Tao Lin vs. William Carlos Williams in an Epic Battle of Irritation

In the reader bag we go, with this request, “Why not Tao Lin against someone dead? You always match people against someone dead.”

Uh, ok. Well, some might say Jesus Christ is very much alive, turning the watery blood of our hearts into wine, etc. Others might say Philip Larkin lives in the dregs of every coffee cup. But I do see your point. I feel the dead should have a voice. I mean it’s tough to know that when you die not that many people are really going to care for very long–the world will just keep rolling on. Sure, it’s sad, blah-to-the-blah, but I also need to get a lo-fat vanilla latte, like right now. So I try to give the dead a little voice. A brief word with us living.

For various concerns, I hesitate to explicate either poet. I mean Tao Lin considers annoyance as a genre to explore, like poetry or bumper stickers. And William Carlos Williams uses his first name as his last name. Who does that? Ol’ WCW seems like the kind of guy who who never tips well. Or the girl who brings a six pack to your poker game, has one beer left in the fridge, so takes it home with her. And so on. THOSE people.

But, hey, this is like Amsterdam up in this here blog–the people get what they want.

Tao Lin vs. William Carlos Williams in a Match of Irritation:

Like a mosquito in your bedroom, art is meant to annoy. To keep you up swatting, hopefully crazy swatting, where you flail about and let spittle fly and miss the insect and ram your open hand through the mirror of your life like Martin Sheen in the opening montage/freak-out of Apocalypse Now (Sheen was drunk during this scene, cut his hand severely on the mirror glass, and later had a heart attack while on the set, all at age 38). Art should drink your freaking blood and spread the yellow malaria of thinking. Should make your head spin a dyslexic clusterfuck. Your heart ache with blasphemy. A heat fanning across your lungs, into your spine (forming a cyst there), making your ears go thick. Like coming home and Karate-kicking a tree stump in the forehead.


Here are two poems that feel like dropping my number one lollipop in the sand. But which can claim the victory?

Tao Lin enters the fray with his whale slaughtering epic “i went fishing with my family when i was five.”

William Carlos will submit every gardener’s favorite lever of force and axis, “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

As always, the rules are simple: Which author writes the more irritating poem of the two texts I have chosen? The categories are:

Most Annoying Opening Line

Most Annoying Image

Most Annoying Thing That Made Think

Most Annoying Reference to Nachos

Most Annoying Ending Line

Before we begin, I have a short anecdote concerning both works.

1.) A few nights ago I was putting my 4 year old to bed and he asked for a “fishing story.” This is not unusual; he is obsessed with fishing. But I didn’t tell him just any old fishing story. I told him Tao’s whale fishing poem, maybe the first 35 lines. This worked wonderfully, and my child immediately memorized the poem, only he changes one line. He says, “On the second day we ate whale” as opposed to “on the next night we ate whale.” But the effect is the same (or better?), since he says the “second day” line over and over and over, like the usual “next night” line. He is now going to recite the poem for show and tell at his daycare.

2.) I was at this conference thing at a university. At the lectern was a writer I cannot stand. For many reasons, I spleen her. So, I was so pleased when she was publicly called-out as obnoxious. She was complaining of how dumb undergraduate students are about literature (she’s the type who puts down younger students like she was never young, or a student) and she busted out this line about The Red Wheelbarrow: “Lots of these students don’t even know the difference between imagery and an imagist!” So then the moderator says, “Really? Well, I’m sure the audience would be interested to hear the difference right now.”

She stood there frozen, squirmed a bit, let out this sigh like a ghoul escaping a pumpkin, and said, “Well, I’m not saying I know..”

Ok, onto the match:

Most Annoying Opening Line

TL: “when i was five”

A classic colloquial voice here, a trope of narrative, up there with “A man walks into a bar” or “You won’t believe what happened today.” But is it annoying? A bit. The irritation is in the “i” and the lowercase spelling of the title.

the lowercase title means you must be reading a poem, right? possibly a hip poem. possible if this poem is read aloud people will drink pbr in the crowd (they will-i’ll have video proof later).

The poet Bruce Smith once told me, “American poets look out the window at the world, and then write about themselves.”

So, yes, it gets irritation points.

WCW: “so much depends”

Well, if you have ever taken a lit class, (and if you have, don’t worry, this poem was in the class), you know this line is one of the “hinge” moments of the poem, supposedly opening a door to its meaning, and…oh god I can’t go on.

(I just hurled up a piano)

It scores points for vagueness. Being vague is actually a smart CW technique, for a first line. Ever seen a magazine cover that announces “IT WILL MAKE YOU LOSE TEN POUNDS” or “IT WILL HELP YOUR SEX LIFE IN FIVE MINUTES!” Purposely vague can lead to an unanswered question, a reason to read on….

But is it as annoying as Tao’s? Not really.

Most Annoying Image

TL: I’m not really seeing any images here.

WCW: THE WHOLE FREAKING POEM IS AN IMAGE!!! That’s the point right? Simply isolating an object to express its essence. “No truth but in things,” etc.

