Exquisite Corpse: A Poet’s Cannibal Doggybag
If your childhood was anything like mine, you spent an awful lot of time playing Silly Sentences: writing a few lines, then folding the paper over neatly and passing it to your friend, who would continue the story with what were, for eleven year-olds, hilarious results. We played it at nearly every sleepover and most school sporting events, having faked sore ankles to get out of anything as unseemly as exercise. I probably still have all those accordioned bits of creation somewhere at home.
Years later, I’ve become similarly addicted to Silly Sentences’ more noble counterpart, Exquisite Corpse. Wikipedia tells us that Exquisite Corpse is a Surrealist technique which grew out of an old parlour game known as Consequences, which itself sounds more or less like Silly Sentences only with a slightly more dignified name. In an Exquisite Corpse, each poet writes a line, with only the line immediately preceding theirs as a clue to where the poem is going. The number of poets can vary, as can the number of circuits the confused train of logic makes through the city of conception. For someone like me, terminally frustrated by a sense of aggressive perfectionism, it’s a wonderful way to cut loose and just let the words flow. It’s kind of like a trust fall for poetry–there’s always someone else there to catch you.
all the things we had taken from it, that conscientious hollering coming from
behind the fly-screen door, rising like the whine of an aeroplane
until it deafens even the chirp and rattle of insects,
the world–lifeless as a horse-eye.”
Roddiek says: “Sharing the excitement I get out of playing with meaning is one big factor in me keeping it going. The feeling of discovery at the end, the surprise when people see how the meaning of their lines is entirely changed by the other lines.” As a regular participant (I’ve never missed a Corpse), I know exactly what he means. In the third Corpse, a fifty-six line poem thick with imagery but with a narrative best described as elusive, lines I tossed out while half asleep at midnight have become part of a greater, lyrical whole. “Hush, winter, hush, / droop the solemn rain and hissing, / the shadow beyond windows, the witch tree / which dangles its fruit”, as the third stanza runs. I’m not going to say which one is mine.
But the highlight of this past year, for me, has been the fourth Corpse. Two teams of nine poets were given the same opening line and then left to diverge, as it were, in a yellow wood. Either poem is beautiful on its own, but they are best read together, observing two separate trains of thought develop gradually from one original seed:
Both poems are well worth reading in their entirety, not just for the literary merit but for what they teach us about inspiration. According to Roddiek, the Exquisite Corpse is a technique he often turns to when he’s stuck on a piece of writing: “I find someone to play back and forth off, writing what comes to mind, opening myself to messing up and not making any sense and freeing me from my usual habits or constraints. Sometimes, I surprise myself with an unusal metaphor or imagery that I use in the piece of writing I was stuck on. These are usually the ones I love the most.” In these two poems, we see eighteen poets working to lead an idea down two very different paths. The surprise comes not from what we write as individuals, but how our individual ideas combine. And then we take those ideas back and use them in our own poetry.
These leads me, finally, to the title of this piece. An Exquisite Corpse, when done right, is an incredibly effective resource for poets. It allows us to exercise our writing muscles in an environment free from the pressure of creating alone. It allows us to relax and let the process take us in directions we might not normally go by ourselves. And most importantly, it gives us a collective inspiration to take back home and to incorporate in our own work. If you’re participating in a Corpse, then that corpse is a cannibal doggybag you shouldn’t hesitate to ask a waiter for. Take it home in the taxi. Unwrap it in the privacy of your kitchen. Let it sing.
“The thing I like most about the exquisite corpse is the lack of connection, of direction. All these different people with their different thought processes collaborating. It’s a poem created by a group, a collective that doesn’t see the big picture and doesn’t know what everyone else has written. They have no idea what they’re making. It’s incomprehensible to them. But out of all this, meanings and connections begin to appear, some central themes start being apparent. Things that weren’t intended are created. I like seeing all the different personalities and voices in one work, blending to create a wacky, nonlinear, and beautiful poem. ” –Roddiek Cuyno