by Richard Allen Taylor
Everyone can make lists, but good writers can mold them into art: people, places, things, many with colorful names and interesting words. Imagine how delightful a poem might be with a dozen different species of butterfly or fish, or a collection of paints, seashells, even attitudes or ideas.
One of my favorite list poems is "The Critic" by Fred Chappell, former Poet Laureate of North Carolina. I met Fred at a Barnes & Noble in Charlotte where he read from his book, Backsass (Louisiana State University Press, 2004). This representative passage seems to be directed to an indefinite “you” or collection of people, real or imaginary, who have at some point stuck in the author’s craw.
your novel makes no sense
your soufflé has already fallen
your face has lobsterlike tendencies
your car was plucked from a citrus tree
your team is an eternal cellar dweller
your poetry let's not go there
your kids are strong arguments for abortion rights
your wine needs more paint thinner
Like many list poems, this one is light, entertaining, broad but not deep, and a pleasure to read and hear. This poem seems to be about revenge--turning the table on the author's own critics--and we participate viscerally in the sweetness of that.
But the fascination I have with this poem is how it, and other list poems, work. In "The Critic" we see a list of things to ridicule. The items on the list fit that theme, and the poem in its entirety supports magnificently the theme of the book: back-sass, the verbal jab, talking back in a contemptuous way. Moreover, the elements of the list are mutually supportive. "Your car was plucked from a citrus tree" would seem odd and incongruous almost anyplace else, but placed in a choir with its fellow barbs, it supports and is supported by the other elements in the poem.
Yet, any list poem can wear out the reader if it goes on too long without resolution. The late poet and psychotherapist Henry Berne said, "something has to happen in the list poem. The list for its own sake is not enough; there has to be a point to it all.” In “The Critic,” that shift comes for us near the end, as the author says, "as for God what a domineering old codger/. . .I hear some of the things/He has been saying about me," bringing the poem to a crescendo as he criticizes the ultimate critic, God.
Compare Chappell's "The Critic" with S. Craig Renfroe Jr.'s "Ode to the Rejection Letter" which first appeared in Iodine Poetry Journal, Spring 2004 issue. Renfroe takes a slightly different tack. Consider this excerpt, which is just a small sample of the poem's collection of things editors write in rejection letters:
Thank you for submitting,
Thank you for your recent submission,
Thanks very much for sending along,
We thank you for submitting,
We want to thank you for your kindness in letting us see,
We appreciate your submission,
We sincerely appreciate your contribution,
We hate you.
In a manner similar to Chappell's, Renfroe builds tension with a series of parallel assertions, a tension that is released later. A key difference is that Renfroe builds tension throughout each stanza, with similar remarks by (we assume) different editors. He then releases the tension with the last line of each stanza. The repetition of this tension-release pattern rolls like a sine wave through the poem. It's a fun ride.
Peter Meinke's poem, "Azaleas" (from Liquid Paper, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991) is the quintessential Southern poem about azaleas, the one that makes all subsequent poems about azaleas clichés until proven otherwise. While not a "pure" list poem (the list shows up about two-thirds of the way through the poem), "Azaleas" uses that device to great advantage. Its last two stanzas exploit the richness and color of the language of flowers, specifically,
varieties of azalea in his yard:
O Pride of Mobile, Maiden Blush,
Prince of Orange, President Clay:
the names are humorous examples
of human hubris--O Glory of Sunninghill!
And yet they're touching, too: my salmon-
colored Duc de Rohan's fragile aristocracy
doomed like his forebears to lose his head:
your Elegans, that early bloomer,
whose petals lie like butterflies on our walk
or pastel Kleenex thickly strewn
in some orgy of melancholy weeping. . .
Dwarves and Giants, Pinkshell, Flame--
O my dear, so many azaleas are dying!
We must have a party! Here! This afternoon!
Maureen Ryan Griffin's "Gems" (from This Scatter of Blossoms, a finalist in the 2003 Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest) lists gemstones--one to a stanza--and makes from each stone a stunning simile. Griffin, like Meinke, exploits the richness of names of different varieties of a natural object. Unlike any of the previous authors mentioned, she uses, not lines or words, but entire stanzas as the building blocks of her list. For example,
Onyxes like plump, stemmed
quarter notes, blackbirds
on telephone lines, waiting
with melody to spare
with subsequent stanzas featuring emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and so forth, until the ultimate stanza:
Peridots like broken bottle bits
lake waves smoothed
I could count on finding
I enjoy writing, as well as reading, list poems, and had exceptional fun with “Light Verse” ( from Something to Read on the Plane, Main Street Rag Publishing Co., 2004), a sort of ode to the many sources and types of light. This “riff” drew favorable comment from Bob Johnson, an editor at Ibbetson Street:
…To all who shed light
on the subject, we shed our grace and say oh say can you see
the dawn’s early light, the twilight, the highlights, soft lights,
lamp lights, white lights on dark nights and all the colors
there ever were, light itself divided into a thousand voices
all starting with Genesis and heaven and earth
and God, who thought of it first.
Remember that little speech in the movie Forest Gump in which Forest's sidekick, Bubba, waxes poetic on ways to prepare and eat shrimp?
…shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it,
broil it, bake it, sauté it. Dey's uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp
Creole, shrimp gumbo…
There is more to that delectable list, and it can be found on-line, in its entirety. That poem is, in fact, widely published, having been printed on thousands of T-shirts. Think of the royalties.