Ouija, Canoe, Haiku: A Collaborative Inquiry into Collaborative Poetry
Isaac Cates & Chad Davidson | December 2006
If writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net, is writing in collaboration like playing doubles, or simply like having an opponent who can return your best serve? The recent work of Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer—in particular, their book Nice Hat. Thanks. (Verse Press, 2002)—suggests that collaborative poetry may be an entirely different game: at times pistols at twenty paces; at other times an absurd ballet between a neurasthenic monk and an irreverent orangutan. In each poem, the two collaborators trade lines or words, directing and redirecting the poem's logic, pushing and pulling on the pliable material of the sentence, conjuring unexpected turns out of remarkable freshness. As one reads these poems, one simultaneously follows the line of their reasoning and second-guesses the poet who found himself following a line such as "Walk downstairs singing" with "and stay there."
Nowhere is Beckman and Rohrer's push-pull method more visible than in the section of the book devoted to two-line poems, for this is where the poets work at the equivalent of the atomic level. The most potent (and often the only) poetic device of the two-line poem is the turn or enjambment from the first line to the second, which is also presumably the point where the baton is passed from one poet to the other. Here one sees the machinery of poetry—the subversion of expectation, the uncanny association, the yoking of contraries, the detailed attention to language—but in isolation and in close-up, like catalog photos of engine parts. In this way, two-line poems offer a rare look at poetry's inner mechanics. Here, then, are a few sterling examples of their exchanges:
I knew Spanish
before it was cool.
to your cocker spaniel.
The lake needs friends
who can live in the lake.
Obviously, poetry offers more than subverted expectations and odd juxtapositions. And something about the method of two-line poems might lend itself to shallow buffoonery—but only, as Richard Hugo might have put it, if one is a shallow poet. Given, the authors of this essay would hardly recommend two-line poems as the next "school" or trend, and would first shudder then yawn to imagine a torrent of two-line chapbooks. But collaborative writing does hold potential for the poets who practice it, and while Nice Hat. Thanks. should not spawn an industry of imitations, it should at least encourage private dabbling in its methods and perhaps expansion on them.
Collaborative writing, especially with the alacrity of the two-line form, lubricates the creative process. Two-line poems must be, it seems, written quickly, with the majority of the new poems soon discarded. Revision proves difficult and, more importantly, counterintuitive in a form that by its nature highlights improvisation. Scribbling socially on napkins or paper scraps while waiting for food or hovering over coffee, one soon learns that opening lines are a dime a dozen. One sees just as quickly that words can be turned against the author, and that a beginning is only as good as the ending it engenders. By lowering the stakes for any one poem, however, two-line collaborations also make it possible for a pair of poets to turn out thirty short poems in about five minutes. True, most of those poems will be less than memorable, but the one or two gems will have arrived at lightning speed.
Basho argued that haiku practitioners should write many haiku in a day but keep only one. At the end of the week, they should keep one of the seven; at the end of the month, one of the four, and so forth—winnowing down a wide field of spontaneous efforts, sifting through chaff that outnumbers the perfect grain by thousands to one. By emphasizing the transience of the form, Basho gestured at a different type of poetic immortality, one that rests on the power of continual generation (and discarding) rather than monolithic inertia. In other words, haiku is cyclical rather than linear in its concept of time. Bill Evans says something similar in the liner notes to Kind of Blue: that there can be no revision, no retracing, no rethinking in improvisational jazz. And much as jazz works through multiple "takes"—reinterpretations of the same form with endless variation—so too does the collaborative two-line poem reside in the improvisational and multifarious interpretations of a simple mode of exchange by two poets.
Further, collaborative writing makes tangible what all poets know: that they constantly engage and challenge other poets, living and dead, through writing. The solitary poet writes in response to a pantheon of contemporaries and forebears. In collaborative poetry, however, these influences and challengers include the other poet, who will be responding as soon as the first line is finished. The challenge of writing becomes a team effort, like steering a two-man canoe or the planchette of an ouija board. If Yeats was correct—that rhetoric arises from arguing with others, and poetry from arguing with ourselves—then what gives rise to collaborative poetry? Is the collaborator more like an audience or a second self? Can two collaborators really have the same thing in mind? In truth, the collaborator's role is protean: sometimes a faithful support, other times a wily saboteur, whose hand can take up as its proper tool the scourge, the lantern, or the vise:
Bring me the bloody head
of your last boyfriend.
Now we have more time
and fewer friends.
Clearly, poetry is not always a question of one person alone in a room with language, as Berryman defined it. In collaborative poetry, the room is a little more crowded. This is something poets should have known all along, because finally the collaborator is primarily a figure of the reader: following and extending one's ideas, the collaborator must first perform the act of interpretation that always succeeds the work of Berryman's lonely room.
