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Plankton’s “Fashionable Grocery List”: SpongeBob SquarePants & Poetic Innovation

Fear of a Krabby PattyFear of a Krabby Patty 2

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.

Fear of a Krabby Patty 3

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 partridges
   2 Mallard ducks
   a Dungeness crab
   24 hours out
   of the Pacific
   and 2 live-frozen
   from Denmark

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.


A web-based version of Sentences is available from Whale Cloth Press here and a sampling of Rubinstein’s note card poems were published by BlazeVOX in a virtual format here.

So despite Plankton being an inept thief of Mr. Krabs’ secret recipe, he is quite a clever literary historian.

10 thoughts on “Plankton’s “Fashionable Grocery List”: SpongeBob SquarePants & Poetic Innovation

  1. Zany! Holy shrimp!

    Can the use of the cards in the cartoon also be considered a kind of aleatory poetics of the Tzara variety? Or likened to the “cut-up” novels of Burroughs? How about McCaffery’s Dr. Sadhu’s Muffins? Or what the flim flam?

    1. Sure– there’s definitely a combinatorial poetics going on with the cards, good call…I don’t know Dr. Sadhu’s Muffins. But I love McCaffery’s _Carnival_ and his sound poetry with The Four Horsemen.

      1. Hey Michael,

        I thought that you could also come up with a pedagogical thing, you know, kind of an update of Kenneth Koch’s Rose Where Did You Get that Red? and that other book he did, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, I think it was called.

        1. Interesting idea, John. I hadn’t thought about that kind of audience since I’ve been so preoccupied with connecting SpongeBob with the avant-garde– but I will definitely keep this in mind. And, of course, “avant-garde” doesn’t necessarily equate with “adult.” This could be a really fun and interactive project…

  2. Was waaaiting for you to mention Gertrude Stein…

    I thought, “life is too short for this” at least four times.

    I don’t know. Mean week’s getting to me.

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