Sound, Beat Poetry, & SpongeBob SquarePants
“the poetry of sound . . .marks the beginning of a new era … of revolt against the trite and outworn language of the understandable.”
—Langston Hughes to Countee Cullen, qtd. in Maria Damon, The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry (1993)
Back in May, I discussed Patrick’s poetry in a post called “SpongeBob SquarePants and the Value of Bad Poetry.” Now I’d like to turn my attention to Gary’s “beat” poetry which briefly appears in the season one episode called “Culture Shock.” (For you Spongebob neophytes—Gary is Spongebob’s adorable pet snail, and, in the topsy-turvy world of Bikini Bottom, snails meow like cats and sea worms bark like dogs).
“Culture Shock” centers around a talent show emceed by the cranky and cantankerous Squidward Tentacles who has aspirations to be a contemporary dancer. There are a variety of hilarious acts—Pearl’s cheerleading routine, Plankton’s magic trick—but the most surprising one, by far, is Gary’s poetry reading:
Squidward: And now, poetry. (Walks backstage but peeks his head through the curtain) By Gary. (Curtain opens. Gary is on a stool.)
Gary: Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow. Meow.
Sandy: He had such a way with words.
Squidward: (Checks his watch.) Come on, come on, Ginsberg, if he doesn’t hurry it up, we’re not going to have time for the best act…me!
My first thought was that this episode was poking fun at the clichéd image of the cool, goateed, and beret- sporting beatnik who frequents jazz clubs and poetry cafes, the romantic poser who tries to use poetry and his “way with words” to impress women. I thought of such Ginsberg phrases like “the last gyzym of consciousness” and “the snatch of the sunrise” and figured that Sandy was reacting to some domesticated and stereotypical form of beat poetry as opposed to the intense rawness that we get from a writer like Ginsberg or Kaufman.
But then I realized, as is often the case, that SpongeBob is deceptively savvy, and Sandy’s reaction shouldn’t be taken at face value. The irony, of course, is that Gary’s poem, to quote the SpongeBob SqaurePants Wiki, “consists entirely of indiscernible meowing,” that instead of having a “way with words,” he was getting away from words toward sound. The point seems to be indiscernibility as such, that the privileging of sound over articulation was part of the Beats’ oppositional poetics and one of their crucial techniques to register social as well as personal trauma. In this context, Gary’s poem can be more properly understood as a sound poem, as a funny example of what Ginsberg would call “exquisite noise.”
In fact, I consider Gary’s poem to be an explicit homage to the use of sound and repetition by his beat predecessors. Consider the last section of “Kaddish” that ends with the line, “Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord.”
We might also remember the fractured stuttering of Kaufman’s “Crootey Songo” which has lines like, “ENGPOP, ENGPOP, BOP, PLOLO, PLOLO, BOP, BOP.”
So even if Gary is a domestic pet, in the spirit of the beats, his poetry proves to be refreshingly undomesticated.