Saturday, April 07, 2007

Awful Poetry

There's nothing quite so heartbreaking and hilarious as a piece of bad, sincere poetry. A few years ago VanillaJ held a "bad poetry" party, and I think everybody agreed that the best places to find bad poetry are:
  • online,
  • in yearbooks, and
  • at open-mic poetry readings.
You don't have to pay a fee to get a poem into any of these places, you are largely free from criticism (especially if your poem is so sincere that people think you'll commit suicide if they make fun of it), and most people involved with them are adolescents. And adolescents write the BEST bad poetry.

I'll leave somebody else to compile a list of Bad Poetry Themes ("moth to the flame" and "broken china doll" are my favourites, not to mention your average thinly-veiled threats of suicide), but I want to bring up one pervasive technique of bad poetry: forcing the rhyme by displacing the verb.

(Please note that I learned everything I know about English from reading books. So I know how English is supposed to be written, but I don't necessarily know the technical aspects. So if I'm wrong in my explanation for WHY the following technique is bad, please let me know, and recognize at least that it IS bad for whatever reason).

The Bad Poetry Author settles on a single verb that fits the rhyming scheme of his or her poem. In this example from the 1956 edition of "The Grumbler" (the Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate yearbook), poet Barbara Kraft has written:
The soft, gay voice now still
and she can think of only ONE POSSIBLE WORD that rhymes with still: "fill". But the problem is, the verb form "fill" doesn't come at the end of sentence clauses. "Filled" does...but "filled" doesn't rhyme with "still!" (let's ignore that "still" shouldn't come at the end of that clause in the first place).

So Ms. Kraft does what bad poets always do: she sticks "fill" at the end of the clause anyway, and since it can only be placed there in the infinitive form, she has to add "to" or "did" or "will" or "so" in front of it:
Her heart with grief did fill
Damn! That's awkward and bad and all wrong! "Her heart filled with grief" would be correct, but then she'd have to change her previous line to rhyme with "grief," and that's too hard! It might be trying to evoke some classical sentence structure, but it never works...and sentimental bad poetry is FULL of this! Here are some more examples from "The Grumbler":
"A night by strife so torn"
"Stained red with blood so quiet lay"
"All hearts i' the castle now do weep...
...Two hearts true, their love to keep"
"Which round thy sands do seethe"
See what I mean? This drives me nuts, even when they try to soften it a bit with a few extra words ("so quiet lay"). If you're a bad sentimental poet, think about it this way: when with this method I do write, my writing correct does sound? No, so stop it!


Eric Little said...

The easiest answer is that bad poets in English--indeed, all poets who use a closed form--have to forget at times that English has become a syntactic language--the meaning of words in sentences is predicated on word order. Since English nouns no longer have word endings to indicate sentence function (Anglo-Saxon did, and pronouns do), you really can't invert subject/object: "Dog bites boy" vs. "Boy bites dog," which you can do in a language in which nouns are declined, like Latin: Canem (dog) mordet (bites) puer (boy) means "Boy bites dog."

That's why Greek and Latin poetry is so difficult to translate: the verb can go anywhere--often at the end of the sentence, or whereever the metrical need of the line is. Take the beginning of the "Iliad": in Greek, literally

Wrath sing goddess of Peleus's son Achilles,/Overwhelming...

Straighten it out and it becomes:

Sing, goddess, about the overwhelming wrath of Peleus's son Achilles...

Every English poet who works with rhymes is forced, at times, to tangle syntax to get the rhyme--Dante had it a lot easier because Italian is an easier language to rhyme. But the great poets--the Shakespeares, the Frosts, the Popes, the Audens--have fun with word inversion, when they have to employ it, and when the language manipulation becomes too forced in general, then poets call for a return to a more natural poetic speech, as Wordsworth and Coleridge did in their preface to "Lyrical Ballads."

Pope--the master of the heroic couplet--cautions critics in "An Essay on Criticism."
In these lines he not only talks about bad poetry's faults: he commits them, so you have examples:

These Equal Syllables alone require,
Tho' oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.

"Expletives" are "those few extra words," as you call them, such as "do" in the same line. "Tire" in the previous line is moved to the end so that there are six consecutive words with "open vowels" in a row.

What makes good poetry? One line from Pope's poem sums it up:

"The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense."

In a word (or two) you're right--but you knew I couldn't just say that, right? :)

Eric Little said...

Here's an example of the inversion you talk about in one of my favorite poems, "As I Walked Out One Evening" by W. H. Auden:

"In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

Auden has to get a rhyme for "kiss," so he inverts the normal placement of "is." That stanza has to end on "kiss": to me, that personification of Time with the alliteration of "cough" and "kiss" is even more chilling than Marvell's "Time's winged chariot," because it's the way time works. No looming hooded figure with a scythe and an hourglass: it's a rustling in the drapery; a drip from a bathroom faucet.

And he can juxtapose "justice" with "naked": justice isn't blindfolded, as it is on the top of the Old Bailey--it's like an unsheathed blade.

The rest of the poem pretty much stays in normal word order:

"The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

The reason why sentimental bad poetry is bad is also because the ideas behind the words are banal, puerile, and insipid.

(Dammit--you know how to put a nickel in my slot.)

Anonymous said...

And adolescents write the BEST bad poetry.

Oh, I dunno about that! The most memorable bad poetry I can recall* was at an open stage, by a perfectly decent-looking older gentleman who was apparently in desperate need of some action. Every time I thought "Okay, there's a good place to wrap," it kept going... and going. Our whole table was in tears, all looking elsewhere as we tried not to laugh. At least we were well back.

* I remember the experience, anyway. I have blotted out all memory of the poem itself. Just as well. Quoting it would be mean.

Anonymous said...

"when with this method I do write, my writing correct does sound?"

Indeed Yoda.

By your picture, sign in my yearbook, will you?


Adam Thornton said...

Certainly, bad poetry depends an awful lot on insipid ideas, but W.H. Audens inversions aren't the sort of "stick the verb at the end of the line and add 'do'" mutilations that are -- I think -- solely the province of Truely Bad Poetry.

The more I think about, the more I think that Bad Poets castle their verbs because they really ARE trying for a classical/fantasy structure: a "blade unsheathed" sort of thing.

Adam Thornton said...

The problem with bad poets at open-mic nights is that they tend to monopolize the proceedings: you end up with one person going on and on and on, and then reading another long piece as an encore.

It would be great if the audience could heckle, but that's not part of the scene. :)

Adam Thornton said...

Your yearbook I do sign! Who'd have thought that Yoda read Alexander Pope?

Eric Little said...

Heck, Yoda WAS Alexander Pope.

--short stature
--faithful to his religious beliefs, which were persecuted
--moved to a romantically overgrown spot, with a grotto
--master of a rapier-like weapon: his wit