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”“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.
(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.
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 tovesLike 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.
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
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....Or maybe not such a nice surprise (“And I eat men like air”, italicized, is the original phrase.)
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.
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!)