Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The List Poem

In the list poem the poet, or writer, in a very Duchampian way drags the reader into making certain associations based on the context provided by the list.

Marcel Duchamp, by placing a hat rack on a string and hanging it from the ceiling took an object and rechristened it as something else entirely, an activity at which he excelled. It’s easy to see when looking up that the wooden hat rack, suspended, has taken on a life of its own. Duchamp was the source of so many artistic currents it’s difficult to keep track, but that would make a good list. His 1936 “Coeurs Volants,” for example prefigured Op Art by decades.

List poems hang from a contextual ceiling of sorts and, taken together as a group, these disparate items sometimes have an unpretentiousness to them that’s really unique because they exist minus all the aesthetic baggage of the typical poem. The only rules are that there are no “rules” to writing a good list. I guess the structure should exist as a numbered, vertical series versus a list separated by punctuation written as a paragraph only because that could be misconstrued as a catalog. Rhyme can sometimes hold a list together, or not, and it sometimes helps for the list to either ascend or descend into a culmination of some topic or else to devolve into near chaos, so that it’s understood why the ultimate item belongs there and nowhere else on the list. The pressure to provide some gradation as the list progresses can lead to either laughs or a rejection of the list, because it’s nearly impossible to read an effective list without judging the list against a mental tally of what the reader supposes is the “real” or more authentic order, based on his or her own experiences and preferences. Examples include James Tate's "The List of Famous Hats" and Ted Berrigan's "Ten Things I do Every Day." Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” was written between 1758 and 1763, largely while Smart bided his time in a madhouse. “Jubilate Agno” is only a list in the sense that nearly all the lines begin with “For” or “Let.” And where else could we find one of the best lines of poetry in existence?

Tho' toad I am the object of man's hate.
Yet better am I than a reprobate, who has the worst of prospects.

Other examples include James Tate's "The List of Famous Hats" and Ted Berrigan's "Ten Things I Do Every Day." Listverse.com is a good source of lists, but not necessarily list poems, serious or otherwise. Send me a list poem as a comment and I’ll put it up.

Here’s one from Listverse.com

Top Ten Books that Changed America
10. Leaves of Grass
9. The Clansman
8. The Grapes of Wrath
7. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
6. Silent Spring
5. Native Son
4. A Vindication of the Rights of Women
3. The Jungle
2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
1. Common Sense

This top top ten all-time rock performances is complete with You Tube clips, which is a nice touch, although The Ramones playing “Commando” on any given night at CBGBs in the late 70s should be included, or Bob Dylan playing “Maggie’s Farm” at Newport. My top ten rock/jazz/reggae moments?

10. Lou Reed, Chicago, IL (Navy Pier)
9. Brainiac, Dayton, OH (Canal Street Tavern)
8. Samla Mammas Manna, Chicago, IL (Schubas)
7. Kiss, Dayton, OH (Hara Arena)
6. Beenie Man, Negril, Jamaica (Bourbon Beach)
5. Elvis Costello, Chicago, IL (Grant Park)
4. Pharoah Sanders, Chicago, IL (Jazz Showcase)
3. English Beat, Chicago, IL (Abbey Pub)
2. Sonic Youth, Cincinnati, OH (Bogart’s)
1. Arthur Lee/Love, Chicago, IL (Park West)

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