Denise Duhamel >

Nonliterary Forms

In keeping with SEGUE's spirit—that of trying to capture "the transition from one thing to another," the poems here appropriate forms of quotidian writing in attempt to use them as honest-to-goodness poetic forms. What do the warnings on household items have to do with the warnings as to the "dangers" of a poem? How are questions commonly asked by Hawkeye International Fishtank™ buyers like those questions the newly dead might ask when they arrive to The Aferlife™ ? Might the President of the United States come with a warranty not unlike the one that comes with an electric stove? Can we really mumble something else under our breaths during The Pledge of Allegiance? Will anyone notice? And finally, what if literary magazines came with reader satisfaction questionnaires like those provided by fashion magazines like Elle and Marie Claire?

The surrealist writer Jean-Claude Silbermann was the first to employ such a "Directions for Use" style of writing, blending the language of household labels with abstract concepts. One of his poems called "Death" includes these lines:

          Remove the self-preserving seal, hold DEATH vertically
          upwards, and apply by pressing the stopper.

And:

          Apply DEATH liberally around the edges of a room, near
          skirting-boards, in cracks of the floor, in any dark cranny.

Silbermann's poems were based on substitution and finding the right combination of the utilitarian and sublime. Charles Bernstein, adapting from Bernadette Mayer's Experimental list Poets' Ludicrously Aimless Yearning (PLAY), has endorsed poems that take the shape of "nonliterary forms" and suggests that poets write an index, a table of contents, a travel guide, a quiz or examination. Most recently, Maureen Seaton has made a poem in the form of a recipe; David Lehman and Paul Muldoon have made poems in the form of errata; Paul Violi has made a poem in the form of a TV Guide entry; and Nick Carbó has made a poem out of a resumé. Nin Andrews' prose poem "Do Not Ignore This" takes the form of a chain letter and begins:

          This pussy has been sent to you. This pussy has been around the
          world seven times. You will receive luck within six days of receiving
          this pussy...

Such poems, it seem to me, challenge and enlarge the whole idea of formal poetry. Why a sonnet instead of a grocery list? Or why not a grocery list in sonnet form? Why not a book on a Rolodex? Why not poems (haiku?) made up of names and addresses?

It is the postmodern gesture to combine high and low art, which basically combines poetry (high art) and most everything else (low art) beside opera and museums. The use of nonliterary forms is particularly helpful for writing political poetry, which often runs the risk of being didactic. François Le Lionnais in his "First Manifesto" of the Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle" or, in English, "Workshop for Potential Literature") writes that "Every literary work begins with an inspiration (at least that's what its author suggests" which must accommodate itself as well as possible to a series of constraints and procedures..." I was struggling to write about George Bush, my fears of war, and my anxiety, but it was not until I placed him in the context of a "Presidential Warranty" did I feel I could control what I had to say. I like to think that these "constraints and procedures," as Le Lionnais calls them, imposed by the formal language of a warranty, kept my poem from becoming a rant. Political poetry is not very effective when it preaches to the converted or relies on slogan or cliché, but the idea of voters having a warranty that wouldn't cover replacing Bush's light bulbs and/or fluorescent tubes really spoke to me.

The use of nonliterary forms also democratizes and popularizes poetry in a certain way. That there would be such a questionnaire asking readers to rate poems as described in "Customer Satisfaction" implies a large scale readership for poetry (that, of course, doesn't exist). Poetry hasn't been exactly dangerous since Plato wrote in The Republic that "Crucial indeed is the struggle, more crucial than we think—the choice that makes us good or bad—to keep faithful to righteousness and virtue in the face of temptation, be it of fame or money or power, or of poetry—yes, even of poetry." Yet the poem "Warning" attempts to elevate poetry to a place where it is taken as seriously as Plato took it, a place where it is so powerful warnings must be heeded while reading it. Conversely, death and the afterlife, both lofty concepts, are neutralized in "Commonly Asked Questions about the Afterlife™," a poem in which the Afterlife is more like a condominium with rules and regulations than a nebulous spiritual place.

—Denise Duhamel
March 21, 2003
Hollywood, FL