In sixth grade at St. Jude’s Catholic School I painted a picture of Bart Simpson in art class. My teacher, Mrs. Deery, loved it and hung it up on the wall in front of the classroom. I was proud of myself. The next day, my principal came and took it down, later scolding me for painting something so inappropriate.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with The Simpsons. I have a Homer tattoo on the inside of my left arm. Several years ago I pre-ordered the Playboy that featured a spread of Marge Simpson. I usually watch several episodes before I go to sleep at night, which proved to be a point of contention between me and an ex because, more often than not, The Simpsons would be on while we had sex. That is part of the reason why she is now my ex-girlfriend and I’m more self-aware.
When I first became interested in poetry, I began to notice all the literary references peppered throughout the show. It made me appreciate it so much more. I’ve never understood why people thought The Simpsons was an inappropriate show for a child to watch. Like Bart, I was a troublemaker in school but I appreciated his character for the fleeting moments of kindness and generosity he often shows. But there is something for everyone to latch onto in the show. Maybe that’s why it’s still on the air, teaching another generation about growing up (although I think the show’s writers are terrible now).
These are just a few of the references, my favorite ones from least to greatest. If you’d like to know more about The Simpsons and poetry, please email the editors repeatedly with death threats until they allow me to write a series (Ed. note — I fear nothing).
Season 7, Episode 4: “Bart Sells His Soul”
In this episode, Bart gets in trouble for switching the church organist’s music with Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Rev. Lovejoy pulls the children aside to find out who’s responsible and Milhouse squeals on Bart because he’s afraid to go to hell. While they’re cleaning out the pipe organ as their punishment, Bart says that there is no such thing as a soul. To prove his point he sells Milhouse his soul for $5. As the episode progresses, Bart becomes certain that he really did sell his soul to Milhouse because he is unable to laugh at things even when he knows they’re funny. After watching an Itchy and Scratchy episode, Bart is still unable to feel any joy. Lisa turns to him and says, “Pablo Neruda says laughter is the window to the soul.” Bart coolly says, “I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.”
Neruda is easily the most well-known and accessible Latin American poet, and for many North American readers, he is a jumping-off point into a larger world of Spanish-language writers. Many consider the Chilean writer to have written some of the finest love poems in the history of versein every bookstore you can count on there being a Neruda book or two on the shelf.
Season 11, Episode 2: “Brother’s Little Helper”
Bart is diagnosed with ADD in this episode after he gets in trouble for flooding the gym with a fire hose. Principal Skinner threatens to expel Bart unless he tries a “radical, untested and potentially dangerous” prescription medication called Focusyn. On Bart’s first day taking Focusyn, he is at school and Mrs. Krabappel asks the class, “Who wants to read “The Daffodils,” by Wordsworth?” Bart’s hand shoots up. Suddenly, Nelson stands up and points out two dogs fighting over a fan belt outside beneath the classroom window.
As the children stand and stare out the window at the dogs, Mrs. Krabappel is shocked to realize Bart is still sitting at his desk. “You’re still in your seat,” she says. Bart replies, “It’s not like I never saw a dog before.” Then Bart says to himself “That doesn’t sound like me. Could it be the drug kicking in? I am feeling an urge to straighten up and fly right.” He then looks over at his classmates and Mrs. Krabappel, who are still staring at him and yells, “C’mon people, this poetry ain’t gonna appreciate itself,” while slamming his fist down onto the desk.
The lyric poem is about spying a field of daffodils dancing in the wind and returning to that mental image as a source of tranquility. Here, we have Bart tweaked out on Focusyn but it’s working for him, his inner-eye and mind is quiet.
Season 10, Episode 23: “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo”
At the beginning of this episode, the Simpsons have all their savings stolen by Snake Jailbird at an Internet café. They attend a money-saving seminar and learn how to limit their expenses. Soon, they’ve saved enough to take a trip out of the country, the only downside being that they don’t know which country they will be going to. They end up going to Tokyo. When they get on the plane, Lisa points out that the safety instruction pamphlet is written entirely in haiku. It says:
“Fasten seatbelts tight/ Your seat cushions float gently/ Headsets five dollars.”
