and enjoyable post — thank you. The full lyric in question is:

    I’m singing this note ’cause it fits in well
    With the chords I’m playing
    I can’t pretend there’s any meaning here
    Or in the things I’m saying

    Take care.

    By the way, they call these misheard lyrics “mondegreens.” Probably the most famous is: “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” Yes, Jimi…


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