Saturday, December 02, 2006

Anagrams After OuLiPo by Kevin McFadden

Here is another one of those “is this poetry?!” posts. *grin*

Today I will share two poems by Kevin McFadden which first appeared in an online poetry journal, Archipelago (Volume 6, No. 1). There are a great many things to say about these poems, and especially to comment on what the poet says about them in an interview in the following issue of the journal. Then, there is the connection with OuLiPo, which I will leave for the reader to explore—there were many other interesting poems at Archipelago but it was the reference to OuLiPo which intrigued me and led me to these poems; they are a fascinating group that have produced some very interesting work, and I was thrilled to find these:
“Variations Against The Credo Of Raving Saviours”
(In the manner of the OuLiPo) by Kevin McFadden

To be great is to be misunderstood.
I bet it’s true, Emerson. Too bad. God’s
too big to estimate, dress unrobed.
Greatness is to dote, bob, dim out, re-
store, ebb, a too-odd gesture in mist,
to grab onto tidbits (seed, ore, muse)
and gibber. O tides, O meteors, totus
orbis, mein Gott, déesse
, art, O doubt,
Tao, dross, bromides, bite tongue! Et
tu, Emerson? So it’s great to be odd, bi-
odegrade into ribs, testtubes. Moo
to be tiger misunderstood, O beast,
O song mistreated. So be it. But doer,
deed are one big orbit. Toss utmost
reason out, it’d better be good. (Miss
most, but so?) A desire to be God inert,
to be soirée absurd, totems doting
in sedate bedroom grottoes. But is
it great to be so misunderstood, be
moot? outside sense? to brag dirt? Be
modest bores? to diatribe tongues
tied? Dog mottoes, rabbit neuroses:
sit, be obedient, taste good. Rumors
run aside doom, boost getters, bite
gottens. Bid me adieu. Boots resort
to ties, bodies but to Emerson. Drag
mud in. Obsess. Edit rot. To be great
is not “odd I,” “obstruse me.” To be great
is to resent to be misread, but good.
“The credo of raving saviours” is, of course, “to be great is to be misunderstood” and what Kevin McFadden did was—masterfully; it's not as easy at it sounds—to construct a poem from anagrams (“variations”) of that line.

His anagram-poems were published in Archipelago (Vol.6, No. 1) and in the next issue of the online journal, there is an interview where he describes the process:
Usually I take a line of this monolithic dimension, something we’ve heard so often it’s recognizable. Something we know so well or, if it is contemporary, something I think we will one day know so well it is taken as a kind of proverb. Then, I begin taking it apart at its letters, seeing what arises, and let it rebuild itself into a new form. Each line has to have the same combination of letters, exactly, as any other line. It is my hope that when a poem begins “There’s nothing new under the sun” and ends “There in the unsung, wonder’s then” that we’ve tried to move a monument. Or at least graffiti on the monument’s other side. There are other times I choose a line I love and continue to riff on it. Usually by the end of an anagram poem you can tell whether, like some classical sonnets, the introductory arguments have been challenged or incorporated. Other times I withhold the seminal line until the end, or introduce it in the middle. Each has different effects.
So that's how McFadden rearranged the oft-quoted phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “to be great is to be misunderstood” into “ I bet it’s true, Emerson. Too bad. God’s...” and then to continue with variation after variation, in a playful dialogue with the line itself, working and reworking the original meaning of the line through it's variations. The result is line after line, each in an innate and intricate conversation which each other.

Pretty slick, isn't it?

Sure, the poem sounds nonsensical. In fact, it's a bit like tapping into the stream of consciousness of an inmate at a mental asylum—or, as Kevin McFadden might put it, in a dyslexic state-of-mind—but it reminds me of Lewis Carrol's famous “Jabberwocky”,
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

[...]
Like many others who have fallen in love with the poem, when I first read “Jabberwocky” I had this weird feeling that although who knows what 'borogoves' are and what it means to be 'mimsy', I could still understand that there was a story. Every time I read “Jabberwocky” I am transported into the mind of a three-year old boy being told a bedtime story, but who does not yet understand fully everything that he hears.

And this is what it was like reading Kevin McFadden's anagram poems. Immediately they take me into a dreamlike state, making cascades of free-associations, letting the words take me wherever they want. In another poem, “Variations On Having Done It Again”, for example, I found a nice surprise at the end:
I like drama eaten in.
Lake air. I need a mint.
I like a dinner, a tame
Ariel diet, a.k.a., in men.

