Words & Stuff

pp: Cold Attractors

(19 April 1998)

By now everyone is familiar with magnetic poetry kits, the craze that's hit half the refrigerators in America. There are dozens of specialized magnetic sets: computer terms, words from Shakespearean love poems, Shakespearean insults, Yiddish words, proverbs, and the International Phonetic Alphabet, among many others.

When I was first given a magnetic poetry set, my approach was to try to come up with a poem (or at least a line) in my head, then transcribe the poem onto the refrigerator by finding each word of it among the provided magnetic words. I don't recommend that approach -- it's too frustrating when half the words you're looking for aren't in the set (and it isn't really any different from writing poetry on paper or a computer screen, except that it takes longer). Arthur took another, much more sensible, approach: he picked words at random from the set, arranging them incrementally into a phrase or sentence or poem, and then filled in gaps by searching for specific words if necessary. Guided randomness -- if it worked for the Dadaists, why not for modern magnetic poets?

Arthur also used large-size alphabet magnets to spell out words that couldn't be found in the set. (Now, of course, many sets come with blank magnets and rub-off letters so you can make your own words.)

Here are some of my favorite bits from the early days of that set. Unattributed items are by miscellaneous anonymous houseguests. Capitalized words were spelled out in alphabet magnets.

after you fall
what void will I worship THEN

forest to shadow
no water to cool
rock & wind & sun &

she said
        live the lie

(I call that last one "Valley Existentialism.") Actually that last line read "y no," due to lack of punctuation and of the word "know." I like to use punctuation in poems; I consider the lack of it in magnetic poetry sets to be a severe drawback. Still, it's possible to create some amusing and interesting items without punctuation. (These, by the way, are separate items, not stanzas that go together.)

need friend
have chocolate
think about it

we are the egg men
of the moon


crush music like wax
dream pink mist
and sing honey

you cry and say
I am mad as raw silk
I want of light

Mostly, of course, the phrases and tidbits that people put together with these kits don't really add up to poetry. Here were a couple of brief phrases I liked:

always scream fast

some gift club she is

Here's an item that approaches poetry by including a title and being kinda obscure:

me and her

the breast garden
a thousand luscious shadows
but ask her why
she manipulates the frantic symphony
she says
you chain goddesses together

After I was given the Shakespearean insult kit, the level of discourse on the refrigerator degenerated somewhat (the capitalized words are from that kit):

lick my DECAYED sausage

Magnetic poetry is by nature ephemeral -- if you leave the words on your refrigerator, someone is bound to come along and move them around. One of my favorite pieces was literally deconstructed before I had a chance to copy it into a more permanent medium... I suppose some would say that the ephemerality is part of the charm of the form, as with soap bubbles and butterflies.

Like most of the above, this one no longer exists in magnetic form. Next to a fridge magnet with a picture of a Coke bottle, Arthur wrote:

on TV sing
marry beauty

I find a lot of the phrases and tidbits that people come up with to be quite evocative and interesting, but it's hard to say whether they're really poetry, much less good poetry. How do you define poetry, after all? I prefer poetry that scans and/or rhymes, but such poetry is even harder to create from a kit than from one's own private word-hoard, alas. The following items are my two best attempts; even so, both are more like first drafts of first stanzas than full poems.

This one is something of a note on ephemerality:

the god of night devours steel
as liquid time decays concrete
and porcelain flowers melt away
like marble in a stream

And finally, an admonition to lovers, written entirely with words from the Shakespearean Love Kit (plus punctuation added later):

Cease thy cold celestial adoration!
Danger hath a savage amorous charm;
Languish not in drowsy desolation
But kindle white-hot flame to keep thee warm.

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>