It is possible to write two-line poems poorly, and possible, too, to be quite an accomplished poet in one's own right but a clumsy or undistinguished collaborator. To write a good first line is to make several invitations at once, to close one's eyes and spin the bottle, to leave the car unlocked in a dark parking lot, hiding in the back seat, not knowing where one will be taken. It takes a capacity for both trust and incitement. The best first lines leave many possibilities open while providing a frame, a voice, a telling detail to suggest a direction for the next line. And to write a good follow-up takes more than merely an ear for the absurd. The most memorable second lines surprise yet seem to have been anticipated all along when the first lines are read in retrospect:
Evocative second lines force one to read the first line in multiple ways (its likely intent and its repurposed meaning-in-context). Finishing a two-line poem gracefully takes a different skill than drafting a batch of forty first lines quickly. The second lines must remake the first lines without revising them and must not only seem a moment's thought: second lines, too, seem to work best when they're found by intuition instead of analysis.
Finally, two-line collaborative poetry offers the poet the chance to try his or her skill with a less reverent instrument, like Coltrane on a flutophone or Dürer on an Etch-a-Sketch. It humanizes the medium, reminding one that poetry resides in the snippet or quip as much as the epic or verse sequence. The best two-line poems by Beckman and Rohrer nearly approach the wit of Johnson, the pathos of Sappho, or the clarity of Basho—masters of fragment and epigram—despite an accidental method that ought to be doomed to triviality. And the fact that Beckman and Rohrer work collaboratively means that this accidental power lies in neither poet, but in the jointure between their lines, in the energy of their juxtapositions. (Neither collaborator owns a two-line poem.) By taking pressure off of the individual writers, collaborative poems honor poetry rather than the poets, for the work is, in a sense, authorless. At its best, collaborative poetry can elude even the poets themselves, which makes them all the more willing to indoctrinate others into its mysteries, revealing all in a smoky bar on a cocktail napkin somewhere after midnight. Then they will pass the napkin over to you.
During a two-day stretch on Long Island and in New Haven in the fall of 2004, the authors of this essay wrote more than two hundred two-line poems. Along the way, they noticed the recurrence of several types of two-line poems and began to theorize about the principles—if any—that might govern the form. Here, then, are some findings.
The majority of two-line poems wind up resembling the punch lines to implied (but absent) jokes. Put another way, they become captions to imaginary single-frame cartoons, suggesting a scenario in which action or dialogue has finally led to comedic closure. Some examples:
When have I ever
lied to you about my killing sprees?
Arthur really had no concept
of what "dead" is.
Was that supposed to be funny?
I mean the thing with the pitchfork?
With the punch-line two-line poem, the joy resides in the act of reconstitution. The reader works to imagine the putative scene or situation that could have elicited the given two lines naturally:
He said to sit down, Arthur,
and you should listen to the Prince of Darkness.
More often than not, the punch-line reenacts the second poet's "misprision"—or creative misreading—of the first line, the effect of which makes the first line into the butt of the joke.
Such concentration on the effects of the punch-line two-line poem, though, ignores the machinery itself—how the rhetoric of the two-line poem functions. On closer inspection, one discovers recurrent tropes or devices working within the two-line poem, for example the juxtaposition of a complex, particularized, or jargoned lexicon alongside a slangy, or simplified one:
These Stentorian mosquitoes
Juxtapositions also occur along the public/private line. The use, for example, of proper names (the nonce-characters Arthur and Brian both made multiple appearances in the New Haven poems) lends a certain intimacy or familiarity, quickly giving the poem a sense of personal specificity and in the process making the reader into an eavesdropper:
Arthur, think twice—
hyenas are drawn to the smell of urine.
In this case, the humor is one of litotes, or understatement. In other cases, though, the use of a proper name indicts both reader and character, becoming the note of specificity in an otherwise general claim:
I promise it won't hurt
as long as Brian holds your hand.
Similarly, the names of animals that carry humorous connotations may also function as wild cards:
the gorillas were unexpected.
No, I was only
kidding about the pelican.
Here, the shapes and comic potentials of words such as "gorilla" and "pelican" jar against otherwise understated sentences. The two-line form seems woefully small to contain such large and specific creatures, both the literal girth of the gorillas and the lexical mass of a word such as "pelican." Worth pointing out, too, the animals that seem to work in these joke-like poems are in themselves funny, a little awkward in their specificity (like Arthur and Brian), and uneasy as they are on the border between wildness and absurd domestication—the gorilla of the Samsonite commercial or the pelican of Finding Nemo—clownish, too, in the very sound of their polysyllabic names (already in the province of Ogden Nash).