The short poem is one of my favorite vehicles for expression. Filling a world into a few syllables is an art formone I greatly admireand although this poem is essentially a joke, it follows the form of a traditional haiku: there is a pause, usually at the end of the first or second line, then a different association much like the volta, or turn, in a sonnet. In this episode Homer also acts in a kabuki play about the 47 Ronin, a band of samurai in the 18th-century who set out to avenge the death of their master.
Season 7, Episode 8: “Mother Simpson”
Homer fakes his death to get out of working on a Saturday. The entire town thinks he’s dead and people begin sending flowers to the Simpson residence. Patty and Selma show up with a tombstone that reads, “Homer J. Simpson, We are richer for having lost him.” Marge’s sisters say the tombstone came free with a burial plot they bought for Homer. The power company arrives and shuts off the power to the house because the family’s account is in Homer’s name. Marge then makes him go talk to the power company to straighten out the misunderstanding. While at the power company, Homer learns that there is a file about his family stating his mother is still alive.
To prove that the power company is wrong, Homer walks over and points out the window to a hill with a large tombstone in the shape of an angel on it. “That’s my mother’s grave,” Homer says, “my father points it out every time we drive by.” The man who works for the power company suggests he should go look at the grave to see if it’s really his mother.
Homer runs up the hill and gets on his knees in front of the tombstone. The inscription is covered in ivy. As he pulls it away, it reveals the inscription “Here lies Walt Whitman.” Homer screams and begins kicking the grave, yelling, “Damn you Walt Whitman. I hate you Walt-freakin’-Whitman, Leaves of Grass my ass.”
Homer’s mom, incidentally, is a flower child on the run from the law because she’s wanted for breaking into a lab where Mr. Burns was testing chemicals on animals.
Season 2, Episode 7: “Bart vs. Thanksgiving”
In this episode, it’s Thanksgiving and Lisa builds a centerpiece to place on the table during dinnera cornucopia that is a “tribute to the trailblazing women that made our country great.” It has little figures that represent Georgia O’Keefe, Susan B. Anthony, and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who Lisa says worked her whole life to preserve the Florida everglades.
Later that evening, Homer is having trouble getting the fire going and Grandpa Simpson, Patty and Selma are standing over his shoulder making fun of him. Marge announces it’s dinnertime and Lisa walks downstairs to present her centerpiece and places it on the table. As she’s explaining what the centerpiece represents, Bart bursts in with the turkey. He begins elbowing the centerpiece out of the way so he can put the turkey down. The two then start pulling it back and forth until Bart flings it into the fireplace. When it lands, the centerpiece immediately catches fire.
Later that evening, Lisa sits at her desk and begins writing a poem:
“I saw the best meals of my generation destroyed by the madness of my brother.
My soul carved in slices by spiky-haired demons.”
On the bookshelf behind her are books by Allen Ginsberg, Edgar Allan Poe and Jack Kerouac. The beginning of Lisa’s poem is a take on the first few lines of Ginsberg’s famous long poem “Howl.”
Throughout the seasons of The Simpsons, beatniks are the source of a lot of jokes. Nowadays, in some literary circles, writers such as Ginsberg, Kerouac and others in the beat movement are often marginalized. But there is a reason why The Simpsons return again and again to the beatsbecause it is still one of the most well-known literary movements in modern history and the spirit of these writers, who were part of a lost generation, resonate with Lisa, the smart girl often alienated from those around her.
(Ed. note — special mention to the original Treehouse of Horror, which featured James Earl Jones as the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”)
Daniel Beauregard lives in Atlanta, where he works for a small local newspaper. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Stoked, ILK, Jellyfish, NAP, Brown God, Phenome, Everday Genius and elsewhere. His chapbook "Before You Were Born" will be released in January by 421 Atlanta Press. Follow him @666ICECREAM.