In the Season Four SpongeBob episode “Fear of a Krabby Patty” (which was coincidentally nominated for a 2005 Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program), the dastardly Plankton disguises himself as a psychotherapist with the hope that SpongeBob will unwittingly divulge the secret recipe for the coveted Krabby Patties to him.
Plankton: I’ve laid out some words on cards here. These words are common kitchen ingredients. I want you to arrange them in any order you choose. It could be a poem or a secret formula. I don’t know…oh yes! A secret formula. Good, let’s do that!
In the end, SpongeBob arranges neither a poem nor a secret formula but an impossible piano that comedically falls onto Plankton’s tiny body.
But what if SpongeBob, taking Plankton’s cue, had actually “arranged” a poem based on these words and images of “common kitchen ingredients”? What would it look like?
I’d like to suggest that these questions implicit in “Fear of a Krabby Patty” index some of the most striking innovations in Twentieth-Century poetry. The first is the use of objets trouvés. While it may seem silly that one could build a poem using a list of words like “tomato,” “celery,” “pepper,” and “onion,” this is not at all unlike what William Carlos Williams did in his poem “Two Pendants: For the Ears.” Here is the oft quoted stanza in question:
2 Mallard ducks
a Dungeness crab
24 hours out
of the Pacific
and 2 live-frozen
In Book Five of his monumental work Paterson, Williams includes an excerpted interview with a journalist—treating it, in effect, as a found object—which discusses this poeticized list:
Q. …here’s part of a poem you yourself have written: … “2 partridges / 2 mallard ducks / a Dungeness crab / 24 hours out / of the Pacific / and 2 live-frozen trout / from Denmark … ” Now, that sounds like a fashionable grocery list!
A. It is a fashionable grocery list.
Q. Well — is it poetry?
A. We poets have to talk in a language which is not English. It is the American idiom. Rhythmically it’s organized as a sample of the American idiom. It has as much originality as jazz. If you say, “2 partridges, 2 mallard ducks, a Dungeness crab” — if you treat that rhythmically, ignoring the practical sense it forms a jagged pattern. It is, to my mind, poetry.
Q. But if you don’t “ignore the practical sense” … you agree that it is a fashionable grocery list.
A. Yes. Anything is good material for poetry. Anything. I’ve said it time and time again.
Might we not also think of Plankton’s hypothetical poem as a subtle homage to Gertrude Stein’s “Food” which comes from another modernist classic Tender Buttons? This notoriously difficult prose poem begins, “ROASTBEEF; MUTTON; BREAKFAST; SUGAR; CRANBERRIES; MILK; EGGS; APPLE…”
My second point is that Plankton’s poem, comprised of cards, would also significantly be “a poem off the page” (and here I’m thinking of Jac Jemc’s interesting post “Text Off the Page”). There are two precedents that come to mind. The first is the Russian conceptualist Lev Rubinstein who, as a librarian, composed poems using the backs of library catalog cards as his unit of measure— I suggest checking out Catalogue of Comedic Novelties translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky which remediates his note card poems into book form. The second example is Robert Grenier’s Sentences (1978), which is comprised of a box of hundreds of 5″ x 8″ index cards.
So despite Plankton being an inept thief of Mr. Krabs’ secret recipe, he is quite a clever literary historian.
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.