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Poetry So Bad It's Good

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Abigail Deutsch
The Poetry Foundation

What are we to do with lines like these?

We have seen thee, queen of cheese,

Lying quietly at your ease,

Gently fanned by evening breeze,

Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you'll go
To the great Provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.

We might grow slightly nauseated. We might (who knows?) get hungry. We might gleefully illuminate the poetic palsies that weaken the frame of this work, James McIntyre's "Ode on the Mammoth Cheese": the clanging rhymes, the collapsing meter, the misguided coronation of a Canadian dairy queen.

Alternatively--as we reread in delight, as we probably just did--we might note the workings of a mysterious alchemy. Just as milk ferments into cheese, so can bad poetry, in this and other cases, transform into something rather enjoyable. Like a pungent Roquefort, bad poetry can stink in marvelously complex ways.

Yet just as cheese sometimes gets too moldy--to plunge forward with my metaphor in the blithe manner of James McIntyre--so can bad poetry rot beyond possible appreciation. Charles Lee and D.B. Wyndham Lewis discussed this problem in their famed anthology "The Stuffed Owl" (1930), a collection of bad poetry that has served as a model for many such volumes to follow. They outlined distinctions between "good Bad Verse," which they sought for their book, and "bad Bad Verse," which they avoided. "The field of bad Bad Verse is vast, and confusing in its tropical luxuriance," they opined, before launching into a description of its authors ("the illiterate, the semi-literate, the Babu, the nature-loving contributor to the county newspaper, the retired station-master, the spinster lady coyly attuned to Life and Spring"). When it came to explaining their preference for the elusive "good Bad" variety, however, Lewis and Lee grew cagey:

It would, indeed, be a permissible exercise in dialectic to prove here conclusively and inclusively, if we had the time, that good Bad Verse has an eerie, supernal beauty comparable in its accidents with the beauty of Good Verse. . . . We will merely assert here that good Bad verse . . . is devilish pleasing.

To what do we owe the devilish pleasure--and how has it grown powerful enough to prompt the succession of bad-poetry anthologies that followed "The Stuffed Owl"? These works include, but are not limited to, "The Worst English Poets" (1958), "Pegasus Descending: A Book of the Best Bad Verse" (1971), "The Joy of Bad Verse" (1988), "In Search of the World's Worst Writers" (2000), and "Very Bad Poetry" (1997), edited by a brother-and-sister team who also published "The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said" (1993) and The "776 Even Stupider Things Ever Said" (1994). In 2009, according to Nielsen BookScan, "Very Bad Poetry" has sold as many copies as Richard Ellmann's "Oxford Book of Verse", suggesting that the anthology-worshiping public values the good Bad as much as the good Good. But why?

Is it because lovers of bad verse are bad people?

Dan Chiasson's 2003 review of the reprinted "Stuffed Owl" lends support to this possibility. "These poems join us to generations of supercilious snobs," he wrote. "We all harbor an inner sherry drinker, and this book belongs in his billiards room." The gleeful nastiness to which Chiasson refers dates at least as far back as Alexander Pope. In "Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry", Pope classified bad writers according to the animals they most closely resembled: "The Eels are obscure Authors, that wrap themselves up in their own Mud, but are mighty nimble and pert."

In constructing this zoology of poetasters, Pope hinted that he himself was no eel. Accordingly, we might enjoy bad poetry because it helps us feel better than its floundering authors.

But that assertion of superiority becomes paradoxical--like the "good-bad" label itself--the moment we confess that we like the bad stuff. Is it bad if we feel good when we read it? What do "good" and "bad" mean in this context--and would any two readers define them the same way? The very terms that designate this type of poetry muddle its analysis.

Perhaps it is with good Bad Poetry as it is with camp in Susan Sontag's treatise on the subject: "Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn't reverse things. It doesn't argue that the good is bad, or that bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different--a supplementary--set of standards."

Good Bad Poetry, likewise, seems to inhabit an aesthetic universe governed by unique laws (where gravity, for instance, often results in levity). Take, for example, Theophile Marzials's "A Tragedy":

Death!

Plop.

The barges down in the river flop.

Flop, plop. . . .

