Cheap poetry: A manifesto

Last Monday was my daughter’s birthday, and the Birthday Troll came again this year, in the night, to steal her presents, hide them in the woods, and leave riddles as clues to their whereabouts. He’s like Santa Claus for curmudgeons, and considerably more entertaining, not to mention one isn’t bound by the Byzantine mythology of popular culture and corporate marketing. The riddles are after the fashion of old English rhyming riddles, like the ones Bilbo Baggins traded with Gollum in the slimy dark under the Misty Mountains, and so I spend half of August looking at the stuff in my yard and woods through the eyes of a grumpy itinerant poet with a twisted sense of humor1 and trying to find metaphor, simile, pun, any sort of literary device to obfuscate the quotidian.2

The Troll’s verse ranges from

Here beauty plays its many-colored song,
And while no notes may match, no note is wrong.

…which refers to the flower garden we planted to attract songbirds (in which was hidden an ocarina in the shape of a goldfinch); to

Where spiders weave their webs and thrushes fly,
I, once proud and mighty, clutched the sky.
Now grubs and creepy crawlies gnaw my bones
And feed the birds that in me make their homes.

…which is the snag of a great dead white oak where woodpeckers nest. The Troll, you see, is a lover of nature, and he also has literary aspirations, hence his predilection for iambic pentameter and occasionally complex rhyming schemes, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he occasionally succumbs to a bit of Hallmark-card gaiety. He’s thoughtful but wants to spread joy; he’s mischievous but basically harmless — deeply lovable, I think, and yet where would the poor guy find any love in these, dare I say at the risk of cliché, troubled times? He’s an anachronism in our angry, literal, data-driven age. The anti-intellectual majority would think him elitist, yet he would never survive as an academic-professional poet. No wonder he’s a little grouchy.

I had the Birthday Troll on my mind when I was perusing the “cheap art” table at the Paperhand Puppet Intervention performance last weekend, with drawings, accessories, music, trinkets, and pottery made by the cast and band available for a small donation. Puppet pageants and cheap art go hand in hand; posters over the table displayed the “Why Cheap Art?” Manifesto written by Bread and Puppet nearly thirty years ago:

Cheap Art Manifesto

The Birthday Troll, it struck me, writes cheap poetry. He shows up at someone’s house, looks at stuff they’ve seen a thousand times, and writes quick verses that make them see it through new eyes — that make them see the beauty in it, or the intrigue, or the connection to deeper or broader things, or simply make them laugh. (And if you can’t see it, then you can’t have your stuff. Hurrah!) We need more Birthday Trolls, I thought, and more cheap poetry.

Your modern trolls, of course, don’t leave messages handwritten with a dip pen in green ink; they use Twitter. And so, I decided, I would use my mold-gathering Twitter account as it was originally meant to be used: to broadcast the irrelevant details of my day to people who have no sane reason to care — but to do so through verse. Not, I insist, to use Twitter as a new medium for the creation of blah blah blah I’m so much smarter than you blah blah. Not to write proper, respectable, or even good poetry, although that may happen occasionally by accident. There is of course a place in the world for really excellent poems to inspire and astonish us, but who will be inspired and astonished — or even read the damn things — whose life is not filled with at least the building blocks of poetry, the playful language and the gleefully shifting perspectives? No — my purpose is only to write quick verse, light, spontaneous, largely unedited, mostly rhyming, to make something pretty or silly or thoughtful or absurd from the flotsam and jetsam of my day.

Here’s the plan, then: I will tweet cheap poetry every day, and you can follow me at @djwalbert. I’ll round it up here once a week on Cheap Poetry Tuesday. If anybody else wants to do the same, please join me. Maybe it will become a movement. If so, I give it a better chance of changing the world than the next election.

Meanwhile, every movement needs a manifesto. And so, with apologies to Bread and Puppet and for the lack of inventive typography, I present

the Why Cheap Poetry? manifesto

People have been thinking too long that poetry
is a privilege of the overeducated
and the therapy of the overwrought,
that its place is in dusty volumes
and teenaged diaries.
Poetry is not to be analyzed!
Poetry is not to be scorned!
Poetry is for conversation, for saying
good morning and good night.
Poetry is too important to be taken seriously,
and too serious to be made important.
Poetry is the breath of a culture,
the dance of memory,
the laughter of the world!
Poetry wakes us to wonder and absurdity!
Poetry destroys rigidity!
Poetry is grammar drunk on new wine!
Poetry is the voice of the soul
and it belongs to everybody!
Poetry is cheap!

  1. As opposed to my usual eyes. I admit it isn’t much of a stretch.
  2. “Obfuscate the quotidian” being an example of the thing to which it refers. Is there a term for that? It’s like onomatopoeia, only different.
Posted in Manifestoes | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

3 Responses to Cheap poetry: A manifesto

  1. Oh I love it! Finally, a reason to frequent twitter:)

  2. Angela Brandt says:

    You’re daughter is so lucky!
    And, yes! Agree with Stephanie, finally a reason to tweet. You’ll know me there as Frizzlehead.

  3. Wayne says:

    Today I used your poetry manifesto with the AP students, who came to class angry at William Carlos Williams, whose poems they deemed “dumb, awkward, choppy, useless, pointless, and unpleasant.” The problem, partly, is that they have been trained (at times by people like me — alas) to discover everywhere in poetry profound MEANING. You know, the kind all dressed up in symbols and metaphor and arranged in high diction on lines of rigid meter (all of which, you know, I love, but not every poem should be performed on a full orchestra; some want to be performed on a ukulele). No wonder, then, that each of the students decried the lack of “meaning” in Williams’s work, or the bits of his work I’d given them: they’ve gotten the idea that poetry belongs to the elite and the erudite.

    Anyway, the manifesto helped me talk them off the ledge. Good to ask what a poem wants to do, we decided, and recognize that a poem can be the perfect form to translate, say, the experience of watching a cat step into a flowerpot, or an apology for eating plums, or a remembrance of your grumpy old grandmother’s sour last words, or the “escutcheon” of a dead sparrow on the pavement. Not every poem needs a Prufrock in it, groping towards some overwhelming question.

    Anyway, thanks.

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