But the MOST annoying is easily the “glazed with rain.” Glazed sounds like a poet trying to be a poet to me. I’m from Memphis, TN–the only thing I want to see glazed are the best donuts in the world.

Most Annoying Thing That Made Think

TL: Line 84, “the next night we ate whale” (this is also line 11, 104, 214, and others)

As we know, mantra is sound. Sounds exist in everything, molecules a-quivering. Not to get all physics class on you, but meditative mantras (Tibetan, Indian, etc.) are most likely linked to the various waves/vibrations constantly cycling through the universe (and our bodies).

So to judge this section, I sat cross-legged alongside a buckeye tree at the rear of my property and chanted:

the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale…


After 5 minutes of this, a great blue heron swooped into the nearby creek and speared a diet Mountain Dew can. I saw a bluegill the size of a Nike. A bee bumbled by. My mind went all open briefcase. I thought about Moby Dick. Or how they killed the little whale who was lost and suckling the teat of a pleasure yacht. Then animal rights: we eat cow, but not whale. Chicken but not crow. I knew a woman once who would eat pork but then owned and loved a dog..this whole experience was very irritating.

WCW: None of the lines in this poem made me think. So I had to call my mother, a high school English teacher. She was in the bathtub. Her knee hurt. She said, “He wrote that poem in five minutes.” Now that did make me think.

This is what I thought: “How could it take that long?”

Most Annoying Reference to Nachos

Neither poet referenced nachos. I blame Tao Lin, since he has a dinner setting, with characters eating multiple meals. Not even a twig of cheese? A wedge of tortilla? You’re going to sit here and tell me you couldn’t place a shred of whale on top a tortilla?

Whale Nachos


1 (105 ton) Whale
1896 lbs Onions
7326 lbs Jalapeños
1908 gallons melted cheese
2276 lbs black beans
927 lbs pico
104 lbs cumin
76 lbs cayenne flakes
52 gallons hot sauce


Place whale on tortillas. Broil at 300 degrees for 14 minutes. Add onions, jalapeños, cheese, cumin, beans, pico, and hot sauce. Flake with cayenne. Serves 347,161 people.

Most Annoying Ending Line

TL: ” the next night we ate whale”

Tao Lin sometimes drops this line at 3 minutes, sometimes 7 or 8, depends on the reading venue and time regulations. Whenever, it really doesn’t annoy. Most are relieved. But a few are indeed irritated. Those people have entered a meditative state (see above) they enjoy.

WCW: “chickens.”

This is not that annoying. I like it. I mean I could hang out with someone who just gave you a look and dryly said, “Chickens.”



At first, I thought we had something here, a chance at some friction and verve. But the more I examined these two works, the more I started to feel William Carlos Williams had a brain of cabbage. His poem couldn’t win because cardboard is not an appropriate material for a surfboard. His poem just made me feel like thunk.

In Tao Lin’s honor, here is a reading from his memoir, the short version (note the smart women drinking cheap beer).


16 responses to “Tao Lin vs. William Carlos Williams in an Epic Battle of Irritation

  1. This really is a grudge match. I did my undergraduate senior thesis on WCW because there weren’t any seminars offered on fiction (really, Oakland University? No room for a fiction seminar between all the Emily Dickinson classes?), and because the other choices were Wallace Stevens and Adrienne Riche. I just learned how to say Riche’s name right like yesterday.

  2. Oh, the point of that story was that I don’t like WCW very much. I’m sure it was clear, but I just wanted to be explicit.

  3. The funny thing about that video is the two girls who, after 45-50 seconds of the whale eating, get the look on their faces like one of them just farted and they both were trying to be so cool they were determined to just ignore it.

  4. watched the video. i must not be cool enough to “get it”

  5. Love Tao Lin poem. Read it to my girlfriend and she did, indeed laugh. Wish I could believe you were really meditating, but I know you are far to hyper for that.

  6. alas we will never know wcw’s feelings on American Apparel

    what a fucking loss

  7. but seriously that was fun. thanks.

  8. These are genius. Have you read the Murakami book on running?

  9. that was the best wrestling match i have ever read.

  10. this is a riot, sean! i’ve written down the recipe for whale nachos, in case one comes my way.

    i’m tickled pink that your son is obsessed with whales. my niece is obsessed with witches. it must be the “w”.


    p.s. if you pour beer in the laptop cooler, i think that counts as refrigeration.

  11. whale fishing is so hard …….\\\
    i like whale fishing & all fish.

    then plz sent me whale fishing video..

    Ali Malik

  12. Tao Lin’s poem is just a smart little joke, and an exercise in the visual aspect of poetry. It’s funny that a kid would catch a whale, and that for the next 4000 nights his family would eat whale. Tao Lin performing it live is like Andy Kaufman reading from The Great Gatsby.

  13. WCW is a great poet.

    He wrote and made you feel each word (not in words but things) at a time when no one else did that. Hence the last line chickens.

    In a way, you can eat the lines of the WCW poem as if they’re nachos.

  14. I like what you wrote about liking the idea of hanging out with someone who looks at you and says chickens

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