Authors: Kathryn Petras
A compulsion to write verse, and a happy delusion regarding talent—that is the beginning of a very bad poet. Very bad poets are perpetrators of a unique and fascinating type of writing. Unlike the plainly bad or the merely mediocre, very bad poetry is powerful stuff. Like great literature, it moves us emotionally, but, of course, it often does so in ways the writer never intended: usually we laugh.
This is no simple task. “Literary is a work very difficult to do,” wrote very bad poet Julia Moore in the preface to
A Few Choice Words to the Public.
And she is absolutely correct. To continue her point, very good literary is a work very difficult to do—and so is very bad literary.
Writing very bad poetry requires talent—inverse talent, to be sure, but talent nonetheless. It also helps to have a
wooden ear for words, a penchant for sinking into a mire of sentimentality, a bullheaded inclination to stuff too many syllables or words into a line or a phrase, and an enviable confidence that allows one to write despite absolutely appalling incompetence.
Some poets are granted these qualities by the Muse only temporarily—and then they go on to write good poems. Others are blessed, if that is the word, for their entire career.
So what is a very bad poem? Usually it is testimony to a poet’s well-honed sense of the anticlimactic. A poet must be immeasurably moved by some grandiose emotion or event—say, a horrific catastrophe—commit it to paper, then veer from the sublime to the pedestrian at precisely the right—which is to say, the wrong—moment. One minute the poet is describing the sinking of a ferry, the next mentioning how much the fare was.
Often it is a matter of using inappropriate words. The poet, eager to keep up a rhyme or meter, shoves in the only word that will do—and, of course, it is the wrong word. (“Fear not, grand eagle, the bay of the beagle” comes to mind.) Or the ever-optimistic poet seems to think that he or she can slip in a word that
rhymes, thus creating exciting and certainly unique not-quite-rhymes such as
And typically very bad poetry bears the weight of overenthusiastic use of literary devices—alliteration, footnotes, and most commonly, bad metaphors—not to mention bizarre, if excited, imagery, as in the following, by Amanda McKittrick Ros, a bad novelist turned worse poet. (Should the reader wonder, this is a somewhat
description of Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.)
Holy Moses! Take a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook,
Some rare bits of brain lie here,
Mortal loads of beef and beer.
But ultimately a very bad poem is more than one that violates literary conventions, poetic meter, and grammatical rules. It contains an element of art—that certain something that marks the poem as a masterpiece. As with great art, we can’t exactly define a very bad poem except to say we know one when we see one.
And so we are blessed with poems such as “The Spleen,” “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese,” “A Pindaricque on the Grunting of a Hog,” and “An Elegy to a Dissected Puppy.” For, as the very bad poet James McIntyre noted, all poets, good and bad,
… pursue each theme
Under a gentle head of steam.
This book celebrates these chugging poets.
ot the most compelling personality (a brief biographical entry in a literary encyclopedia includes the following descriptive words: peculiar, melancholic, argumentative, inherent indolence, almost pathological shyness, coarseness, irreverence, bitter, misanthropic, lover of luxury and pomp, querulous), John Armstrong was a Scottish physician who wrote a famous didactic poem on preserving health.
Despite his rather fearsome reputation, a favored few found him “sweet-tempered and whimsical,” although those reading “The Art of Preserving Health” might find
Enough of air. A desert subject now,
Rougher and wilder rises to my sight.…
Half subtilised to chyle, the liquid food
Readiest obeys the assimilating powers;
And soon the tender vegetable mass
The languid stomach curses even the pure
Delicious fat, and all the race of oil:
For more, the oily ailments relax
Its feeble tone, and with the eager lymph
(Fond to incorporate all it meets)
Coyly they mix, and shun with slippery wiles
The woo’d embrace. The irresoluble oil,
So gentle late and blandishing, in floods
Of rancid bile o’erflows: what tumults hence,
What horrors rise, were nauseous to relate.
Choose leaner viands, ye whose jovial make
Too fast the gummy nutriment imbibes.
n Alfred Austin’s monumental
The Human Tragedy,
his heroine, Urania, poses what for the poem is a rather quick question:
Do you not find Nature’s unpunctuality retrieves our too precise
forebodings, filling up all disappointing vacancies with gifts not
reckoned in our calendar?
The Human Tragedy,
which the prolix poet viewed as his magnum opus and over which he labored for many years, through four editions. Although his work was largely ignored by the critics and the public, Austin remained unconcerned, quite convinced of his own Byronic literary genius, which also extended to the writing of plays and an autobiography. According to the latter, his first book bore the wonderful title
Randolph, A Tale of Polish Grief
and sold seventeen copies. Largely because the conservative government wanted a safe, conservative poet, Austin became England’s poet laureate.
