Tag Archives: Poetry

Let Us Now Praise Awful Poets

I’ve been camping, hence the radio silence. I wrote the following article for The Dabbler and it was published there a week ago, but I wanted to share it here as well. Enjoy, if you dare.

It is a sad truth not often recognized that the glory days of bad poetry – no less than the glory days of good poetry – are behind us. In the dewy springtime of bad verse a sorry line or a limp sonnet was received with joy. “Dalkey, you know, has written a truly rancid couplet,” you might say to a friend over coffee in 1781, and he would foam at the mouth till able to confirm it for himself. In our own benighted era, the best that Dalkey’s great-grandson can manage to elicit is a shrug or a fart.

The trouble is not that people no longer write poetry. A casual browser of blogs today may be tempted to conclude that the Internet exists primarily to facilitate the distribution of amateur verse. It’s nose-deep in the fervid free-verse emotings of approximately 1.6 billion teenage poetesses and balding, fifty-year-old beta males. But none of them is worth reading. None is sufficiently terrible, or terrible in the right way. Verse published offline suffers the same curse: none of it is especially good, but none of it is bad enough to be anything very special.

The patron saint of awful poets is William Topaz McGonagall, the “Tayside Tragedian,” born in 1825. Stephen Pile in The Book of Heroic Failures writes that McGonagall was “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius.” Memory of that genius was so pungent and enduring that more than a half century after his death he inspired a bit-character on The Muppet Show. Performances of Angus McGonagle the Argoyle Gargoyle (who “gargled Gershwin”) were about as well received as the real McGonagall’s public recitals, which often closed in a storm of rotten veggies. “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” McGonagall’s most famous poem, opens with these immortal lines:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remembered for a very long time.

Equally winning, in my opinion, is McGonagall’s poem commemorating the premature demise of Queen Victoria’s fourth son, “The Death of Prince Leopold.” A particularly moving stanza reads:

Oh! noble-hearted Leopold, most beautiful to see,
Who was wont to fill your audience’s hearts with glee,
With your charming songs, and lectures against strong drink:
Britain had nothing else to fear, as far as you could think.

Not all connoisseurs of bad poetry appreciate McGonagall. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, in their introduction to The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (1930), distinguish between “bad Bad Verse and good Bad Verse.” McGonagall they exclude as too clearly a producer of the former. The better bad stuff may be the off-day work of poets positively gifted. It may be grammatical and keep its meter. It is typically marked, however, by such qualities as bathos, sentimentality, and unintended humor.

So in The Stuffed Owl we are not surprised to find Wordsworth (“Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands”), Henry Vaughan (“How brave a prospect is a bright backside!”), Tennyson (“He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease”), Leigh Hunt (“Not without virtues was the prince. Who is?”), and Browning (“Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?”). But the work of less familiar names is no less delightful. Christopher Smart (1722-1771), for example, spent years in Bedlam and was devoted to drink and prayer without ceasing but in Book II of his long poem “The Hop-Garden” he offers this bit of sound advice:

When in the bag thy hops the rustic treads,
Let him wear heelless sandals; nor presume
Their fragrancy barefooted to defile…

Meanwhile, John Dyer (1700-1758), whose magnum opus, “The Fleece,” was heartily denounced by Dr Johnson, gives us the following iambs on lambs:

Wild rove the flocks, no burdening fleece they bear,
In fervid climes: Nature gives naught in vain.
Carmenian wool on the broad tail alone
Resplendent swells, enormous in its growth:
As the sleek ram from green to green removes,
On aiding wheels his heavy pride he draws,
And glad resigns it to the hatter’s use.

Another poet with a gift for untrod subject matter was Samuel Carter, who published a volume of verse titled Midnight Effusions in 1848. In a poem titled “London” he praises the metropolitan sewer system:

Magnificent, too, is the system of drains,
Exceeding the far-spoken wonders of old:
So lengthen’d and vast in its branches and chains,
That labyrinths pass like a tale that is told:
The sewers gigantic, like multiplied veins,
Beneath the whole city their windings unfold…

Though not included in The Stuffed Owl, it turns out that Frederic the Great of Prussia – “Der Alte Fritz,” his soldiers called him – was a backward student of the muse as well. In Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe (a history of the Seven Year’s War), we learn that “surrounded by enemies, in the jaws of destruction, hoping for little but to die in battle, this strange hero solaced himself with an exhaustless effusion of bad verse.” I’ve looked in vain for some of Old Fritz’s stuff in English translation but all I could find was a scrap of erotica (“Everything that speaks to eyes and touches hearts / Was found in the fond object that inflamed his parts”).