Regardless of whether one concentrates on the referential or the rhetorical qualities of these poems, however, comedy predominates. And to be sure, Thalia has a strong allure in the two-line poem. But range of the form is not limited to the gag. A smaller number of two-line poems, for example, wear the gracefulness of haiku and learn from that sister form a bit of subtlety, resembling Zen koans more closely than punch lines:
Three hundred kazoos
in a forest with no name.
What is striking about a poem like this is its faithfulness to a certain stillness of language. One of Basho's most famous haiku features a tethered horse whose stirrups are filled with snow—the emphasis on barrenness, the scene bereft of the human form. In a similar fashion, the above poem strands a great number of kazoos—that simple instrument—in treble isolation: literally in a forest far from human hands, figuratively in namelessness, and poetically in the lone first line that describes only them. And while the initial mention of kazoos might strike one as comedic, the end result evokes Basho's agonizing vision of isolation.
Other haiku-like two-liners offer simplicity through a focused attention to detail:
Six dozen swans
and their twelve dozen eyes.
Here the poem turns back on itself, showcasing another essential poetic device in miniature: repetition. Such poems stress the art of artlessness, the faithfulness and trust in the power of the image alone. But the two-line poem constantly challenges convention. And since poems come rapidly in this form, novelty wears out quickly. Real novelty becomes a virtue for its own sake, as it keeps the poets themselves alert. Thus, what's good for semi-serious, half-reverent sister poems of haiku is also good for the gadfly two-liners that seek to run the machinery of haiku backward:
He's on the wagon again
but the wagon's not there.
Regardless of this poem's implications in terms of twelve-step programs, it styles itself as half-riddle, enlisting the same sort of brief recursivity seen in the swan poem, if for less serious ends.
Brevity is, indeed, one of the hallmarks of haiku. Fittingly, some two-line poems achieve a brevity that even surprises the authors:
is your monkey.
Hidden in the poem's simplicity, though, is a wealth of contradictory impulses and alternative readings. The poem could merely describe an animal shared by two clowns, two kids, or some other pair of people mutually owning or swapping simians: "Mi casa es su casa; mi mono es su mono tambien." These could also be the figurative types of monkeys on backs, however. And if that's so, then the poem indicts both reader and writer in a spiral of mutual disgust. Given that the poem is the one thing that poet and reader are sure to share, one could even read this monkey as a figure for the word (that vice of poets). Here, in short, is the plight of the collaborative poet, always stuck with the vices of his collaborator.
In fact, one of the strongest undercurrents in the improvised two-line poem is the subversive critical voice that tells one collaborator or both that the game has gone on too long. Some of the most successful second lines call the poem up short, suggesting that the improvisation has grown derivative, self-pleasing, repetitive, or stupid. There's both slapstick humor and rhetorical force in poems like these:
Tell me of the land of my forefathers
and then shut up.
Tell me something
Brought together like this, away from their original context, these short instructions may seem to speak to each other, but rising as they naturally do from the bazaar hubbub of other two-line poems—the specificity of moment, image, and voice that most two-line poems strive for-they seem like stern rebukes. This is cold water dousing the seance, a slap in the somnambulist's face. It may represent a subconscious awareness that the exercise is growing formulaic, or it might be a seething passive-aggressive corrective, but when this note of chastisement hits the serious two-line collaborator, his or her response is not to retire. Nor will the poet seek to change the rules or take up a new game. The proper answer to these acerbic second lines, when they arise, is the same as the answer to any second line: more first lines, thirty or forty of them, hanging in the blank space, challenging the wit and imagination of the collaborator to push into newly shared territory.
Reading Nice Hat. Thanks. instantly charms, and for a writer with an experimental mind, the book also throws down a gauntlet. How hard can a good two-line poem be? Can one find a trustworthy collaborator? And what does "trust" signify in collaborative writing? Will the Beckman-Rohrer method work for anyone? It's hard not to want to try the form, as an exercise or as a joke, as an experiment or as a serious inquiry into the essentials of poetry. There are mysteries of syntax and enjambment that this sort of collaboration reveals, if one comes to it bravely.
Now, write thirty first lines, and pass them to your neighbor on the left.
Chad Davidson is the author of Consolation Miracle (Southern Illinois UP, 2003) and, with John Poch, edited (somewhat seriously) Hockey Haiku: The Essential Collection (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006). He teaches literature and creative writing at the University of West Georgia.
Isaac Cates is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Poetry Center at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. His criticism has appeared in Literary Imagination and Indy magazine. He has collaborated with Mike Wenthe on more than a dozen self-published comic books, many of them under the title Satisfactory Comics.
See also Beckman and Rohrer's two-line poem:
When the tiger is in the mountain
the mountain will sleep