Most of my time these days is seemingly spent reading, writing, grading papers, and commuting, so I tend not to have much time for TV but when I do watch TV, I tend to watch cartoons as I find they provide a certain freshness and criticality that is absent from most other TV shows, whether they be reality shows, crime dramas, or sit-coms. And it seems to me that no other TV genre engages more directly with contemporary poetry— in particular, I have three episodes in mind: “Little Girl in the Big Ten” a classic Simpsons episode from 2002 as well as two more recent episodes from The Family Guy and SpongeBob SquarePants, “Back to the Woods” (2008) and “Sing a Song of Patrick” (2007). While many of my friends consider The Simpsons to be the smartest cartoon out there, I’d like to briefly analyze how these episodes treat poetry and show that the particular outrageousness of both The Family Guy and SpongeBob allows a much more radical critique of current literary practice.
In “Little Girl in the Big Ten,” Lisa Simpson tries to pass as a college student and is eventually invited by two friends (one is a Pynchon fan) to a Robert Pinsky reading at Cafe Kafka.
Cartoon Pinsky, who is introduced as “the Tony Danza of the AB stanza,” goes on to read the beginning of “Impossible to Tell,” a poem by actual Pinsky:
Slow dulcimer, gavotte and bow, in autumn,
Bashõ and his friends go out to view the moon;
In summer, gasoline rainbow in the gutter,
The secret courtesy that courses like ichor
Through the old form of the rude, full-scale joke,
Impossible to tell in writing. “Bashō”
He named himself, “Banana Tree”…
At the mention of “Bashō,” a group of drunken frat boys with painted chests chant the Japanese poet’s name enthusiastically.
The joke here accentuates the difference between the marginalization of contemporary poetry (for even a mainstream former Poet Laureate like Pinsky) and the craze with which Americans embrace popular sports like football.
In The Family Guy episode, “Back to the Woods,” Peter Griffin has both his identity and clothes stolen by the actor James Woods. He goes to Glen Quagmire’s house to fetch another set of clothes and walks in on a reading group discussing Robert Frost’s “Birches.” If you don’t know The Family Guy, the bizarre and humorous nature of this scenario is due to the fact that Quagmire is a notorious pervert and one would more likely interrupt him having an orgy with prostitutes than any other activity.
Here’s a transcript of the scene:
Peter: Hey, Quagmire. Can I…
Quagmire: Hang on a second…and that’s why I contend that when Frost speaks of birch trees he may very well be talking about himself…
Gloria: No, Glen, that’s not…
Quagmire: Gloria, please, you want to hear my interpretation or are you simply going to tell me that I’m wrong.
Gloria: I’m simply pointing out…
Quagmire: Yes, we know, you’re very well read but this is POETRY that we’re talking about and I think when it comes to poetry you can’t BE wrong. What Peter?
Peter: What? Nothing, nothing, sorry to interrupt. The cedars represent society. Sorry to interrupt.
It’s interesting here that poetry is also represented as the Other of crass American culture (that involves drunken sports watching and promiscuous sex). But I particularly appreciate the way that Peter’s willful stupidity—in his conflation of “cedars” with “birches”—wonderfully critiques the wishy-washy, touchy-feely notion that poetry is whatever the reader wants it to be.
I’ve written a bit about “Sing a Song of Patrick” on my blog and I’m going to summarize a bit of what I’ve said before (so bear with me a bit if you’ve read some of this):
The episode begins when Patrick the Starfish, SpongeBob’s tubby and endearingly dumb friend, sees an ad in a comic book from Bigshot Records that promises to turn ”one of your poems into a hit song on the radio.” Patrick then pens the following poem which he sends (along with $100) to the record company:
“I Wrote This”
Twinkle, Twinkle, Patrick Star.
I made myself a sandwich.
My mommy named it Fred.
It tastes like beans and bacon,
and smells like it’s been dead.
Writing stuff is hard
so I use a pointy pencil.
Pointy, pointy, pointy,
pointy, pointy, point.
Pee-ew, what’s that horrible smell?
I have a head that ends in a point.
Pointy, pointy, pointy,
pointy, pointy, point.
This song is over, except for this line:
you win this round, broccoli!
At the band’s funeral, the funeral director presents Patrick with his “hit single” on a 45 and says, “They wanted you to have this.” After a rousing listening session of Patrick’s poem (now accompanied by rock instrumentation) on SpongeBob’s stereo, the always supportive Spongebob encourages Patrick to air the song at the local radio station which, of course, turns them away with disgust. SpongeBob’s brilliant solution is to hijack the means of distribution: they climb to the top of the radio antenna on which they mount, with the help of sticky pink bubblegum, a gramophone to blast Patrick’s record. This impossible apparatus is like a Dadaist “instrument of ballistics” (to use Walter Benjamin’s term) that assaults the complacent and conformist fish of Bikini Bottom. The high-decibel song is meant to “outrage the public” and “hit the spectator like a bullet” (again Benjamin’s phrases on Dadaist art) and indeed it does. The sheer weirdness of Patrick’s work creates pandemonium: cars crash, a fish’s head (while listening to earphones) explodes, and a plane dramatically crashes into a fireworks factory. The townfolk, in angry mob form, rush to the radio station with pitchforks and torches to snuff the offending source, but SpongeBob and Patrick distract them with a bizarre display of dancing while they spew nonsensical sounds and utterances. As a performative accompaniment, Spongebob flails around a tambourine and chainsaw. Miraculously, this act of performance art defuses the anger of the mob. One fish observes, “You know–It’s not that bad,” while another responds, “Yeah, at least it got that first terrible song out of our heads.”
A pessimist might observe that SpongeBob and Patrick’s dispersal of bad poetry lowered the aesthetic standards of the town, that the townspeople would have welcomed just about anything to clear their heads of Patrick’s poetic abomination. A similar pessimist might make the case that bad poetry should stay private, that Bigshot Records–much like vanity presses–lures subpar writers with the illusive promise of fame and recognition. Yet, to me, there is a performative exuberence in Spongebob and Patrick’s blaring, gum-attached gramophone that makes it seem like an ultimately salutary, and even revolutionary, gesture for Bikini Bottom–that it shocked the town out of its rigid aesthetic categories. I want to optimistically think that at the very moment when that fish thought “You know–It’s not that bad,” some kind of aesthetic recalibration occured, that Patrick’s poem redefined his notions of what art can be. Perhaps the tambourine and chainsaw is indeed mightier than the pitchfork and torch.
Like a great text, this SpongeBob episode rewards multiple engagements, and on this time around, it occured to me that Patrick’s poem resembles Flarf, which Gary Sullivan describes as “[a] kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not okay.’”
My point here is that The Simpsons seems to reinscribe the values of what Charles Bernstein calls “official verse culture” or what Ron Silliman calls “The School of Quietude,” and poetry (represented by “Impossible to Tell”) is relegated to the consumption of an elite, academic audience (Lisa Simpson and her college friends). I prefer the idiot criticism of Peter Griffin or the “out-of-controlness” of Patrick’s poetry anyday.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.