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Drab Bards (Or, The Importance of Bad Poetry)

January 3, 2014

I have before me two anthologies of bad poetry. The first, and most infamous, is The Stuffed Owl, edited by D.B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, first published in 1930. The reprint of The Stuffed Owl that I have, published in 2003, contains a new preface by Billy Collins. The second anthology – an obvious in imitation of The Stuffed Owl – is Pegasus Descending, edited by James Camp, X. J. Kennedy, and Keith Waldrop, first published in 1971. Both books are organized in the same way; they begin with an introduction by the editors, then a selection of what the editors consider to be ‘The Worst Opening Lines in English’, and then the bad poems themselves. Each bad poem is preceded by a biographical and sometimes critical note on the person who wrote it. I am morbidly fascinated by these books – no, I’m more than morbidly fascinated. I return to them again and again. I am convinced that Lewis, Lee, Camp, Waldrop and Kennedy have done a great service by compiling and publishing these books. I thought I’d better ask myself why? What do I get out of reading risible old poems prefaced by snarky little notes? What would anybody get out of it? The first and most obvious answer is that people read the poems in The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending for the same reason they watch movies like Birdemic or Battlefield Earth – so they can laugh at, and feel superior to, the poor fools revealing their artistic incompetence to the world. But there’s more to it than that. From bad art of any sort –certainly from bad poetry – one can actually learn a lot.

The first thing one learns from reading the bad poems compiled in The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending is what separates a bad poem from a good poem. The editors of both books spend most of their introductions explaining this. In The Stuffed Owl, Lewis and Lee write: ‘…nuances of badness unite to make Bad Verse. The most obvious and predominating tint, of course, is bathos: that sudden slip and swoop and slither as down a well-buttered slide, from the peaks into the abyss…There is often found in Bad Verse that windy splurging and bombinating which makes Victor Hugo’s minor rhetoric so comic and so terrible.  Other plain marks are…poverty of the imagination, sentimentality, banality, the prosaic…obstipation or constipation of the poetic faculty; inability to hold the key of inspiration; and insufficiency of emotional content for metrical form. (xiii). In Pegasus Descending, on the other hand, Keith Waldrop writes that in bad poetry,
      ‘… There appears a ludicrous gap between whatever the writer has set himself to achieve, and his level of talent and intelligence…In bad poetry, sincere failures are the only delectable kind. Whatever is consciously, deliberately bad – that must be shunned like some loathsome beetle or moral leper.’ ( xiii-xiv.)  Meanwhile, Keith Waldrop observes that:
            ‘How often is it that bad verse is needlessly complicated! Such is the work of the bard who beats us over the head with a brilliant display of excessive ingenuity; who has to be tricksy at all costs when (instead) he ought to be passionate. He it is who must lard his lines with alliteration just for the hell of it; who, called on for a paean delivers a pun.’  (xiv).

Interestingly, the editors of both The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending make the same point about metrical, rhyming poetry – that it is more often risibly bad than un-rhymed free verse. In his preface to The Stuffed Owl, Billy Collins writes,
             ‘All Good Bad Poetry is formal poetry, because the reader is allowed to see exactly how the poem is failing to be good…A formal poem risks being indisputably bad, for any reader can recognise the ways in which it is bad, whereas free verse may offer a verbal camouflage where one’s ineptitude has a fighting chance to remain undetected…bad poetry features an anarchy of rule-following that leads to the near breakdown of the serene order that the forms of traditional poetry are designed to maintain.’ (v).
In Pegasus Descending, X.J Kennedy argues: ‘In free verse, as in any other sort of writing, a writer cannot long be fugg-headed, lazy or incompetent without the reader’s catching wise to him; but surely an inept free-versifier can escape detection longer than an inept sonneteer. If…the poet views his work as…spontaneous declamation, no one will laugh if his free verse contains a few natural stutters and imperfections. But writing a formal ode…is like singing an aria: a dangerous thing to belch in the middle of.’ (xv).

