Jessica Piazza is the author of the two full-length poetry collections from Red Hen Press -- Interrobang (which won the A Room of One's Own Foundation To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize and the Balcones Prize for Poetry) -- and Obliterations (co-written with Heather Aimee O'Neill), as well as the chapbook This is not a sky (Black Lawrence Press). Jessica curates the Poetry Has Value blog, where she and others explore the intersection of poetry, money, and worth. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, she now teaches Writing & Rhetoric at the University of Southern California, where she received a Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing. Learn more at www.jessicapiazza.com and
Before you go any further, please read this article on Muppet Theory by Dahlia Lithwick. Yes, you heard me. Muppet Theory. A brilliant piece of sociological philosophy, if you ask me:
Okay. So you now understand that you’re either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet. Or you’re desperately trying to figure out which one you are. It doesn’t matter, really, because we’re taking this train to the next stop anyway. We’re going to apply this theory to poetry.
We’ll start simply. Language poets are probably Chaos Muppets. New Formalists are maybe Order Muppets. (Many of you will disagree, but I don’t care. Despite my groomed eyebrows and general love of whimsy, I share the article author’s personal classification: Faux Chaos Muppet. In other words, I like to categorize. Disagree away.)
Each of us, in our writing, probably leans toward one pole of muppetry or another, and this is natural and right and good.
But, maybe it doesn’t make the best poetry.
Let me explain.
According to Ovid, "All things human hang by a slender thread; and that which seemed to stand strong suddenly falls and sinks in ruins.” As perfect (if perhaps cynical) a synopsis of the human condition this is, it’s an even better description of the kind of writing that gets me excited.
My favorite poems live in that exact realm of humanity: illuminating both the strength AND the ruin that we all necessarily embody. One might consider those kinds of pieces, then, representations of Ovid’s slender thread. Or, even better, maybe they are those ideal Muppet Marriages Dahlia Lithwick describes so well in the Muppet Theory article. The place where the Chaos Muppet and the Order Muppet meet.
You see, this kind of writing treads the thin division between that which can guide us and that which can break us. And poems that attempt to walk such a potentially threadbare line can never be calm—they are born of nervous hands, insecure egos, born of the self-doubt that comes from trying desperately to be strong while ultimately falling into various forms of demise (mental, physical, situational or emotional.) Chaos Muppet to the extreme.
On the page, the neurosis can show up in so many ways. Attempts to codify the sound of language without its meaning, like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Fragments, whether phrasal the way Apollinaire did them or even through disjunctive sentences the way Lyn Hejinian does. The whirlwind, endless, and changing narrative, like Richard Siken perfected. Poetry of accumulation, like Paul Guest’s. These, to me, scream Chaos Muppet, in the very, very best way.
However, in order to function successfully at all textually, these poems and the best like them combat this nervousness of subject through a poetics focused at least somewhat on order. The order might not be obvious even to the reader, but most of them have systems, and the existence of those systems saves the poems from being rants or jibberish. (Rants and jibberish are great. Seriously. I think that. I just think they’re one thing, and I’m talking about another thing. )
Just like chaos, poetic order comes in many packages: The regular, iambic rhythm of a perfect Alexander Pope poem. The free verse piece that strives for some visual or recognizable regularity, like William Carlos William’s triadic verse poems. End rhymes. Regular line-lengths. Even the desire for stanzas of the same number of lines belies the quest for Order Muppetry that so much traditional and contemporary poetry embodies.
And there it is. Louise Glück wrote “In the broken thing…human agency is oddly implied: breakage, whatever its cause, is the dark complement to the act of making; the one implies the other.” In both the order and the breaking of order, poems receive their breath. The making is the order and the breaking is the chaos. Together, they are sublime.
In my own poems, and on the most oblique level, I’m trying for a manifestation of the struggle between wholeness and breaking in a few ways. My poems are always about tension – and they find a voice for their tension in the clash between meter and internal rhymes. Through an incessant (some have said bullying...I prefer unyielding) use of repetitive metrical structures, rhyme and alliteration.
Forms and metrical structures themselves embody order. (I’m a bit of a sonnetphile and a prosody nerd, myself. Order, order, order! Rules, rules, rules!) But when I combine the gallop of the iamb with consistent (and insistent!) internal rhymes, alliteration, sound parallels and sound turns, it takes this formal music and adds an entirely new music right on top of it. And we all know what happens when you play two very different songs at once. No matter how ordered each might be on its own, the two layered are sheer sound chaos.
I personally hope this juxtaposition produces a sound that evokes the pulse of obsession. Obsession, to me, is a great manifestation of this marriage of order and chaos. Obsession is orderly in that it is one-directional, dogged, predictable. It’s also chaotic in that it’s volatile, unrelenting and emotionally tumultuous. In that way, my own search for a Muppet Marriage lives in the sound landscapes of my poems. Clock ticks that never relent. A tell-tale heart beating beneath the floor of the poems. An order that only barely contains the chaos.
Now, as you might already be screaming into the dumb light of your device’s screen, D.H. Lawrence basically already said this. Not the muppet part, of course, but the gist of its application to poetry. In fact, he pretty much posits that poets themselves, regardless of form and structure and content, are always demonstrating a search for this Muppet Marriage.
Poets, he writes: “reveal the inward desire of mankind. What do they reveal? They show the desire for chaos, and the fear of chaos. The desire for chaos is the breath of their poetry. The fear of chaos is in their parade of forms and techniques.”
So, this isn’t particularly new.
But I do think it’s a useful exercise for poets to figure out where their poems fall on the Muppet Theory scale, and how they might use craft tools to inject a little of the opposite approach into their work. Teaching craft tools that feel out of the box to my students is a core philosophy of my creative writing pedagogy, and though I never exactly realized I was trying to play match-maker to poetic Muppet Marriages, I suppose that’s what I do. And I’m pretty happy with the results.
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Where Chaos Muppets and Order Muppets Meet: A Poetic Manifesto by Jessica Piazza, this year's Conference Poet
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