Today I thought I would do something a little bit different. In the textbook (Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed., Kennedy), there is a chapter titled “Evaluating a Poem”. The Editor, XJ Kennedy, makes a compelling argument as to what makes a poor poem, what can trip a poem up.
Now, my classmates of my English Studies program heartily disagree with the Editor. They claim that there is no such thing as a bad poem or bad literature that all must be looked at with it’s own criterion. But if this is true, then that means that poetry isn’t fluid but its criterion is. I guess, that this confused me, since I thought that the point of a criterion is to have something, one something (or a list of rules), by which the many works can be measured, so that the poet (or the author) has certain benchmarks to reach for and the readers have something to define the work with. How silly of me to think that anything should be measured.
Works should be free – free to express themselves in any manner they chose, free to take any form that they wish. I don’t disagree with that, but to call something a great work of art, or a masterpiece, that takes benchmarks. If an author or a poet is to bend the rules, he or she should do so in a careful and conscious manner and with an understanding of what rules are being broken and how. If you say that there shouldn’t be any rules, it is as if to say, that all of language should be free and we don’t have to use any sort of rules of spelling, or grammar or syntax – those are too apppressive, two confening, to litaral. If follow we was rulz grammer rulz hav us cell’d up jails birds!!! (Hm, that sentence isn’t very clear. Perhaps a rule would have helped make clear exactly what was being expressed.) But I think the sensitive artist should step back and stop seeing the rules as a ruler slapped to the back of the hand (only humans do that to you) and instead see them as tools; something you the user of language have full power over. You cannot build a house with out a hammer and a saw. Those tools don’t oppress you, so why should a criterion for what is good art and what is bad be any different?
Well, here is what the Editor says about poetry that doesn’t meet the benchmark. When we say a poem is bad, we’re not making a moral judgement, “rather, we mean that for one or more of many possible reasons, the poem has failed to move us or to engage our sympathies.” (page 244) The poet should show us that she has “control of the language and vision.” A poem that arouses an antipathy or funny without meaning to be (belongs in the so bad it’s good category) fails. Sometimes it is because there is a lack in the poet’s competence and experience or a lack in understanding of poetry’s basic concepts. “A bad poem reveals only a dim and distorted awareness of its probably effect on its audience.”
Illustrations of this are:
-using words that sound jarring or dissonant to the context of the poem (e.g. “Come to the tent my love and use the flap.”).
-metaphors that don’t quite fit (e.g. “Our love is a rabid dog gracefully bounding through a field of foaming daisies.”)
-a rime scheme that seems forced (e.g. “with you I had a really great time,/but to reach you I had to up the hill climb.”)
-a profusion of adjectives that are completely unnecessary (e.g. It was grand that old, French, wicker, faded, brownish, sun-kissed, overly tall and stretched straight up to heaven, framed with mottled brass rims and frowning, Grandfather clock)
-the poem is over-wrought; it suffers from “an excess of ingenuity” The book used a quote from Alexander Pope to explain how this is, but didn’t give an example. So I’ll just quote it: “[A hounded stag who] Hears his own feet, and thinks they sound like more;/And fears the hind feet will o’take the fore.”
-the poem is under-worked and redundant. (e.g. Here is this star tonight, and this is the night that the star arrives but here.)
-A poem sticks too closely to established rules. It is “written entirely in conventional diction” in the manner of Shakespeare, Wordsworth or the Bible, “but garbles them.” This type of poem will use proper meter exactly as it should, but it’s context is general and sterile as if the poet has never experienced any of her subject matter first hand. So, she will talk about a rose and it will be red and soft and perfumed, but it will never sound as if it was her personal experience of the rose (perhaps her rose had brown spots, or was bluish, had a worm, or smelled to her like oats). This type of poem often will speak of standard topics for poetry: love, beauty, life, death, time, eternity, but abstract and divorced from her own personal experience of these concepts. It will be “littered with old-fashioned contractions (’tis, o’er, where’er) and end in a simple preachment of platitude.” But the language will fall into cliches and never sound original.
-A poem is written without any knowledge of former poetic conventions. “[it] displays no acquaintance with poetry of the past but manages, instead to fabricate it’s own cliches.”
-A poem has an unintentional double meaning (e.g. from Tennyson. “Form, Form Riflemen Form!… Look to your butts, and take good aims!”)
-But worse than this, the poem has no unintentional double meaning, in fact, it takes no linguistic risks at all. I think the Editor is right to quote Ronsard: “In poetry, the greatest vice is mediocrity.”
So, I thought I would present to you a few of the poems for this section.
O Moon, When I Gaze On Thy Beautiful Face
O Moon, when I gaze on thy beautiful face,
Careering along through the boundaries of space,
The thought has often come into my mind
If I ever shall see thy glorious behind.
[It does give a new context to the term “full moon”. There is an unintentional double meaning at the end of that poem, but there is a bit of beauty in some of the lines. But is it successful in its attempt to present its concept?]
by Grace Treasone
Life is like a jagged tooth
that cuts into your heart;
fix the tooth and save the root,
and laughs, not tears, will start.
[I’m still trying to puzzle out how a tooth from your mouth can cut your heart. And it’s not terribly obvious why fixing the tooth will cause laughing. Usually, it causes pain pills and a day of drooling. And does the root not always get saved when the tooth is fixed? Or are we digging out the root and saving it in a jar? Are we pulling the tooth, but leaving in the root? (Dentists will tell you that that is a bad idea.) It’s not clear. So, does lack of clarity of metaphor not put this in the “bad” camp? How about this next one – it’s a love poem.]
My Wife Is My Shirt
by Stephen Tropp
My wife is my shirt
I put my hands through her armpits
slide my head through her mouth
& finally button her blood around my hands
[Sounds a little like the love poem of a serial killer, though I can see how it probably had been over-worked and could have sounded nice as an idea, but failed in execution – I hope only for the poem. Compare this to Ruth Stone’s “Second Hand Coat” – a very similar poem. After that comparison, are you sure there isn’t a criterion for good and bad poetry? Is that your final answer?]