April is National Poetry Month, and here’s a modest proposal on how to honor it: a brief moratorium on Magnetic Poetry, those small magnetic tiles stuck on fridges across the country and arranged in stray vectors of significant verse. There’s no denying the popularity of MagPo, as it’s called affectionately by its aficionados; the company that produces the tiles records sales of over $8 million a year, pumping out, since its founding in 1993, over 3 million sets. Spinoffs and rip-offs (such as a set composed of Shakespearean lyrics or the recent kit devoted to college life, with such poetic staples as “tequila,” “weed,” and “hottie”) abound. And MagPo’s visibility peaks during poetry month; a few years ago, a Volkswagen Bug toured the country covered in magnetic poetry; this year, cities such as Boston, Minneapolis, and Providence, R.I., are sponsoring giant poetry walls or Magnetic Poetry competitions.
I’ll be the first to admit that Magnetic Poetry can remind folks that words are fun to play with. But let’s be honest: More often than not, Magnetic Poetry is bad poetry. The kits are made up of words selected for their redolence or irony or wackiness, and when combined, tend to produce phrases and images more meretricious than meaningful. You get overwrought haiku fragments, vaguely erotic verbal couplings of body parts and tropical fruits. The emphasis is on the satisfaction of crafting a line that seems clever or evocative, not on what it actually might connote or mean or evoke. To the proponents of Magnetic Poetry, this is fine, since the point isn’t quality, but quantity and variability.
It’s an approach that makes sense, at least for a business. In fact, the producers of the Magnetic Poetry kits claim to champion a sort of poetic populism: “Everybody’s a poet,” (and thus a potential customer) says Magnetic Poetry inventor Dave Kapell, who is determined to “give poetry back to the people.” Adds Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate, in the introduction to a 1998 anthology of Magnetic Poetry selected from the nation’s most sensitive fridges, “When you see these little words scattered on a refrigerator door, and feel a desire to shuffle them around, you are responding to some of the deepest urges in the human animal.” But MagPo is usually written with an I Ching arbitrariness that’s the opposite of painstakingly crafted poetic expression. A lot of people might consider singing in the shower the satisfaction of an urge, but I don’t think that when I yodel an approximation of an aria, it helps me appreciate Verdi.
It’s worth noting that there is actually one highly anthologized example of refrigerator poetry in American Letters: William Carlos Williams’ spare and strangely stirring “This Is Just To Say” (click here to read it). In it, Williams apologizes, via fridge note, for eating some plums that his wife had left in the icebox. But can you imagine anyone writing a magnetic poem with language as austere? Or as powerful? The “plums” tile would have been squandered on some indistinct sexual innuendo.
Despite its name, Magnetic Poetry isn’t really about creating a new generation of poets as much as forging a new generation of singer-songwriters, committed more to the idea of this poetic urge than to language itself. In fact, before he became an entrepreneur, Kapell was himself a struggling rocker, suffering from a severe case of writer’s block. He cut out some words that he had used in his songs and put them on scraps of paper and began to arrange them. Kapell also had allergies, and after one unpropitious ha-choo, the papers went flying. So he came up with the idea of gluing the papers to advertising magnets from his roommate’s pizza parlor. His company now seems to cherish its links to pop verbiage; its Web site boasts that in one of Madonna’s recent songs, 96.8 percent of the words also appear in their standard kit. Helpfully, it even includes some of them: blue, boy, desire, devour, fever, fire, ghost, home, magic, moist, ocean, throb, warm, window. The site suggests that “Madonna and Magnetic Poetry are just listening to the same muse … have tapped into the poetic zeitgeist. If this is the case, we feel like we’re in pretty good company.” But Madonna isn’t a poet, and whatever muse she’s guided by should not be the one presiding over poetry month. Let’s make April—after all, the cruelest month—the one in which we recognize that.