I like a dent, a marine
mania. I drink eel tea,
mandarin tea, i.e., like
karate, a lime, dine-in

linen. I take Madeira.
Make it adrenaline. I,
real Medea, I, anti-kin:
alienate me. I drink a

martini. A keen Delia
(I mean Ideal). Ink tear
in a tinker. A made-lie
in a limeade. In a trek,

a dreamlike tie-in, an
entree. I’m Kali. Naiad
(I mean Diana) reel kit.
Like in Ariadne. Mate

like a tread-in (I mean
meat) inner Aïda, like
a like. (I mean trade-in.)
I like a maiden rent, a

Lear kinda matinee. (I
mean real kinda.) I tie
inner kite, I, dame a la

Iliad. Tie an arm, knee.
Tie ankle. I marinade
And I eat men like air.
...Or maybe not such a nice surprise (“And I eat men like air”, italicized, is the original phrase.)

The poems, whimsical as they are, seem magical in the way they slip between sense and non-sense, and they are important (to me, at least) in the way that they reveal and explore the possibilities that a seemingly innocous phrase can offer in meaning. I have tried making one myself, and failed miserably ("I am the madcap machinist:Ha ha! dim semantic impact"), making me appreciate all the more the difficulty in mastering the craft of poetry, particu larly if one were to write 'something new, something you'—to borrow McFadden's phrase: like moving a monument. The poems seem to function outside of the rules of ordinary language, all in a peculiar logic of their own, and we are taken along for the ride. This has led me to believe that this is not just poetry— this is art (whatever you may call that!)

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7 Comments:

Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Whooaaa... This is just brilliant. Thanks for sourcing out such interesting stuff.

I must say OuLiPo is really avant guardist (perhaps because I heard of them before) and also very much postmodern.

Jabblewocky. Haha... maybe one day we should debate what the words may 'mean', though obviously they don't exactly 'mean'. It would be fun seeing how we 'intepret' and second guess based on the sounds of words.

Thanks Machinist, as ever.

6:51 PM, December 02, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

oops, typo, I haven't heard of them before

6:52 PM, December 02, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

thanks for this machinist. i just bought a book on OuLiPo by Motte, but am finding it a bit theoretical na academic. plan to buy the OuLiPo handbook which i think is more accessible.

the whole idea of OuLiPo fascinates me. i've tried out one or two exercises - there's one where write down a friend of loved one's name one's name and then take the letters as the only alphabet you can use. you make a long list of possible works and then string them together in a poem. of course those with malay and indian names would ahve an advantage over those with chinese names!

i love these anagrams - the second especially. and am thinking i'd like to try this too!

the strange papradox is, that the more you try to put creativity into a box, the more our imaginations make incredible leaps. poems which follow specific forms (sonnet, pantun, limerick, haiku) also have us twisting in on ourselves.

6:48 PM, December 15, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

I'm glad you liked these, but am surprised that both of you haven't heard about OuLiPo. I had studied some of their works at uni, particularly for their influence on postmodern art.

And as for constraints... yes, I believe that it's true that too much freedom can be bad for creativity. Having rules is useful, especially when you have a 'blank page'problem. In fact, there's a quote I keep on my desktop that reminds me of this, from the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky that goes: "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit... the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution."

6:38 AM, December 18, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

yeah stravinsky might say that ... but in classical music the equivalent to OuLiPo (isn't Schoenberg's "twelve tone row" a kind of equivalent?) almost lost it an audience ... classical music became too abstract for people to enjoy ...

i have big gaps in my knowledge, machinist, this was a a surprisingly big one!

6:17 AM, December 19, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ah yes! thanks for the link. schoenberg brings back some jarring memories. when it came to programmatic music I got rather lost and abandoned that field.

well, we can safely say that PP is doing a lot for us... i'm getting new poetry books regularly now too and keep discovering new stuff all the time.

7:44 AM, December 19, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Wow, this is mind-blowing stuff, postmodernism in art and music... HUGE GAPS in my knowledge.

Machinist, I have so much to learn from you.

PP's effect on us. Haha, what a pleasure to know that. I'm discovering many new poets, and though it's a pity that buying poetry books is expensive in Malaysia, at least we can share with each other the poets and poems we have either read or are in our collection.

12:33 AM, December 20, 2006  

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