But I like this notion, in Parkman’s quote, of turning to bad poetry for solace at one’s failure to die in battle. It contains, I perceive, an accusation against our own weakling age, and a likely explanation for the decay of bad verse. Unfortunately, you see, no one nurses the ambition to die in battle anymore. Hence no one finds himself in need of solace on discovering at the end of the day that he has, yet again, failed to do so. And hence it also follows – o tempora! o mores! – that no one really gives it the old college try when it comes to writing bad poetry.

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Vile Poetry

Is there anything more obscene than people reading poems out loud? It’s doubly obscene when the poems are their own. Of the various sins committed by National Public Radio, none is blacker than All Things Considered interviewing contemporary poets and inviting them to air their horrors. I curse and change the station.

A pianist performs music composed by others and is an artist. A reader of Yeats or Whitman is nothing at all. It seems that there is no art of reading. Shakespeare and Milton may be read aloud without causing pain, but not by just anyone. Edward Lear, alone of poetkind, may perhaps be democratically recited without offense to God or the devil.

I suffer shame when I enjoy a poem. I commit nostalgia, summoning an age when magic spells were half-possible. Emily Dickinson was the last witch of New England. I read silently because a private faith is best. Public zeal embarrasses like the misunderstandings of childhood. A small flame guarded in the palm is all that I can keep.

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From the Desk of Answer Man

Believe it or not, I am sometimes asked my opinion on serious topics of the day. Really I am. People the world over flood my inbox with the most surprising questions. Some, for example, want to know if I’m ready to become a multi-millionaire through some sort of fancy bank transfer. Others ask me how much I’m willing to spend for a genuine gold-plated Rolex.  Still others want to know if my manly vigor is flagging or if my wife is “getting all that she deserves” from me. These are excellent questions which I hope to answer someday. But not today. There are more pressing things to consider.

 ‘What makes someone an intellectual, and can I be one?’

By asking the question you’ve probably disqualified yourself. An intellectual is first of all someone who already knows himself to be an intellectual, or secretly suspects it. He never asks confirmation from others because it’s his own imprimatur that counts.  Besides, it’s not fashionable to be an intellectual anymore. Being an intellectual is something like being a “goddamned idiot” or a “two-bit whore” – that is, one is called an intellectual by others but does not set up shop as an intellectual on one’s own.

 ‘That’s not quite what I meant…’

I hope you’re not confusing an intellectual with an academic. Several of my friends and family members are academics. Somewhat fewer are intellectuals, if you ask me. At least we’re on too friendly terms for me to call them that to their faces. The Academy in its wisdom does not concern itself with producing intellects. Pillar of the economy that it is, it’s main duty is to prop up the acronym industry – which, as we all know, is too big to fail.

 ‘All right then. What makes someone an artist, and can I be one?’

But darling, you already are. The Spirit of Universal Affirmation, whom we adore, insists upon it that we each possess “the soul of an artist.” The trick is to match it with the body of one. That’s what cosmetic surgery is for.

 ‘What makes someone a philosopher, and can I be one?’

Philosophia (if you’ll indulge me in a little etymology) is borrowed from the wily Greeks and means the love of appearing wise. With the exception of numerous celebrities and politicians who make their living by a public show of folly, every Jack and Jill from here to Hudson Bay wants to be thought wise (but not an intellectual!). So, you’re in luck; it’s nothing difficult. If you want to seem wise, then you are a philosopher.

 ‘Last question. What makes someone a poet, and can I be one?’

To be honest, I was winging it with those other questions. But this one I think I’ve got a better grip on. Poetification is the process of compression and shrinkage by which an admirer of Edgar Allen Poe is turned little by little into a scale model of the great man himself: a Poe-et. That’s one definition. Here’s another: a poet is a lesbian, or sometimes a suicide. If you find yourself a lesbian or dead by your own hand, rejoice: you are a poet. Be careful, however, not to confuse a poet with a poetaster, the latter being no poet in his own right but a mere cannibal of poets.


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Film Projection

Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear: ‘You are not true.’

~ Richard Wilbur

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Like a Starling


Much we have to fear,
big-mouth beside me!

