A Conversation for How to Write Bad Poetry
Weeders Started conversation Nov 18, 2001
Sad, Mad or Bad's illuminating exposition of the noble art of writing Bad Poetry covers the basics extremely well. However, there are one or two areas that can helpfully be dealt with in greater depth, including Obscurity, Pretentiousness and the Skilful Use of Form.
It is hard to over-rate Obscurity and Pretentiousness, twin giants that work hand-in-hand. If the works of the mighty William McGonegal have a defect, it is that they are models of unpretentious clarity. He describes the beautiful railway bridge over the silvery Tay as "Beautiful railway bridge over the silvery Tay". This sort of up-front, naive simplicity is the kind of thing you can expect to run up against in jolly good poems such as Gray's Elegy. There, having seen a group of mooing cows crossing a meadow, the poet tells us "The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea." If you write like that, your verse will be in real danger of turning out Good.
McGonegal rescued himself from greatness not only by his unerring command of bathos but also by his dogged avoidance of scansion. Such virtuosity takes not only innate aptitude but years of practice. Lesser mortals would be wise to employ more reliable weapons, ready-made and foolproof - Obscurity and Pretentiousness. If you are ever tempted to refer to the beautiful railway bridge over the silvery Tay, stop! Discard the first thing that comes into your head - unless that happens to be something like: "Girders glissando salmon-spurning in the rail-trail Tay-way" Come to think of it, that's possibly a bit less Obscure than suits the taste of a true aficionado. But it is adequately Pretentious, one feels.
In 1954 I was eighteen years of age, a stripling schoolboy, when our English master finished reading aloud some unmemorable verses by a revered poet of the nineteen thirties. I remarked: "That's awful. I could do better than that." The master said sarcastically "Well, Weeders, perhaps you'd like to bring us a sample after break." So during the ten-minute break I dictated the following sample of Pretentiousness to my study-mate, without a pause:
To the Sea
O Surf! In Tide's cold light the rotting sailor lies
Embarked in skeleton strands beneath the Hell-torn skies.
O Seagull eating putrefying fish
Caught by the mariner's last, dying wish -
Ascend through night's sweet dreams to orbs Above.
The muddied eddies swirl around
The twisted torso rolling on the ground.
While moonbeams dark alight upon his face,
Leaving his thoughts naked.
And the sullen horizon inward growls Derisive.
For we who watch will ever wonder why -
But rising waves must grab him by and by,
And ancient, scuttling thoughts will cleanse his Bones.
His life, his love, his days, will shrink into a tomb,
A hermit-shell, a barren little womb
Beneath the flurried turmoil of the sea -
Beneath the curving belly of the Sea.
The above admittedly suffers from an apparent lack of Obscurity. The reader may well be under the impression that because individual lines evoke pictures or feelings (the latter doubtless mainly of disappointment and slight nausea) the whole amounts to the sum of its parts. Some might even think that they know what the poem is about. Well I didn't at the time, and still don't. The only thing I can say with certainty is that the first line came to me in a Flash, inspired by two other cleansing products popular in the 1950s - Surf and Tide.
Full-blown Obscurity is most readily obtained by writing in dialect, as was the habit of that well-known Britisher, Robert Burns ( 1759-1796). Some purists despise this technique for being as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. I regard being easy as a recommendation. Besides, think how much fun it is to watch victims over whom you have some sort of hold reading stuff like the following extract from "Leviathon Returned" by Charles Wallace (1675-1714):
Dreech and werrich wor the dee,
Wan thanly blached and fayn ye may -
Wi' pullen munted san ter see
An' gang awa' an' auty gang aglay!
I do know what the following poem is about. I wrote it recently, as an elementary exercise in Creating Great Modern Poetry, so I must confess that the Obscurity (if any), though not the Pretentiousness, is accidental.
Yes - it spreads - it spreads -
A metastasis creeping through consenting tissue,
Expanding redshifting blood-red crawling -
Irreversible as the arrow of time;
Inevitable as increasing entropy in any closed system
That we bind with our experimental conceptions.