Sontag didn't quite define standards for judging camp; she emphasized that its protean nature renders it difficult to evaluate. Much, after all, comes down to taste. And yet bad-poetry contests proliferate, particularly around August 18, which Ruth and Thomas Roy of wellcat.com (inventors of Happy Mew Year for Cats Day, among other festivities) labeled Bad Poetry Day. Slate ran a bad-poetry contest two summers ago; myjewishlearning.com started one this August, prompting an administrator to note ruefully the plenitude of "hip-hop verses where the M.C.'s yell 'Challah!'" Small Press Distribution conducted one at this year's Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. (That competition's worst postmodern lyric counters the notion, espoused by Billy Collins and others, that bad poetry must be formal. A few lines: "Of an / unguent . . . / unslept / 'bed.'"). All such events challenge writers to produce the best of the worst, whatever that might be.

The competition that succumbed to the complications of this charge--the Julia Moore Good Bad Poetry Contest, named for the eponymous "sweet singer of Michigan"--closed in 2006. The Oakland Tribune reported that "the Society was looking for Good Bad Poetry; but it kept getting Bad Bad Poetry."

As head-spinning as these categories appear, the existence of bad-poetry contestants suggests that firm conceptions of "good" and "bad" endure. While authors of anthologized bad poetry--McIntyre, Moore, and Co.--thought their poetry was good, the authors of contest entries think their poetry is so bad it's good. Theirs is bad poetry, to borrow Sontag's language, in quotation marks. They break rules because they know rules, and in so doing testify to the rules' survival. The inner sherry drinkers of bad-poetry contestants go on sipping, unperturbed, through the whole ordeal: by imitating the outsider, the contestant proves he is truly an insider.

* * *

Lest we get carried away in presuming the fastness of boundaries between insider and outsider, good and bad, bad Bad and good Bad, it's helpful to recall the Ern Malley hoax. In the 1940s, two Australian poets bearing a grudge against Modernism in general, and against an avant-gardist named Max Harris in particular, spent an afternoon crafting Ern Malley and his "tragic life-work"--a purposefully bad product of collage and other Modernist technique. Ethel Malley, Ern's equally nonexistent sister, sent his poetry, along with a brave biography ("As he wished, he was cremated at Rookwood") to Harris's magazine, Angry Penguins. Harris adored and printed Malley's work. The mischief-makers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, outed Ern as fake and the poems as jokes. Hilarity ensued.

And yet--as David Lehman wrote in Jacket magazine--Max Harris and his colleagues insisted to the end that the poems were good. "The myth is sometimes greater than the creator," Harris remarked. Lehman noted that the 1992 "Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry" includes all of Malley's writing. A sample:

Where I have lived

The bed-bug sleeps in the seam, the cockroach
Inhabits the crack and the careful spider
Spins his aphorisms in the corner. . . .
There is a moment when the pelvis
Explodes like a grenade.

Considering he wasn't real, Malley certainly read a lot. The second line may borrow its headlong velocity from Tennyson's "Mariana," whose "blue fly sung in the pane"; the deft spider recalls Pound's in "The Cantos" and perhaps Eliot's in "Gerontion." This haunting passage paints the home as a seat for unease, and orgasm as an act of war, an explosion that counters the cautious quiet of the spider. (That insect, weaving unanswerable messages in private, may function as a figure for Malley himself.)

I wonder if it's coincidence that the Malley debacle--like the age of the bad-poetry anthology, and George Orwell's seminal writing on "good bad" literature--came in the thick of the Modernist era, when standards shifted disorientingly, blurring the already-contested boundaries of "good" and "bad." The manifestos of the time announced new styles in no uncertain terms. Collections of bad poetry, by contrast, provide manifestos in the negative, shadow poetics that emphasize what editors don't stand for. And that hint of preference, however indirect, might be part of the point--an unstated statement of taste, as defined against the embarrassments within the book.

For all its potential to insult, "good bad" is the most noncommittal, the most passive-aggressive of aesthetic categories: a means for critical equivocation. And perhaps equivocation is an appropriate response to a literary form whose complexities and ever-evolving styles can render it difficult to judge--a form that itself often suggests contradictory ideas in elliptical language. Sometimes, even, it argues for its own quality--good or bad--while it nauseates one reader, and sets another dreaming of cheese plates.

Read more at The Poetry Foundation.

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