Happy birthday, Doc Brown.
About two-thirds of the way through Jim Smith’s 2012 book of poetry from Mansfield Press, Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra—I think it was around “Christ, Elqui” and “Risk Analysis of a Poem”—it hit me: if you’re going to write poetry at all, you might as well write whatever you want. The payout just isn’t worth the compromise in such a low revenue, marginal art form. This may seem obvious enough, but when the rejection letters start piling in one begins to wonder what it takes to even get their work crammed into the overstocked shelves. Smith’s book, full of non-stories, anti-poems, exclamations marks, and an open and liberal celebration of its poetic predecessors, is a kick in the ass of conformity. Conventions can seep into an artist’s work as if by osmosis, and it takes a jolt like this book to keep alert to their insidious presence.
All of this is not to say that Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra is free of genre conventions and imitations. It’s not, but it has a loudness and enthusiasm that propels the reader toward originality. To Smith’s credit, he’s wide open about those poets he admires and imitates, and these come from a genealogy of contrarians, rebels, and poets maudits: Mayakovsky, Lorca, Frank O’Hara, bpNichol, Ed Dorn, etc. And of course, Nicanor Parra, the man responsible for anti-poetry, an aesthetic that uses incongruously banal, colloquial, and prosaic language to undo the “poetic” quality of poetry (i.e. rhetoric, ornament, formalism—what the art world might refer to as “craft”). Anti-poetry, from what I can tell, is the opposite of defamiliarization. Instead of making the telephone strange, anti-poetry makes violence and death ordinary. Take, for example, Smith’s “Poets of the 20th,” which lists how and at what age a number of poets died, typically of alcoholism, by his/her own choice, and cancer, especially of the pancreas. There is also the “Guernica” series, which opens “Bombings are all the same,” and flippantly proceeds to examine the theme of bombs. So you might be asking, what makes anti-poetry different from a 24 hour news cycle desensitized to tragedy?
I had planned on writing something about how the poetic form turns our attention to the insensitivity of a language abetted by an unending vestigial cycle of meteorological and political violence. Re-reading Smith’s poems, though, I realize that’s not true. “Guernica I,” which I initially suspected would prove my point, is heartfelt and not callous (as are many of the poems in this book that I am neglecting in order to focus on anti-poetry). A better defense comes from “Risk Analysis of a Poem.” Smith makes a poem out of the processes of composition and reading:
There is a 41% chance this poem will be finished, unless
the writer is eating
.…[The Salvadoran man] will continue to shoot Salvadorans until this poem comes to an end.
Due to a stray bolt of empathy, a desire to cook supper and a dog’s bark,
this poem has come to an end.
Please stop shooting Salvadorans, it’s not the 80s…
The poem proceeds for another 5 lines until actually ending. Anti-poetry is not about language as a medium or a material, but about language as a mental process. As long as the poem continues, its own fiction continues. In this case, that fiction is a violent one. Reading “Risk Analysis,” I asked myself whether or not I would be guilty of something if I finished the poem. Anti-poetry is self-critical. As indifferent as Smith’s surreal bombings seem to the historical Guernica, Happy Birthday sets out to reconnect with death. The shouting and the gags are all about duende: “The cinema is cruel! / The earth is everywhere!” But to get there, one has to get past sentiment, realizing death is not about tears; it’s about facing the bull and laughing in his face, even while the earth opens up under one’s feet and one looks into the chasm into which all the dead toreros fell before.