Outwards - outwards - it spreads NOW -
In protoplasmic capillarity, like all of its kind,
It mocks the theory of the Sage of Novel mass or weight;
It takes exemption from the general curvature of space -
That vaunted platitude of a Single-stone.
It spreads - it spreads - polychromatic, multi-coloured, many-hued -
(Just as desired - just as desire - it spreads)
Driven by the tension of SURFACE,
The osmotic compulsion, the fibrous spongiformity -
Enticing, drawing, attracting - centrifugal.
Out - out - finding the edge of the universe -
Finite and boundless it follows the transformations of a sane topology:
Traversing the tesseract of aspiration;
Filling the Klein bottle of desire;
Reaching the end of the Mobius strip.
Out - outward - to the dream of a unitary duality -
Becoming - being and becoming - a two-sided triangle
A three-dimensional space-time continuum -
For in its static journey it has abandoned one measure of its being.
No centripetal inhibition holds it back
In viscous deliquescence it goes on,
Marking its progress in a scream of colours.
Nothing can stop it now.
Out - out - to the end of possibility;
Not even the love of the watching Earth Mother
Can draw it back; no energy barrier to impede its progress -
Nothing between now and the edge of ever -
No Heisenberg stands guard; no principle fogs the certainty;
Schroedinger's Cat is alive and dead this time!
Its shape will be fulfilled
When it passes the last pastel flower -
And reaches the edge of the kitchen towel.
This shows what a title can do. If I had called it "Mopping up Blood" that would have given the game away. Did you enjoy the veiled references to Newton and Einstein? Did you actually spot them? You did? Clever-clogs.
The following is also Pretentious, and - like all truly bad poetry - well worth reading:
When they came for me
Them in their white coats
Full of misplaced confidence,
Full of the joys of spring
(Full of s**t)
When they came, expecting
To strap me into the strait-jacket
(That they wanted me to call my life!)
Not one of them had a premonition
None of them shivered
Or looked pale.
None of them knew
(How could they know?)
That I would explode -
A suburban supernova
Bright as the Crab Nebula -
Older than yesterday's news!
A sensitive and intelligent reader such as you will have detected oodles of what we in the Profession call Morb Value. Wasn't it fun? (No? Oh well...)
Let us turn now to the Skilful Use of Form. First, the Haiku, which Sad, Mad or Bad quite rightly recommends as a medium for the bad poet, but discusses all too briefly. According to Chambers English Dictionary, a haiku is supposed to be a Japanese poem of three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables, usually comical, incorporating a word or phrase that symbolises one of the seasons. So anyone who can count lines and syllables can write a haiku. Not speaking Japanese is no barrier. Just write it in English and donate it to the Land of the Rising Sun as a gift, thereby making it a Japanese poem.- I did that to this one, which now hangs in the smallest room of the Imperial Palace:
I like certain dogs
Because they are black and brown
Like trees in Autumn.
The earnestly bad poet sees arbitrary restrictions on the numbers of lines and syllables as a boring drag. As Sad, Mad or Bad reminds us, the great E C Bentley (1875-1956) liberated versifiers from the burden of scansion by his invention of the clerihew, as for instance, his superb:
Drives the Tories to despair.
Every politician loathes
An opponent who steals other Parties' clothes.
Encouraged by this shining example, I in turn invented the clerihaiku. This is exactly like a haiku, except that it does not have to be three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables, it is comical only by chance, and any seasonal symbolism is coincidental. And thus, throwing off the fetters of tradition, it frees one to come up with such gems as the following, by my close associate Nodeew Y Rrab (1936-):
Or not to Will:
That is the Answer.
All Together Now
Happy Birthday, Heisenberg
In the looking-glass
Am I an illusion?
So much for the haiku and its more creator-friendly derivative, the clerihaiku.
The limerick is a form that has been successfully exploited by good and bad poets alike. Possibly the worst limerickist of all time was the alleged inventor of the form, Edward Lear (1812-1888 ) himself. His limericks invariably finished bathetically by repeating the last word of the first line, as in his:
There was an old lady of Chertsey,
Who made a remarkable curtsey;
She whirled round and round,
Till she sank underground,
Which distressed all the people of Chertsey.
