Chasing the Absurd Muse

The following is a guest post by Gene Twaronite, whose poetry appeared in in issue 18 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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My prose poem “Food Chain,” published in Typehouse Issue 15, begins with a line guaranteed to put a reader to sleep: “I was out walking my dog.” What was I thinking? Blame it on James Tate. I had just finished reading his last book The Government Lake, consisting entirely of prose poems, published four years after his death in 2015. Many of his first lines are equally prosaic. Example: “The dog played in the snow all afternoon.” But here’s the thing about James Tate. You just know he’s going to take that line somewhere you didn’t expect—a strange world where anything can happen and you end up either guffawing or scratching your head in befuddlement.

Tate was a master of the absurd. Watching him chase after his muse like a hound zigzagging through the woods, with surreal situations and wordplay, is a mind-bending treat. I was intrigued by his poem “My New Pet” and was inspired to take the subject matter in a new direction and try writing a prose poem of my own. I’ve never been big on dogs. I’m more a python and tarantula kind of guy. I got to thinking about what would make a really weird pet, and a bright yellow banana slug popped into my head. But because it’s a dog lover’s world, I decided to have my main character out walking his slug as if it were a dog. I didn’t have a clue where this was going, but the chase was on. If there’s any message to my poem, perhaps it’s simply to enjoy the ride.

Edward Lear was another poet who inspired me to follow the absurd muse. Here’s the first line from one of his poems: “They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,” (The Jumblies). With its perfect meter and silly setup, it has stayed with me from the first time I read it. Just where are they supposed to go in a sieve? Why, to visit “the lands where the Jumblies live,” of course.

Poets who write for children are especially attuned to the absurd muse. Shel Silverstein’s poems range from pure silliness, as in “Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich,” to profound, as in the sad lesson of “Lester” (from Where the Sidewalk Ends). But even in his most silly poems there is a depth of profundity that’s hard to define. Maybe silliness itself is the message.

Any reader of Billy Collins knows that his poems are often laced with absurdity. My favorite example is his poem “Cosmology,” in which he replaces “that image of the earth/resting on the backs of four elephants/who are standing on a giant sea turtle” with one of his own: “resting on the head of Keith Richards.” And maybe I’ll just leave you with that image.

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Gene Twaronite is a Tucson poet, essayist, and children’s fiction writer. He is the author of ten books, including two juvenile fantasy novels as well as collections of essays, short stories, and poems, and a forthcoming picture book. His poetry book Trash Picker on Mars (Kelsay Books) was the winner of the 2017 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Arizona poetry. His latest book is My Life as a Sperm. Essays from the Absurd Side. Follow more of Gene’s writing at his website: thetwaronitezone.com.

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