Supposedly pompous, egotistical, and certainly verbose and prone to using obscure words and phrases, the poet was also known for his breast fixation, which is much in evidence in his poetry. Breasts appear in often unexpected ways or places, often doing unexpected things, such as ploughing the brine or opening doors. A notable specimen of breasts on a platter occurs in Florence.
In that same palace, the Uffizi, I
Remember to have marked a virgin lift
Upon a silver salver up on high
The offering of her breasts—no trivial gift.
But the fleet hours pass pitilessly fleeter,
Or where, half-sadly warbling as it went,
Like a boy-poets’ happy discontent.
The stiff wain creaks ’neath the nodding wheat;
Flit, yaffel, flit from tree to tree.
The babe is hushed on its mother’s teat,
And the acorn drops at your dreaming feet,
Flit, yaffel, flit from tree to tree.
The whimpering winds have lost their way,
Scream, yaffel, scream from tree to tree.
The following excerpt, from the same extremely long poem, is a fulmination against what Austin apparently considered a scourge of mankind—the padded bra.
The Human Tragedy
And do they wear that lubricating lie,
That fleshless falsehood! Palpitating maids
Puff themselves out with hollow buxomness,
To lead some breathless gaby at their heels
A scentless paper chase!
Go away, Death!
You have come too soon.
To sunshine and song I but just awaken,
And the dew on my heart is undried and unshaken;
Come back at noon.
The flocks of the wandering waves I hold
In the hollows of my hand,
And I let them loose, like a huddled fold,
And with them I flood the land.
Till they swirl round villages, hamlets, thorpes,
As the cottagers flee for life:
Then I fling the fisherman’s flaccid corpse
At the feet of the fisherman’s wife.
othing is known of T. Baker, reports D. B. Wyndham Lewis, who rediscovered the poet’s work, “except the fact that he was inexhaustibly impressed by the powers of steam”—so much so that Baker wrote a two-hundred-page poem on the steam engine.
Lord Stanhope hit upon a novel plan
Of bringing forth this vast Leviathan
(This notion first Genevois’ genius struck);
His frame was made to emulate the duck;
Webb’d feet had he, in Ocean’s brine to play;
With whale-like might he whirl’d aloft to spray;
But made with all this splash little speed;
Alas! the duck was doom’d not to succeed!
The Most Convoluted Syntax
hen in doubt, the very bad poet will commit any syntactical sin imaginable to make a line rhyme—as in the masterpiece excerpted below.
On a Procession with the Prince of Wales
At evening too the dazzled light
Illumed the darkness of the night
I can’t paint it for reasons best.
’Twas grand, though I in crowd was pressed.
ittle is known of Samuel Bently except that he penned the following poem on the death of the Reverend Dean, whose demise one author calls “one of the least moving in literature.”
Yet here, tho’ amusing the Sight,
With Tears the poor Dean
I will mourn;
Who climb’d up this steep, dizzy Height,
By Ways he cou’d never return:
Ah! Why did you ride up so high?
From whence all unheard sing the Birds,
Conduct a Fair Lady: Ah, why!
Where scarce is a Path for the Herds?
How shriek’d the hoarse Ravens a Knell!
When vain, and quite useless the Rein,
All headlong together down fell,
The Horse, the poor Lady, and Dean:
The Lady, by lace-braided Hair
Entangl’d in Brambles was found,
Suspend’d in Brambles was found,
Suspended unhurt in mid-air;
The Dean met his Death with the Ground.
The Reverend Dean
who were on a visit to Wenman Cokes, Esq., at
and went to entertain themselves with a sight of
where the Dean was unfortunately killed while attempting to reach the top of one of the rocks, with the lady on the same horse; the lady was saved by the hair of her head being entangled in some bushes.
n American poet with a penchant for the melancholy, Mrs. Marion Albina Bigelow was a regular contributor to several periodical columns, turning out poems with bleak titles such as “Two Smothered Children.” Of the nearly three hundred poems she wrote, a large number were elegies, often crammed with clinical descriptions of a dying person’s last minutes, as in these lines from her poem “Ellen”:
Cold clammy sweats were glistening on her brow;
Wild with delirium long she struggled there.
Bigelow’s depressing outlook (attributed to all her brothers dying from consumption) apparently found an appreciative audience. In fact, the editor of her book of collected poems,
Songs of the St. Lawrence,
found fit to proudly state that “the author is wholly incapable of levity and the reader will find nothing of it in any of her productions.”
Suggested by seeing four children disinterred, and placed by the side of their mother
Come, lowly ones, and take your places now
Beside the mother, who so long had wept,
Had mourn’d your absence with an aching brow,
And eyes that stream’d with tears while others wept.…
Come, gather round her now! she had not thought
To see you leave again your mossy tomb—
But ye are rising from that sacred spot;
The turf is broken—one by one ye come!