Our tobacco turns into dust,
nut-cracker, friend, idiot!

And I could have whistled through life like a starling,
eating nut pies…

But clearly there’s no chance of that.

~ Osip Mandelstam

Mandelstam once wrote that “only in Russia is poetry respected – it gets people killed.”  He was last seen at a gulag transit station in Vladivostok in 1938.

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Verba Vinumque

The intoxication of Mallarmé’s abolit bibelot d’inanité sonore lies there on the page, not here in my nervous system.

Roger Scruton in this particular essay is mostly concerned with drink.  He wants to praise intoxication as opposed to drunkenness and draws a parallel with poetry to help make his point.  Drunkenness is an effect (“a state of unconsciousness” he says) – the result of too much or bad wine.  Intoxication, however, is a “state of [elevated] consciousness.”  It is the thing itself (the wine, the words), alive in us.  When we consume it “the wine lives in [our] intoxication,” heightening our senses in the way that poetry does when we read it.

That’s the idea, or something like it.  I find the distinction helpful but a little precious.  More interesting to me is the simple fact that Scruton chose words and wine as parallel cases.  Later in the article he discusses wine’s familiar role in sacred traditions through the centuries.  Scruton doesn’t go there, but of course poetry – and the idea of the “word” – has played its own role in religion.  The composition and recitation of poetry may seem to us secular activities (Hopkins thought writing a dangerous distraction from his religious obligations), but this wasn’t always so. 

I think it’s fair to suggest that poetry has for most of its history been understood as a sacred endeavor, a transaction with the supernatural.  Most of what falls under the heading of prophecy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is, in fact, poetry.  And prior to, say, the Renaissance, much of western poetry was at least tangentially religious in nature.  To a degree this was true for the Greeks too, though there is clearly a secular poetry in the Roman era (Horace, Catullus, etc.), and there are other exceptions.  But for a great many of our ancestors, poetry was in its lowest forms magical (binding spells, curses) and in its highest forms synonymous with prophecy.  It was either a tool to harness the spirits, or the inspired product of divine possession.  Survivals of poetry’s magical and sibylline heritage are found, of course, in Blake, but also, I think, in Whitman and Dickinson and others.  And even when the subject matter is explicitly secular many of the poetic forms still common today resemble nothing so much as prayers, charms or incantations.

Prior to poetry is the Word itself.  In the Pentateuch God literally speaks the universe into being; all things are the offspring of his words.  In Talmudic tradition the names which Adam gave the animals in Eden contained and defined their essences in a way no confused post-Babel tongue could recapture.  Early Christians wed these Jewish elements to the Greek notion of a divine Logos, the God-Word that is the originating, unifying and animating principle of the cosmos – identifying that Logos with Jesus Christ.  (“In the beginning was the Logos,” etc.)  Later, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysus and Maximus the Confessor expounded a Christian Neoplatonism asserting that the inward animating principles of created things, their individual lower-case “words” (logoi), could be known again in their original clarity when the soul is illumined by the Logos that originally spoke them into being.  Furthermore, these logoi serve as pledge of an eschatological reconciliation of all things with the divine Logos.  The cosmos, then, is text within text: a universe composed of words spoken by the Word, an opened codex in which all the words had been shuffled but are in process of being recomposed into proper poetry by the God-Word.

Which is all very fascinating, but somewhere along the line (no more than five hundred years ago)  everything changed.  To be sure, there’s still enough innate power in the word today – enough intoxication, to use Scruton’s term – to enchant and influence us.  And the secularization of the word has opened unexpected and seemingly inexhaustible channels for literature and poetry.  But at the same time the metaphysical scope of the word’s operation has been restricted.  Whether it was the rediscovery of classical learning, the invention of the printing press, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Reason, or something else, the way in which we understand and handle words is different.  When Mircea Eliade’s “de-sacralization of the cosmos” began, the word was the first of its victims.

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Spring, of all seasons most gratuitous,
Is fold of untaught flower, is race of water,
Is earth’s most multiple, excited daughter;

And those she has least use for see her best
Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.

~ Philip Larkin, from Spring

I ask the pardon of any readers who live in less accommodating climes and must find this premature.  But the orchards (what’s left of them) are awash in mustard blossoms and walking just now I embarrassed two hummingbirds mating in the boughs of a flowering tree.

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