PopPoetry is poetry and pop culture Substack written by Caitlin Cowan. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox weekly, subscribe below so you won’t miss a post! Thanks for reading and sharing. It’s gonna be legen… wait for it… dary!
How I Met Your Mother is rife with poems and poets, some real and others, well—they’re Barney Stinson originals (“The Sexless Innkeeper,” anyone?) I intend to tackle them all eventually, but the Season 5 episode “Robots vs. Wrestlers” offers numerous references packed into the same half-hour. It also takes on one of the most pernicious stereotypes about the art form: “poetry is for snobs.”
Poetry has a long history of cultural association with highfalutin Frasier types (just wait, we’ll get there!), and that association shows only the barest signs of retreating. HIMYM’s epic high-versus-low-culture “Robots vs. Wrestlers” episode’s central conflict is whether the gang should go to a wrestling match where a human wrestles a robot or whether they should go to a fancy party in a beautiful old building full of rich, cultured people. Ted, played by Josh Radnor, is in favor of the latter, as you might imagine.
Who Is This Guy?
Ted Mosby is, without question, the most insufferable of the gang of friends at the heart of the CBS comedy, which aired from 2005 to 2014. He’s our hero, or he’s supposed to be, as his story is that of the “I” in the show’s title. An architect turned professor of architecture (a job handed to him even though he has no teaching qualifications… don’t get me started), Ted’s goal is to find “the one” and marry her. But his other unstated goals are ego pursuits.
The more you get to know him, the more you see that Ted desires status and a class distinction that he doesn’t really have, despite his job titles. He makes a big show of his taste in wine, loves to point out obscure architectural flourishes even when his friends aren’t interested, and insists on pronouncing the word “encyclopedia” as “en-cy-clo-PAY-dia.” (As a side note: linguists agree that the æ ligature is archaic, and it’s mostly used to call attention to just how archaic or unusual something is. It’s complicated, but it also isn’t pronounced “ay” or “ay-ee,” you nitwit. And don’t get me started on the assumptions behind the prescriptive grammar Ted engages).
Anyhow, the most annoying tousle-haired sitcom star since Ross Gellar went off the air gives us poetry almost from the jump in this episode. Because Robin (Cobie Smulders) opts out of the free tickets to Robots vs. Wrestlers, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) begins to worry that their friend group is eroding. Robin has moved in with her boyfriend, Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Siegel) are thinking about kids in the not-too-distant future, and Ted will either end up hitched or, as Barney says, “alone in his apartment devoured by his cats.”
Ted tries to reassure him, and says, “I understand how you feel, Barney. Friendships are important. In fact, Emerson wrote a great poem entitled ‘Friendship.’” You can just tell at this point that he’s salivating to recite it. “You guys are gonna love this,” he promises. He gets out the first two lines of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s hybrid poem-essay “Friendship” before being shouted down, or rather, farted down, by his friends.
O friend, my bosom said,
Through thee alone the sky is arched,
Through thee the rose is red…
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON, “Friendship”
We’re then treated to a montage of instances when Ted has tried, in his words, to “get a little high-minded,” only to have his friends deride him with childish fart noises. These other high-minded pursuits include tasting notes on a Syrah, crossword puzzle clues about classical singing voices, and La Bohème. Each time he tries to foist his interests on the gang, they give him a Bronx cheer.
Ted tries again to “add a little class to [the proceedings]” by saying “it’s like that line from Dante’s Inferno,” referencing Dante Alighieri’s 1320 book-length poem (memorably parodied in a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror Episode I wrote about here). “‘Consider your origins… you were not born to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge,” Ted admonishes them. When the gang resorts to copious fart noises to mock his retention, Ted starts to recite the passage in its original Italian, which elicits a chorus of deep groans from Lily, Marshall, and Barney. Raspberries abound.
So when Ted receives (steals) an invitation meant for the former occupant of his apartment to a party of Who’s Who types in a historic building, he’s down. This is the “high-minded” gathering he’s been waiting for. Lily, Marshall, and Barney would much rather watch a human man battle it out with an android. The shared understanding of the group is that Robots vs. Wrestlers will be fun but classless, and the party will be boring but classy. I’m a big believer in the idea that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, and by that logic, the gang should feel just as proud to go to the wrestling match as they do to the elegant party.
And so it’s not the promise of intellectual fulfillment that lures the group to the party: it’s booze. Because there’s an open bar, the gang decides to hit the party first, then the wrestling match later. But once they talk their way into the party and start rubbing elbows with the so-called elite, Ted is a lost cause. He’s having way too much fun to consider leaving.
Why Does This Matter?
Again, allow me to offer: Ted sucks.
I’m a poet who has friends and lives in the meatspace with the rest of you. Ted’s behavior here is gross and dumb, a figment of the show writers’ imaginations.
It’s critical that we don’t throw the annoying baby out with the delightful bathwater, here. The poetry that Ted recites is excellent and interesting, if super white (HIMYM is one of many shows that imagines a heterogeneous NYC full of creative types and/or upwardly mobile young professionals to the exclusion of everyone else).
