Bad to the Bone
An anthology of verse offers up the banal, the bathetic, the bloated.
"All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling," wrote Oscar Wilde. But for a poem to be truly bad—to become a classic of the Bad Poetry genre—genuine feeling isn't quite enough. It's unlikely, for example, that the poems in Douglas Pagels' recent To The One Person I Consider To Be My Soul Mate: Loving Messages Meant To Be Shared With a Very Special Person will attain classic badness. In fact, the canon of Bad Poetry is indistinguishable, in certain important ways, from great poetry: It, too, "delights and instructs." And its august list is not so easy to join.
The Stuffed Owl is an anthology of bad verse compiled in 1930 by a couple of Modernist bonhommes, Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, and now reissued, with an introduction by Billy Collins, by the New York Review of Books Press. It's a greatest hits of poetry's most bathetic, banal, and bloated, from Cowper to Tennyson. The trans-historical nature of smugness is demonstrated within its pages: These poems join us to generations of supercilious snobs. We all harbor an inner sherry drinker, and this book belongs in his billiards room. Though its primary target is effete Victoriana—the velveteen emotions and confectionary phrasings—The Stuffed Owl finds ample badness elsewhere: Dryden and Byron are included along with Longfellow and Emerson, and the longest single selection comes not from Sydney Thompson Dobell or Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton but, surprisingly, from Wordsworth.
If a bad poem aspires to canonicity, it would do well to borrow the ingredients of a great poem. Passions, feather-touch emotional sensitivity, the connoisseur's sense of language, a keen interest in gesture and affect—they're all here in spades. Excess of love often leads, in poetry as in life, to worse results than neglect. Most of the worst bad poems here are so fragrantly and moistly loved that our supercilious amusement at them seems savage. They are little lives encased in amber, or suspended in honey. The grotesque mooncalves within these pages were sired by sincerity upon ambition, more or less the lineage of Keats's odes or Wilfred Owen's sonnets. What bliss it must have been for John Close (1816-1891) to write the following crisp quatrain:
Around the gods, each seated on a throne,
The poets, crowned like royal kings they sat.
Around their heads a dazzling halo shone,
No needs of mortal robes, or any hat.
("Haloes, Not Hats")
Close, the editors tell us, "bombarded" the local gentry with poems until, to the public's bafflement, he was awarded a pension of 50 pounds. But it was posterity's pension he no doubt sought, with his Promethean yoking of gods to men and haloes to hats. Alfred Austin surely thought he had "made it new" (as Pound would order poets to do, sometime later), with these lines from "The Wind": "Then I fling the fisherman's flaccid corpse/ At the feet of the fisherman's wife." What brutality! What vigor! Had any poet before him dared write such scoured, unblinking, raw lines? "But life is oft so like a dream, we know not where we are," writes Martin Tupper, echoing Measure for Measure and clearing the way, perhaps, for The Moody Blues' "Knights in White Satin." These poems dare to be erotic and heartbreaking and noble all at once, as in Thomas Campbell's "Ritter Ban": "Such was the sob and the mutual throb/ Of the knight embracing Jane." Some attempt synoptic breadths: "Neither the nations of the East nor the nations of the West/ Have thought the thing Napoleon thought was to their interest." Others, a scrupulous accuracy: "The beetle booms adown the glooms/ And bumps along the clumps."
But wouldn't we rather be Thomas Hogg or Eliza Cook or "A Babu Poet" or the ever-popular "Anonymous"—or Wordsworth at his worst—than Lewis and Lee, lying in priggish wait for the next larva to hatch and become their dinner? It's better to be a bad poet, isn't it, than a jerk? Modernism was rife with jerks, and for that we should be immensely grateful. On or about December, 1910, we all became jerks: preferring austerity in art to excessive sentiment, and asking that our poems be at least as suspicious of poetry as we are. "I too dislike it," wrote Marianne Moore, famously, of her medium. None of the authors in The Stuffed Owl disliked poetry very much; probably many of them preferred it to life and thought of it as an exquisite refuge from life. Modernism taught us how to write and read "difficult" poems, and (to a large extent) graded our poems according to how successfully they frustrated paraphrase.
When Lewis and Lee compiled this anthology, they did so to consolidate Modernist taste against the taste of the recent past; the entire production reads like a brilliant parody of Francis Palgrave's famous anthology, which defined Victorian taste in poetry. The irony is that The Stuffed Owl's reprinting feels like an argument against Modernism. Collins' introduction argues that "all Good bad poetry is formal poetry." He quotes Timothy Steele to the effect that Modernism unfairly trashed rhyme and meter in its assault on confectionary Victorian style. The implication, of course, is that we'd rather read any formal poetry, even bad formal poetry, than Modernist poetry, and that the two are somehow mutually exclusive. But rhyme and meter did not disappear under the tidal wave of Modernism: Frost and Crane and Stevens wrote within the Miltonic line, and Eliot (when he isn't doing collage) sounds like Alexander Pope. John Ashbery's prosody owes more to Tennyson's than to Pound's, and the three finest American poets of the mid-century (Robert Lowell, James Merrill, and Elizabeth Bishop) all wrote, to varying degrees and at different stages of their careers, in rhyme and meter. And even if it had disappeared, restoring rhyme and meter to poetry wouldn't necessarily make for great, or great bad, poetry. Neo-Formalists confuse a necessary condition of poetry (that it be formally dexterous, whatever its chosen form) for a sufficient one.
While the Closes and Tuppers and Campbells and Dobells of today write in a style too hermetic, too austere, too unwilling to risk sentiment or disclose feeling to be truly bad, nevertheless there's enjoyably bad poetry to be had these days. MFA workshops produce deliciously tremor-ridden and skittish poems, and the vogue, perhaps 20 years ago, for Confessionalism produced at the novice level some memorable domestic Grand Guignol. We could easily imagine the world of spoken-word and slam poetry as a subject for Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. The ever-spawning quarterlies and sub-quarterlies, the prizes with specklike endowments, the blurb-culture: Lewis and Lee, where are you? An entire canon of good bad poetry is waiting, like a lump of clay, to be shaped.
Dan Chiasson's poems appear in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.