Many red devils ran from my heart
And out upon the page.
They were so tiny
The pen could mash them.
And many struggled in the ink.
It was strange
To write in this red muck
Of things from my heart.
As far back as Stephen Crane's The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895), the idea that mediocre bards had exhausted, abused and rendered meaningless the art of poetry has motivated writers to produce their own epitaphs for the genre.
Crane would go so far as to eschew the term "poems" in favor of "lines" in the title of his most famous collection, a choice no doubt meant to help him avoid the dubious label of, well, "poet." The overwhelming power and reputation of his novels (Maggie, The Red Badge of Courage) and short stories ("The Open Boat") did more to seal his legend. Upon his death at 28, he was highly regarded in the literary world. He then fell into obscurity for years until being rediscovered by the Modernists, who appreciated all the wrong things in his work.
The correct thing to admire in Crane's lines is a dark, twisted sense of humor. It's the same quality one should admire in Tucson anti-bard Michael Frissore's recently published (and, at $13.95, too pricey) chapbook Poetry Is Dead. Like Crane, Frissore takes pleasure in spearing sacred cows and, as in the opening poem, "Untitleist," eating those cows. He also seems to get off by including phrases like "Vietnamese spin fuck chair" in what are otherwise carefully crafted stanzas. What a weirdo.
A very funny weirdo, however. Case in point is "Coffee," which plumbs the imaginative, pop- culture-informed depths of caffeine addiction:
I would kiss Juan Valdez's burro
square on the lips
for just one sip
of that Colombian goodness.
I'd slaughter the Folgers couple
and their children just to lick
the top of a used coffee mug.
Frissore's ability to compress so many violations into a couple of stanzas is either shameful or splendid. Either way, one wonders which transgression might be worse: burro-smooching, mass murder or licking random java containers? Perhaps the most revolting aspect is the William Carlos Williams referencing in this and other poems like, say, "Cookie":
Cookie crumbs fall
like rain onto your
blouse, red as
So that flowers
may bloom from
said blouse like
When he's not paying humorous, candy-crazed, foul-mouthed homage to Modernist masters, he's picking on his co-workers, as he does in "There's a Guy in My Office Named Scott Peterson." ("If it were I," writes Frissore, "I would change my name/to Prescott, or maybe Norm.")
If poetry represents, for the rest of us, a way of transcending the reality of everyday existence, Poetry Is Dead chooses to kill off any flicker of possible transcendence. Every stanza is anchored to the mundane and its inherent mirth, and seemingly composed during coffee breaks inside a corporate office park. Or maybe even during work hours, for as the poem "Cubicle" reveals:
I am not a poet.
I just sit here with my
hand sanitizer and Blistex Lip Medex,
surfing through XM music channels
and eating Skittles that a co-worker
I hope he uses hand sanitizer.
Ba-da-dump! Relying on punch lines suggests Frissore aligns himself with a long tradition of anti-bards—those writers who enjoy taking the piss out of poetry—that stretches all the way back to Crane, then moves forward to the late Charles Bukowski, and now carries on with literary pariah Joe Pachinko.
While it may upset anyone who takes poetry way too seriously, Poetry Is Dead will enliven the rest of us who are tired of the same old stuffy verse and enjoy seeing it die an inglorious death. Also, it will make us feel sorry for Frissore's poor co-workers.