No one wants to hear you recite poetry from memory unasked-for in a bar when you’re just trying to enjoy a beer. However, conflating poetry itself with stuffy wannabes like Ted has the unintended effect of dumping on the art form itself. Music is cool. Painting is cool. Dance? Oh yeah. Poetry? Is it cool? If it isn’t, I think a lot of the blame for that lies on our warped cultural depictions of poets and readers of poetry.
Ted also likes stuff like wrestling matches, and is initially excited to go to the match after visiting the Spring Social Party. But as the episode wears on, it becomes clear that there’s a false dichotomy in play. Ted wants to remain with “his people,” a bunch of pretentious, privileged white folks who like to talk shop about Truffaut and marvel over 19th-century gongs. Their interests are antithetical to the man vs. machine throwdown that his friends want to see, or so he thinks.
Poetry’s slow migration to an ever-more-insular audience has given it a certain quality of mystery, but it has also decreased the sense that it is an art form anyone can enjoy. Robots vs. Wrestlers? For the masses. Edgar Allen Poe? For the elite. This, we’re told again and again in cultural depictions of poetry, is the way things are.
There are those in the contemporary poetry world who praise the small, back-room quality of literary poetry, but that, to me, reeks of elitism, of low access, of white male patriarchal gatekeeping. Poetry predates literacy, which means that poetry predates a system that, while revolutionary, separates and stratifies us. Poetry is not only for those who have college degrees, read 500-page novels, and eat caviar. It’s not only for white men, or English majors, or social climbers like Ted.
I would also add that wrestling matches have poetic qualities and that there is no such thing as guilty pleasure. There is only pleasure.
There’s room for all kinds of enjoyment, and it’s possible to take anything seriously. Consider this writing by poet Oliver de la Paz on Wrestling and Poetry! One can take a thoughtful approach to anything, and that’s what I’m trying to do with PopPoetry, too.
If it has not been made clear enough, let me now be very clear: poetry is for everyone.
Tell Me How It Ends
The get-together has it all: wine, opera, foreign language (and Italian in particular). The topics of conversation range from architecture, composers, and cardiology to film auteurs, treasury legislation, and crossword puzzles. Will Shortz is even in attendance, much to Ted’s delight, along with Peter Bogdanovich, Arianna Huffington, and other luminaries.
Poets and poetry are thick in the air. Ted mentions an article on “Walt Whitman and the politics of semantics” by a “Professor Hammersmith of Oxford” (from my research, this article and professor appear to be fictitious, but I would totally read that article). W. S. Gilbert (a dramatist who wrote and illustrated a book of comic poems) gets a mention, as does Poe—Lily menaces Ted with a candelabra when he won’t leave the party and the host cries out “Oh, my goodness, no! That was Edgar Allen Poe’s!” which actually made me chuckle (that dude totally had a candelabra-owning vibe).
The gang has finally had enough, and leaves for the wrestling match while Ted takes up all the air in the room with glee. Dante’s Inferno in its original Italian comes back with a vengeance at the end of the night. Ted finally gets what he thinks he wants: a rapt, captive audience that sits silent and soaks up every word of his recitation of the poem.
But in the middle of it all, Ted thinks to himself, “I actually sound kinda douchey.” And he’s correct.
It’s a partial epiphany. He wasn’t even invited to the party: he cribbed the invite from the woman who used to live in his apartment whose mail he still gets (and opens, yikes). He doesn’t belong in this room, but wants to. He prefers the vapid name-dropping of the very privileged to a night out with his very real friends and a very cool and unusual event. It’s not a good look.
In real life, poets do sometimes recite poems to one another if they’re asked, if it’s appropriate, or if they want to really commune with the spirit of the work. But the difference here is that Ted is giving this recitation to boost his own ego, not to organically engage with the poem. And he realizes that the ego boost ain’t worth it.
Ted tells a fib, says his friend left for a poetry reading when they leave for the wrestling match (will he ever really learn?) and eventually joins them when they text him to reveal that the wrestler is his doppelganger. He’s able to heal the little rift he’s caused, at least for now, and put his self-importance to bed for the moment. (Or has he? Rushing out to see your doppelganger? Self-obsessed much?)
Critically, Ted has read and memorized “Friendship” but hasn’t taken its meaning to heart. Friends are the most precious gift. As Emerson wrote, “The fountains of my hidden life / Are through thy friendship fair.”
Do things that are silly. Do things that are serious. You really can have it all, in this respect. In the long run, judgment and guilt only rob us of the joy of being alive. So read trashy magazines. Read poetry. Do both. Do it all, in a spirit of transcendental expansiveness that Emerson and his compatriots would applaud.
And be sure to ask before you launch into a spirited recitation of Dante. Your friends will thank you.
In my travels through the internet, I collect links I think you might dig:
I’m all about arts accessibility, and it turns out that one of the only silver linings of the pandemic might be increased accessibility for theater-goers.
Is beer a part of popular culture? If so, this is a pretty cool inroad that poetry has made in that arena.
Poet & essayist Hanif Abdurraqib’s favorite poets are basketball players.