If the editors of Pegasus Descending and The Stuffed Owl organized their books in roughly the same way, they did select the bad poems they included according to different criteria. Lewis and Lee arrange their compilation in chronological order; Kennedy, Waldrop and Camp arranged their compilation by category (with sections for poems on Love, Nature, War, Death, Food, etc.) Lewis and Lee selected works written from the mid-16th Century (Abraham Cowley’s ‘On the Death of Mr. William Hervey’) to the mid-19th Century (Tennyson’s ‘Song at the Opening of the International Exhibition’). They forced themselves to stop at the mid-19th Century, though. Because many of the most laughable poets of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras were still alive in 1930, Lewis and Lee informed readers  in their introduction that,‘…the enrichment of this book…with extracts from eminent living English poets would not compensate the momentary hot embarrassment all round which perhaps have followed…’ (vii). Writing at the dawn of the 1970’s, the editors of Pegasus Descending – Kennedy, Waldrop and Camp – had no such embarrassment to worry about, and could afford to include all those writers who gave the late Victorian and Edwardian eras a bad name.

Lewis and Lee included in The Stuffed Owl only poems that were specifically intended to be serious, as opposed to ‘light verse’. Billy Collins notes that light verse could not have been included in an anthology of bad poetry because ‘…light verse – when it’s good – is good because it intends to be bad.’ (iv). However, that phrase ‘when it’s good’ implies that light verse, too, can fail. Arguably, when light verse fails, it becomes something that its readers laugh at instead of with. Besides, ‘light verse’ does not always mean ‘comical verse’; it can also refer to ‘verse written on relatively light subjects’ – food, for instance. The Stuffed Owl does not contain many examples of failed light verse, but Pegasus Descending does.

Additionally, Lewis and Lee refrained from including works by amateur poets. As they put it: ‘…the rich mine of amateurism…has been left practically untouched: some attractive imbecilities may have been lost thereby, but…a fall off a cliff is more interesting than a fall off a cushion.’ (xix). Again, the editors of Pegasus Descending differ from the editors of The Stuffed Owl. Kennedy, Waldrop and Camp do deign to include amateur poets in their anthology – people like Frank Elwood Sanford, who published one poem, ‘The Outcast,’ in 1894, and afterwards disappeared into respectability, and Grace Treasone, whose four-line scrap of doggerel ‘Life’ appeared in the ‘This Way To Parnassus’ column of the Morris County News in 1963, and the mysterious ‘C.T’, whose poem ‘Gastric’ is a fine example of the comic poem that one laughs at instead of with. One can’t help but feeling that Kennedy, Waldrop and Camp might have cast their net too wide, or aimed their Gatling guns at gnats. It’s one thing to expose the rare wrong-footed moments of Emily Dickinson or Alfred Tennyson or Lord Byron, or the clunking senillia of Thomas Hardy. It’s one thing to show up also-rans and second-raters like Sydney Dobell, Thomas Holley Chivers and Robert Edward Bulwer-Lytton. But it’s quite another thing to pillory the one-off anonymous submission to the local newspaper. However, even if one thinks that Kennedy, Waldrop and Camp were unfair in preserving for all eternity the likes of Dr. A. Rashid Ghazi’s ‘Poem on Inter-Uterine Device’ – which was intended as a work of popular education, not a work of art – one has to admit that bad amateur poems are often laugh-out-loud funny, and that Pegasus Descending is a funnier book on the whole than The Stuffed Owl.

