Friday, April 6, 2012

exquisitely progressive

Thanks to Irene Latham, many of us in the Kidlitosphere are enjoying the first ever KidLit National Poetry Month Progressive Poem. Irene started us off with first line which is both welcoming and intriguing (I love her meditation on how she came to the important very first word, "if"), and now the poem is passing, line by line and author by author, around the community...and we can all see what's developing!

Mary Lee has today's line and says, "Right now this seems to be a poem of friendship, a poem of comfort...with the possibility of a little magic thrown in. What will become of those silver slippers?"

If you are reading this
you must be hungry
Kick off your silver slippers
Come sit with us a spell

A hanky, here, now dry your tears
And fill your glass with wine

While this may be the first-ever Kidlit NPM Progressive Poem, what we're all playing at actually has a long history, beginning with a parlor game called Consequences played during the Victorian era. Here's how the middle- and upper-classes amused themselves of an evening once leisure time was established and before radio and TV took over, from Wikipedia:

Each person takes a turn choosing a word or phrase for one of nine questions, in this order.

1.Adjective for man
2.Man's name
4.Adjective for woman
5.Woman's name
6.Where they met
7.He wore
8.She wore
9.He said to her
10.She said to him
11.The consequence was… (a description of what happened after)
12.What the world said

Then the story is read (for example):  Scary Bob met voluptuous Alice at the zoo. He wore a giant yellow banana costume She wore a lime green string vest, & a pink tutu. He said "This is delicious," she said "Hit me baby one more time." The consequence was that they eloped to Mexico. The world said "the femme fatale will always win".
The game is traditionally played by writing the words on paper and folding the paper to hide the previous words before passing it to the next player.  You can see how this led fairly directly to Madlibs, which were introduced as a paper-and-pencil game in 1958 by Roger Price and "Honeymooners" script writer Leonard Stern. (In his little memoir, Leonard insists that the two originated the Madlibs concept, but of course in 1958 there was no Wikipedia to describe the game of Consequences for them.)

By 1925 at least, a group of artists (both visual and literary) of the Dada and Surrealist movements were using the Consequences technique, which came be known as le cadavre exquis (from one of the early playings of the game in Paris).  According to Andre Breton, "we would turn to games; written games at first, contrived so that elements of language attacked each other in the most paradoxical manner possible, and so that human communication, misled from the start, was thrown into the mood most amenable to adventure." 
From this came lines like, "The completely black light lays down day and night the powerless suspension to do any good."

The jump from paradoxical juxtapositions of words to those of drawings, especially body parts, is easy to make, and I personally learned the Exquisite Corpse game as a drawing game, with each section of the body hidden by folding as the paper passes around.   Here are some of the Surrealists' results.

It's fun to think that "my" version of Exquisite Corpse actually began as a poetry game played by the likes of Tristan Tzara, from whom comes the poem below.  In the meantime, I'm wondering how a "blind" version of the Progressive Poem would work, one in which we the adventuring authors could NOT see and follow the development of the poem as it travels from "house" to "house." 

To Make a Dadaist Poem

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are--an infinitely original author of charming sensibility,
even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
Tristan Tzara
Enjoy some more infinitely original and charming sensibility today at Read, Write, Howl with Robyn!


  1. Oh, I love this post and all these musings. And I'm reminded, too, of the Japanese renga poems that could go on for hundreds of verses - or even a thousand! - centuries ago.

  2. I love the entire dadaism period simply because I have an affinity for all things strange and surreal. This post is highly informative, Heidi, and quite fascinating too with all those tidbits and facts. It sounds like a wondrous time to be in.

  3. i discovered tzara back in college, and felt i'd found a home.

    "The poem will resemble you."

    indeed. how could it not?

  4. Hi, Heidi. What an informative post! I'm with Robyn -- I thought of the renga form. One story I heard about that version of progressive poetry, the guest of honor always wrote the opening poem (a form of haiku).

    I didn't know that the Dadaists played at this, but it makes complete sense. Or nonsense.

  5. Heidi, thank you so much for this historical information! I participated in a Speed Writing workshop once where we did this verbally -- and I believe the presenter added in some other plotty kind of prompts. It's every bit as much fun as Mad Libs. And I am loving the splash of wine Mary Lee brought to our poem! Who knows how sloshy (sloshed) it will be by the time it reaches you?? :)

  6. Thank you for the history lesson!

    I'm going to try some newspaper blackout poems again this year...maybe I'll try cutting some words out and making a "shake and bake" poem, too!


Thanks for joining in the wild rumpus!