(Not as much as that verse distresses the modern reader... Surely it is enough that a bad poem be bad - no need for it to be actively embarrassing.)
It is important to stress that it is only unintentional bathos that the bad poet should avoid - the kind that causes his audience to edge tactfully away. Intentional bathos is a fine ornament often rewarded by the supreme accolade - howls of protest.
The pitfall of unintentional bathetic repetition is easily sidestepped by another invention of which I am especially proud - namely, the blank verse limerick. Before quoting the only known sample of this form, I must in all humility acknowledge my debt to the Bard of Avon (1564-1616). Having ploughed through hundreds of lines of his blank verse pentameter for O-level English, I understood little of what Shakespeare had to say. But one thing did occur to me: the old boy would have had a hell of a time writing all this stuff if it had to rhyme like panto dialogue.
Nevertheless, some Bad Poets delight in the challenge that rhyme presents. I am in two minds about this myself, having been born with a gift for felicitous rhyme. Indeed, when I wrote the following beautiful couplets I was unaware that others had experienced difficulty when lines ended with the words 'silver' and 'orange':
Now autumn frosts turn grassy slopes to silver,
I stand in awe and idly wonder "Will Ver-
Mont's mountains blaze red, yellow and orange
Brightest in the high range or the low range?"
Even for me, some words present insuperable obstacles. Not 'poem' (for which 'phloem' is too obvious to mention), and not 'poet' (for which rhymes are too numerous) but 'poetry'. Any ideas, anyone?
And now, what you have been waiting for. (The End - at last? I hear you murmur hopefully...)
Yes - the full flowering of fanciful Form released from restrictive rhyme: the Blank Verse Limerick:
There was a young maiden from Deal,
Who never could learn to say No -
And her boyfriend was not
A responsible type,
So now she's an unmarried mum.
Finally a clerihaiku of my own:
What do I say to
Every fellow Bad Poet?
I say "Go it!"
Barry Weedon (Weeders),
with grateful acknowledgements to Nodeew Y Rrab and the descendants of Charles Wallace for permission to use quotations.
Oh yes - and also with sincere apologies to the heirs and successors of E C Bentley for misattributing the clerihew about Mr Blair.
thetreetree Posted Jan 23, 2002
I just read your article 'Worse Verse'! I thought my poem 'Ode to an Unwritten Dissertation' (thanks for reading it) was really bad but I have severely underestimated the level of bad poetry out there- I have a lot to learn. I particularly want to improve upon my obscurity and pretention! Pity I haven't got a stong ascent or dialect to draw upon. I think Burns had it easy!
Weeders Posted Feb 17, 2002
Sorry I didn't reply earlier, having been away from my computer and not knowing how to access the internet from cyber-cafes and the like.
I don't think you should worry your head about advanced topics such as Pretentiousness and Obscurity. Your Ode to an Unwritten Dissertation is full of a charming naivity (or perhaps a naive charm), a veritable gem of Primitivism. Any attempt at a more sophisticated style would be fraught with the danger of scraping off the down of innocence from the peach of your sincerity - know what I mean?
(Or - to put it another way - don't get too good at being bad, or you'll put us old hands out of business...)
the_greatest_person Posted Aug 3, 2005
just to add to this, its rather ungratious to have not mentioned douglas adams own views on bad poetry,
particuarlly since he drew such attention to them in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
i would write them here but alas, woe is me, i have yet to retrive the majority of my libary from the cardboard boxes in which they languish,
but i digress;
writing an artical like this without mentioning the vogons, the lady who rote the worst poetry or the one who forced the listener to gnaw off his own legs is as ill-mannered as writing one about mice without mentioning that they are pan-dimensional superbeings that built our planet,
aside from that single (large) critisism this is an excellent artical
burnkrn Posted Nov 20, 2005
the worst verse indeed.
you have certainly managed to join the ranks of the bad poet's creed.
i'd better now end this rhythmic nonsense with speed.
bet you expected me to end this poem with the word 'weed'.
and as for a rhyme of the word 'poetry', that's obvious! 'know a tree'. or alternatively, 'tow a tree', 'grow a tree'.
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