Poetry has a history. It was something then. It is something now. Leave aside the possibility that a structure of rhythm and rhyme may once have been useful or necessary as a memory aid:
Thirtey days hath November,
Aprile, June, and September:
Of twyecescore-eightt is but eine,
And all the remnante be thrycescore-eine.
O'course Leap yare comes an'pynes,
Ev'rie foure yares, gote it ryghth.
An'twyecescore-eight is but twyecescore-nyne.1
Leave aside all speculation about beauty being truth,2 about "conciseness, echoes and resonances,"3 or about "saving power from itself."4 Every poem is just a bunch of words, and any bunch of words might be a poem. Like all art, poetry exists on a continuum: between "Whose woods these are I think I know..."5 and "I know who owns these fuckin' woods..." are more than a few cultural expectations, different sorts of pleasure or pain, and who-knows-what-else that might be tickled in any given cerebral cortex. To the extent that it tricks the brain into feelings or even knowledge not exactly contained in the mere meaning of the words, poetry might be characterized as deceptive. And that is why it is possible to take pleasure in poetry. Not in spite of the fact that, but precisely because, it is willfully and transparently deceptive.
The more recent a poem — the farther it is from having been conceived in a state of naiveté or promoted as a useful modality — the more deceitful it must be. But that hardly ensures that recent poetry is increasingly pleasurable. We get bored; our initial interest in new modes of expression quickly sours, and so we enter an epoch where the search for new modes of expression becomes predictable and the production of poetry becomes, ipso facto, cynical. To escape this cycle of boredom and cynicism, the contemporary poem must either link itself to some other medium so that the risk of boredom is reduced — the fine arts, dance, and music are the most obvious choices — or else contort its content and form so that it can address, exploit, and embrace precisely the cynical context in which it languishes and which it cannot, in any event, escape.
The poems in this anthology all subscribe to the latter strategy. Like Le Corbusier's Modulor, famously described by Einstein as a "scale of proportions which makes the bad difficult and the good easy,"6 these poems cynically exploit a structural device that also "makes the bad difficult and the good easy." This poetic tool is deceptively simple and cynically efficient. Every poem in the collection has the same literal content: 144 letters based on a probabilistic distribution of the alphabet as determined by the award-winning creators of the anagram game, Bananagrams®.
Using this fixed set of letters, no conventional poem can be made. Every instinct to be trite, or clever, or predictable, or even to make sense, is frustrated and sabotaged. As a direct result, boredom is impossible, or at least made "difficult"; and the poems that emerge are inevitably "good," if not necessarily "easy."
All other prior poetic structures can now be clearly seen for what they are. Rules constraining rhythm or meter — whether deployed to create sonnets or haikus — are simply too open-ended. Their alleged formal discipline still permits the freedom to create meaning and purposeful expression, so that all such poems become inherently incompatible with modern taste. There are just too many rhyming words in the English language, and too many alternative linguistic formulations, for any rhythmic or metrical constraint to pose a serious challenge or offer any real resistance.
But try making sense when you've run out of the letter "t," or when you are forced to deploy your last "q." All conventional instinct and precedent become immediately useless. In fact, reference to any familiar mode of communication comes to a screeching halt. Yet it is not just the challenge to coherence that makes these poems astounding. It is the simultaneous transparency of the artists' struggles and the cynicism of their attempts, that gives these poems an appeal that is at once visceral and intellectual.
1 A medieval version of the famous rhyming poem.
2 George Keats,"Ode on a Grecian Urn," 1819
3 Damaris West
4 John Kennedy, "Poetry and Power," The Atlantic, February, 1964
5 Robert Frost, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," 1923
6 The Einstein quote is deliberately taken out of context by Le Corbusier in his 1958 edition of Le Modulor. Le Corbusier pretends that Einstein is endorsing his proportional system when, in fact, Einstein is only politely paraphrasing what Le Corbusier has told him (the full quote goes something like this: "So, as I understand it, what you're saying is that this Modulor is a scale of proportions which makes...").
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First posted 29 June 2015; last updated: 24 July 2015