Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Ball tell us in their introduction to Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry that poetry “seems to lack humour” (13). Since, they suggest, poetry “must move the reader to some epiphany through the subtle revelation of some aspect of the human condition,” it is generally understood to be [End Page 127] serious to the point of sanctimoniousness. In the introduction, along with a few comic asides and cute footnotes, Fitzpatrick and Ball offer this collection of experimental poetry as an exception and a corrective: “As a result of its emphasis on attentive and playful work with the material of language,” they argue, “experimental poetry may … have a different, perhaps closer, relationship to humour than so-called ‘conventional’ poetry” (15).
The poetry Fitzpatrick and Ball consider experimental takes a number of forms, but the overall thrust is toward the conceptual. Some poems are built around a particular challenge, like Elizabeth Bachinsky’s entertaining “Lead the Wants,” built out of line-by-line anagrams of The Waste Land (1922). There is an excerpt from Christian Bök’s Eunoia (2001), in which each chapter uses only a single vowel—a constraint Bök works with fluidly, constructing a clever, multilingual narrative within his self-imposed limits. Fitzpatrick and Ball are particularly fond of high/low fusions and include several poets whose work takes the form of Facebook posts—for example, a meme by Ray Hsu, in which the puzzled face of the character Fry from Futurama is juxtaposed with the words “NOT SURE IF REALLY BAD POEM / OR JUST EXPERIMENTAL.”
Not coincidentally, the most interesting poems here are also the most funny, because they are the most original. Standouts include Oana Avasilichioaei and Erín Moure’s mistranslations of the Romanian poet Nichita Stănescu; Derek Beaulieu’s “Nothing Odd Can Last,” which poses questions to a book club about Tristram Shandy; Jeramy Dodds’s parodic national anthem “Canadæ”; Kevin Mcpherson Eckhoff’s poems, which would work as well on the wall of an art gallery as in a book; Susan Holbrook and Nicole Markotić’s poems built out of like-sounding phrases (“Is it worth the portage?” / “Sift words into his package” [188–89]); Kathryn Mockler’s sound advice (“It is not a good idea to be in the same room as someone who is about to murder you” ); Jordan Scott’s work built around words that make him stutter; Ian Williams’s “Hay,” in which as the poem progresses more and more words are replaced by the word “needle”; and Daniel Zomparelli’s poetry standing “at / the corner / of commerce and / gay culture” (279). The editors supply introductions to each poet, providing explanations (some necessary, some not) of the poems’ jokes, elucidating the theories that drive these individual works and, in some cases, connecting them to each other.
There are some obvious formulas. Internet trends are a major formal principle: lists in the style of Timothy McSweeney’s, Facebook dialogue, and [End Page 128] what might be called “tweetiness.” Also popular are the revision of canonical texts into nonsense and the comic reference to pop cultural ephemera. In some cases it’s not clear what counts as experimental, except in the sense that a high school physics lab is an experiment—we know what the answer is going to be, and it’s just a question of whether the student can get the right results. But the best work is playful, unusual, and quite funny.
Fitzpatrick and Ball define experimental poetry as poetry that is “theory-driven.” By that definition, not only modernist texts but also the parodies of modernism collected in Leonard Diepeveen’s Mock Modernism are highly experimental. But while the two books share that basic premise, Mock Modernism is a far heftier and more varied anthology than Why Poetry Sucks. Diepeveen, like Fitzpatrick and Ball, provides an introduction...