America has given birth to many great poets–Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Muhammad Ali–but why should talented people have all the fun? Isn’t there room on this nation’s overcrowded book shelves for poetry that is merely middling, as former Nebraska Senator Roman Hruska might suggest? He famously said of a Supreme Court nominee who had been criticized as “mediocre” that mediocre people “are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”
Roman Hruska, Champion of the Mediocre Man
I say heck yeah! And how about bad poetry–I mean genuinely, truly awful poetry? Look at it this way: Beautiful poetry, to paraphrase John Keats, is a joy forever. Sort of like nuclear waste–where are you going to store it? Nevada doesn’t want it anymore, nor does Washington. Try Nebraska, maybe Roman Hruska will take it. Bad poetry, on the other hand, is biodegradable. Toss it out your car window and you can be fairly certain that it will decompose before anyone puts it in an anthology.
John Dryden, sitting in chair at Supercuts
You might be surprised to learn that bad poetry occupies a respectable place in the house of the English language. John Dryden, no slouch in the poesy department, said in his preface to The Spanish Fryar that he knew his verses were “bad enough to please, even when I wrote them.” There are at least two very good poems about bad poetry, Yeats’ To a Poet, who would have me Praise certain Bad Poets, Imitators of His and Mine, and A.E. Housman’s Terence, This is Stupid Stuff. Ogden Nash famously (at least to me) said he’d rather be a good bad poet than a bad good poet.
The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head (drawing by Sage Stossel)
Much bad poetry is written by men about women. Something there is, as Bob Frost might say, that does not love such poetry. Just as the male fruit fly looks rather ridiculous doing his courtship dance for the female, there is nothing so absurd as a moonstruck male wooing a woman by rhyming “moon” and “June.” I’ve written enough of such poetry to compile as a book, The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head, and other wayward women. Before you write an angry comment that I’ve misspelled “collander,” you could, as Casey Stengel used to say, look it up; it’s an accepted variant spelling. I chose “cullender” over “collander” because the “ull” sound is closer to “girl” than the “oll” sound. Poets–even would-be poets–make strategic choices on the basis of sounds all the time. It’s why they generally occupy the lower income tax brackets.
“When I said ‘bad,’ I didn’t mean as in ‘Santana is one bad guitar player.’”
I make no claims for myself, but if you know you’re cranking out bad poetry when you write it, as Dryden did, you may have a shot at producing something–passable. Of course bad poetry has one–among many–drawbacks for you, the consumer of poetry. It’s less readable than good poetry, unless you’re talking about the sort of verse that the poetry-industrial complex agrees is good because it’s obscure.
Maypole dance: Note that participants outnumber spectators.
Poetry long ago reached what an aesthetic sociologist might call the “Maypole Dance Tipping Point,” by which I mean the stage in the progress of an art form at which the number of participants exceeds the number of spectators. It is thus not a genre that booksellers long to stock on their expensive shelf space.
My cat Rocco has asked that I stop writing poems about him.
Many of the poems in Cullender first appeared on this blog, so look at it this way. You could have printed them out back then and saved yourself some money, but that would have been a hasty, premature critical move that you might have regretted in retrospect. We can only pronounce a poem truly, genuinely bad when it has failed the test of time.