When I was little, I liked to make lists of things: sports I liked to play, bands/singers I liked to listen to, R.L. Stein books I’ve read and have yet to read. It was all usually things I liked, things that sort of defined me at the time. Today, I was similarly moved to make such a list, but this time, of TV shows I like, ones that warrant binge-watching entire seasons at a time. I don’t quite know why I’m compelled in this way. Why is the act of making a list a pleasurable thing? Is it the thinking process, the discerning? The result, the seeing them all together? Once I’ve exhausted the obvious ones, I’m forced to think of ones I might have forgotten about otherwise, thereby perhaps reinvigorating the idea? Homage? Inclusion? (Exclusion?) Is it like creating a club and I’m the leader who gets to approve membership (like picking teams in grade school kickball)? Am I attempting to keep myself organized? If I write down every city I’ve ever been to, will I then know myself more fully? Am I better able to hold myself together after listing every film that has ever made me cry?
And following this list of questions, another— Why the list poem? Similar to my list-creating desire’s elementary origins, the list poem is a technique often introduced to the young writer as a handy image-compiling tool. Some primary school teachers ask their students to create list poems to introduce themselves to their classmates, or when poetry is brand new. It’s easy. It’s fun. It’s productive, straight-forward self-reflection. And all of these are assets to someone in her late 20s (or, anyone older than primary school age) too. The list poem enacts this youthful ease of compartmentalization, while engaging with the more mature task of exploring a thing from all its angles.
Catherine Bowman makes lists in “Sylvia’s Photo Album,” “Things To Eat, Paris, 1953” and her series of “Things To Do” poems, all from The Plath Cabinet. Susan Firer’s list poems include “Small Milwaukee Museums,” “Where Song Comes From,” and “The Wave Docent.” Paul Guest gives us “My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge,” “To-Do List,” and “Things We Agreed Not to Shout,” which is reproduced here:
Things We Agreed Not to Shout [by Paul Guest]
Mom is dead. Dad melted. Again.
Bitter recriminations. Bitter infidelities. Bitter.
Streisand is on. Finnish curses on the firstborn
of everyone who held us back. My credit rating.
Your many catalogs of shame. Scrapbook time.
Do you remember where we sank the kindergarteners?
Infectious constipation. In our spare time,
we enjoy perfecting methods of evisceration.
Bingo. Also, fire. Let’s make a baby.
Not anymore. You feel kind of weird inside.
My brother’s indiscretions. My indiscretion
with your brother. That lost weekend in Vegas.
Landslide of therapy. Moving to another state. Again.
We are running out of America. Faster.
Right there. Good girl. Judas Priest lyrics.
Freebird. Woo. Random latitudes.
Imagined injuries. Getting tired of your meniscus.
Seriously. Routing numbers
and decade by decade
delineations of your bra sizes. Beginning with the seventies.
You promised. I thought you were
asleep. I thought you wouldn’t mind it.
The list poem inherently invites the reader into its space. It asks for suggestions. What’s left out here? What could be added to this list? What kinds of things have you agreed not to shout? (To Guest’s list, I’d add, “Curse words at seagulls in the morning.”)
But there’s also a clear reason why the reader’s additions are not a part of the list already (so clear that it probably doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway): This is not my list. This list is a representation of the speaker at a particular moment in time. It’s possible that he might agree next week not to shout curse words at seagulls in the morning. But at the time of the poem, it wasn’t a defining piece of his character. Maybe it’s a piece of mine though… So maybe I’ll create my own list… And oh, another reason the list poem is so spectacular! The encouragement of new poems. And then, years after you write your own “things I’ve agreed not to shout” poem, you might write another one because maybe you’ve decided to start shouting at seagulls since then. It’s a wonderful process, really.
So I’m going to go make a list of all my favorite TV shows. Who really knows why. But when I’m done, the list will exist, and I will have it to look at and consider its implications, what it says about me as a TV watcher, an entertainment seeker, an American, a human being. And maybe I’ll never look at it again. Or I’ll make another list in 15 years because this list doesn’t define me anymore. Or maybe I’ll make a poem of it, like John Ashbery’s “They Knew What They Wanted,” a list poem comprised of film titles. And then he’ll write a poem in response to mine comprised of only TV show titles. And then… well, the list goes on, doesn’t it?