List poems are fun. They’re fun to write, and they’re often fun to read. The poet has no obligation to follow a line of thought, or description, and so list poems lend themselves to free-wheeling non-sequitur, to invention, to play. And yet, no matter how weird, disparate, or far-ranging a list is, we cannot help but try to sculpt it into some kind of coherence. It’s the curse of being good readers: we are trained to find connections, and so, even if there are none, we find them.
Of course a good poet is aware of all this, and uses our expectations to her advantage. The late C.D. Wright’s terrific list poem “Personals” leaves enough of a trail for us to put together a portrait of a scene, a character, and a situation. The artist Jenny Holzer uses the form and language of slogans to create list poems in space that, among other things, parody corporate advertising.
Since I started working on this blog I’ve known that I wanted to write about George Murray’s Diversion, but I’ve had a problem because most of the poems are well over 30 lines long. For the sake of keeping my essays readably short, I’ve tended to stick with shorter pieces. And so finally I asked George’s permission to use just a section from one of the poems – you won’t get the full picture here, but I hope you can get a sense of how the poems move, and that it will encourage you to dive more deeply into this funny, inventive, often disturbing collection.
Diversion is a whole book of list poems with titles like “#CivilDisconvenience,” and “#SocialMedea.” The ubiquitous hashtag mark points us to the quick wit and quick rancor we tend to find online, the unpredictable mashup of the profane and the profound. In these two titles you can also see one of his recurring techniques – twisting familiar phrases into new creations. Here are the last ten lines from a poem called “#Daydream Bereaver”:
Homecoming queen becomes homestaying queen.
Disciples follow the guide with the umbrella and megaphone.
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest but the rest of us landed in it.
Death switched to a pistol after complaints a scythe wasn’t individual-enough attention.
I like big buts and I cannot lie.
Freedom is the space found after the last channel on the dial.
The sound of our culture is the sound of a fat ass flopping onto a toilet seat.
12 reasons you need to try this before you die! are 11 more than needed to convince me.
What you’re reading is a black box.
Bet you a dozen beers the first intelligent thought was a wish.
— from Diversion (ECW Press, 2015), used by permission
One challenge with list poems is how to keep them interesting – if there’s no story, description, or argument to pull us through to the end, the poet has to work very hard to vary the form, tone, and materials in order to keep the reader engaged, even off-balance, landing punches from different directions. So notice first how Murray plays with the syntax, the tone, even the pronouns in these ten lines. First person pronouns are used four times, second person in the last three. Two lines make sweeping generalizations (about Disciples and Freedom). Two lines report mini-narratives: about homecoming queens whose lives lose their sparkle and a cartoonish Death who can be influenced by popular opinion. Lines that start off like serious statements become jokes, and vice versa (especially the last line).
Murray’s most scatological images tend to disguise a more complicated point. While we may grimace at “the sound of a fat ass flapping onto a toilet seat,” we are compelled to confront a more ambitious, if somewhat facetious, comment about what sounds “our culture” actually makes. Even better is his repurposing of an early ‘90s rap masterpiece (Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”), which Murray uses to point to a core concept in Diversion – that reversals, “buts,” are an antidote to lazy and complacent thinking. It’s worth mentioning that “Baby Got Back” is ultimately a song about rejecting false-perfection and fakery in pop culture portrayals of feminine beauty, a problem Diversion also returns to again and again.
As we reel from Murray’s inventiveness and fun we also start to sense a recurring frustration with contemporary culture, even in the glib wordplay that the poems themselves utilize. Murray’s self-deprecation about how he’s a sucker for internet clickbait like “reasons to try this before you die!” churns along with “the rest of us land[ing]” in the metaphorical cuckoo’s nest. If disciples just follow whomever has an umbrella and megaphone, and the way to freedom is just past our ever-expanding channel selection, then our culture really will increasingly sound as grotesque as a fat ass on a toilet seat. The lines, which seemed so separate and chaotic at first glance, begin to speak to each other.
For me, this culminates in the quietly devastating line, “What you’re reading is a black box.” An airplane’s black box is only important to most of us if the plane crashes, as a record of what happened, so that we might discover what went wrong. So too this poem, and this collection. Diversion aims to be a sort of recording device that, with logorrheic glee, simultaneously mocks, preserves, and celebrates our contemporary moment. It might be tempting to dismiss it as a prodigious, bawdy gathering of witticisms and reworked detritus of popular culture and internet meme-making, but the poems also serve as a record of a societal vessel that might be careening toward destruction. Perhaps those who come to clean up the aftermath will be able to deduce something from this wreckage. It’s not a comforting thought, but it adds a layer of seriousness and challenge to the poems’ wit and fun.