I can’t recall when I first encountered the phrase, “spoiler alert.” It seems as if it’s been part of the popular vernacular for awhile now, and become even more prone to pop up in everyday discussions considering the current trend for binge-watching TV shows; but given that I’ve been tasked with musing on the genesis of my duly christened poem, I felt compelled to get to the bottom of it.
In a 2014 article in The Wall Street Journal, Ben Zimmer tracks its nascent use back to Doug Kenney’s feature, “Spoilers” in the April 1971 issue of The National Lampoon. This perversely pleases me because the late, great, sardonic writer – whose 1980 death after falling 35 feet from the Hanapepe Lookout in Kauai was ruled an ‘accident’ by Hawaiian police – “Hanapepe,” coincidentally, means “crushed bay” in Hawaiian – was an early influence on my own work, not to mention worldview, and, by extension, poetry. (Another Lampoon alum, Harold Ramis, famously quipped that Kenney “probably fell while looking for a place to jump.” Touché!) In the article, Kenney “spoils” the famous endings of such films as Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Psycho, alongside Agatha Christie whodunits, and more, as a “public service” that “saves time and money.” Soon after its appearance, the term was appropriated and expanded to “spoiler warning” on a ‘SF-Lovers’ listserv, but it wasn’t until a posting about the second Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, that the phrase spoiler alert was coined.
Part of my modus operandi as a poet and songwriter is working from titles first. I’m an inveterate phrase scribbler, and, for some reason, despite its ubiquity, one day I wrote “spoiler alert” in my notebook for further consideration. These captured phrases, whether ‘torn from the headlines’ or borne of more elliptical, sonically-pleasing origins, sometimes lead to something, but may just as well expire unheralded as old notebooks are filled and new ones purchased. At some point, flipping through my notes, spoiler alert struck me and I wrote it as plural parenthetical on the top of a page. But what ‘spoiler(s)’ would I be alerting? “Jesus dies” came quickly, and seemed like a good place to start; it also seems, in retrospect, to draw from the same tradition of distasteful literariness that Kenney and his Lampoon crew thrived on in their heyday. Satire is something I aspire to, and if it’s done well, it adds another gut-punch beyond the literal, so if I was going to satirize the story of Christ, where else should I go? I had recently discovered that “a duck’s quack doesn’t echo,” and while that may not count as a ‘spoiler’ per se, it was an intriguing enough conceit that suggested how I could maneuver my way through the poem – toying with the conventions of the spoiler alert. After two more ruminative stanzas, I decided to end simply and declaratively, on the old cliché, “the butler did it” – another reflective echo back to Kenney’s piece.
Evocative beginnings and conclusions to poems are hard to come by, and not always what the work ultimately requires, but in the case of “Spoiler Alert(s)” bookending it with these two phrases encapsulates its concerns quite neatly. Hopefully you agree!