Multiverse by Mike Smith
The idea that a constraint, such as a traditional poetic form, Oulipo experimentation, or other imposition of form onto a poem, can lead to vibrant creation is far from exhausted. Even the oldest and most explored forms are still being used successfully. Multiverse is a two part collection of anagrams, as is explained in an opening “To the Reader” section. In this introduction, Smith, defines “anagram” for us, “The letters of one poem have been rearranged to write each of the other poems,” and then emphasizes “No letters have been added and no letters have been left out,” giving the impression that Smith is very impressed with his execution of the form. The first part is a bestiary of anagrams, whose source is one of Smith's original poems.
Unfortunately, Smith explains one of the interpretations of the anagram form for us. “The operating principle of the anagram being something akin to the 'letters' of DNA.” As impressed as Smith is with his ability to create a bestiary out of anagrams, he doesn't have much faith in the ability of his readers to appreciate what is probably the most apparent interpretation of the structure of his chosen form.
Smith's “DNA” interpretation is even more unfortunate, because the wonder of DNA is that a mere four “letters” combine themselves into the myriad expressions of biological life. But Smith's anagrams are hundreds of letters long. The length of the poems makes it hard to notice that they're anagrams. If Smith hadn't explained his project in the introduction, I don't think I would have noticed it. Along with the creativity that is generated in working within a constraint, constrained poems often have the appeal of a fete. The reader is impressed the poet is able to meet the requirements of the form. Smith's anagrams are too large to be noticeable, therefore they are less impressive.
The introduction then explains the second section of the collection, cringingly titled “Anagrams of America.” The poems in this section are anagrams of works that were “for some reason or another... important in [Smith's] development as a reader and a writer.” At this point, I'm not sure why I should care about Smith's development as a reader and writer. The point is not that he shouldn't have written the poems and included them in the collection, but that he has imposed a Mike Smith-based value on them before establishing the value of Mike Smith. Then he is compelled to explain what an anagram is, again, even though it is a common term and even though he explained it already on the same page. He repeats, "As in the first section, no letters have been added and no letters have been left out.”
Regardless, Smith constantly loosens the anagram constraint, by using prose source material, combining multiple source poems into a single anagram, and including an unverifiable source in one of the poems, using letters “taken from a notice posted outside the Greyhound bus depot in South Bend, Indiana.”
However, the anagram would not be the most impressive aspect of this constraint; Mike Smith's work standing up to poems by Dickinson, Whitman, Crane, Bishop, Frost, Williams, and others, would be. Unfortunately, for Smith, they don't. Without the presence of the originals several of the poems are pretty good (“The Station: A Second Take” for example), but his Williams anagram, which includes the letters of “Spring and All,” and “This is Just to Say,” contains nothing of the direct brilliance of the originals, the poem built from works by Dickinson reads like a high school poetry assignment, and Smith absolutely mangles “O Captain, My Captain.”
There are bright spots in the collection. “Elephants” is an excellent poem right up until the final couplet. “Dog” has some very good moments, as does “Anemone, Limpet, Mussel, Crab,” and “Fugue for Fugu” ends wonderfully with this stanza, “Drink to the largest livers, weary sitters/at the table of the fat gods, to bodies/doused days in the rain that rise, reborn,/next to open plots, to old hunger/and empty dumpsters. May we pray easy/to ease us down our only way.” Furthermore, excepting the Whitman travesty, the poems are all well composed and well written.
I have to wonder how I would have read this collection without the author's introduction. Smith's repetition of the definition of “anagram” implied that he was very impressed with his efforts, far more impressed than I was. In “Robops,” Smith writes, “...We lament/the possibilities for misunderstanding/inherent in many inventions...” and this might explain why he felt compelled to explain his project. But the point of reading poetry is not to “get” what the poet is doing, but to “get” something else about yourself and the world from reading the poem. If you are impressed by the poet's accomplishment, that is a bonus. Furthermore, the potential for productive misunderstanding is one of the things that makes literature, literature. Ultimately, I think Smith is so enraptured with his efforts, he loses sight of how the readers might interact with his work. There might be some very good poems in this collection, but they've been crushed under the weight of an unsuccessful project.
Multiverse by Mike Smith