All literature, even bad literature, always contains something of the era it was written in.  Reading The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending, one gets a real sense of the standards and tastes of the past. Many, though certainly not all, of the poems included in both books were considered genuinely good in their day. Reading them, one learns something about what people in past centuries and decades expected poetry to be. The Stuffed Owl focuses mostly on 18th Century writers – people who rubbed elbows with, and sometimes competed with, the likes of Henry Fielding and Alexander Pope. Reading them, and reading the biographical notes about them, is to discover a time when poets were taken seriously by the reading public and took each other seriously too; when poetry was the preserve of courtiers and gentlemen, and when at least some people daydreamed about being made poet laureate the way people today daydream about winning at Jeopardy. To read about what Lewis and Lee term‘…the brawling and scuffling of the sons of the Muses,’ (51) –to read the works of Colley Cibber and Nahum Tate, who were caricatured by Pope in The Dunciad – is to get a glimpse of a strange and fascinating time. If The Stuffed Owl focuses on the 18th Century, Pegasus Descending, as I noted before, focuses on the late 19th Century and the first decades of the 20th Century. Here we find two of the most infamous bad writers in history: Julia A. Moore, of Grand Rapids Michigan, and William McGonagall, of Dundee, Scotland. Moore was a sentimentalist of the rankest and most oozing sort, and a complete hack: her poems mostly either advocate The American Way or memorialize dead babies, and furthermore they almost never scan. (Little-known fact – it was Moore and her galumphing elegies that gave Mark Twain the inspiration for the morbid and maudlin poetess character Emmeline Grangerford in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) William McGonagall, described by Lewis and Lee as ‘…A sweet and cheerful soul, even when reporting the slaughter of multitudes…’ (13), devoted himself to chronicling disasters, and published his poems as penny broadsheets under the impression that he was doing a great public service thereby. His poems never scanned either, and he ended both ‘The Albion Battleship Calamity’ and ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’  with the lines ‘…The stronger we our houses do build/The less chance we have of being killed,’ even though neither poem had anything at all to do with houses. Besides those two poor fools, Pegasus Descending chronicles all those late-Victorian and Edwardian and post-Edwardian hacks who pandered to the public in the worst way. People like Eliza Cook and Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Edgar Guest and Edmund Vance-Cook, James Whitcomb Riley and Harry Edward Mills,  were slicker than Moore and McGonagall – their work scanned – but they were just as craven. They offered up drooling pathos and sentimentality, philistine patriotism, watered-down religiosity and hokum of every description; they were frighteningly successful and they drove their more disciplined contemporaries up the wall. In 1914, Wyndham Lewis mentioned Ella Wheeler Wilcox as someone who deserved  a ‘blasting’ in his infamous Blast magazine, and by the 1920’s, Dorothy Parker was wailing, ‘I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test/Than read the poems of Edgar Guest!’ (This is a serious charge indeed, especially for those who know what a Wasserman test is. It’s an antibody test for syphilis; if you flunk the test, you’ve got it). Reading Guest’s and Wilcox’s poems now, one realizes just how far we’ve come during the second half of the 20th Century. One sees clearly how knowing, cynical and above all unsentimental we’ve become. We no longer expect moral uplift and folksy piety in our poems, just as we no longer expect rhyme and meter, for the most part.  After reading poems like ‘The Old Arm-Chair’, ‘The Little Hunchback’ and ‘Lost After All’, I suspect that’s a good thing.

Yes, one can learn a lot from bad poetry. What I’ve written here only scratches the surface of the knowledge one can gain reading The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending. Ultimately though, bad poetry teaches by bad example; it provides readers with lessons in What Not to Do. Realizing this, I will attempt to boil down the lessons of both books into a brief list, which might save struggling writers from having to read all those awful poems.  Rule One: be passionate. In Pegasus Descending, X.J Kennedy implies that passion is the one thing required from poetry; as noted above, he berates those poets who are tricksy when they should be passionate. When one is passionate, one can sustain the pitch of inspiration to the end of the poem and carry the idea to fulfillment. Genuine passion is one of the only things that keeps one from turning into the kind of writer who churns out whatever he thinks the audience wants to hear. We’ve seen what happens to writers like that. Rule Two: but don’t be so passionate that you don’t consider what you’re writing about. Many writers believe poetry can be written about any subject, no matter how ‘unpoetic’ it might be. Some of the works collected in Pegasus Descending and The Stuffed Owl call this idea into question. No matter how much passion, and talent, one has, when writing about an extremely prosaic subject one always risks falling into banality. One has to really ask one’s self if one really should attempt to write a serious, rhymed, metrical poem about, for instance, the kind of insects that damage sugar-cane crops, or the illnesses that sheep can suffer from. I say should because James Grainger [‘They burst their filmy gaol and crawl abroad/Bugs of uncommon shape,…’] and John Dyer (In cold stiff soils the bleaters oft complain/Of gouty ails by shepherds termed the halt…’), have proved, unfortunately, that one can. While you’re at it (this relates to the first part of the rule), don’t even attempt to write a serious poem about food or drink if you can possibly help it. Pegasus Descending features a chapter of poems about food and drink, and they are some of the most contemptible poems in a whole book full of them. The funniest one must be James McIntyre’s ‘Ode On The Mammoth Cheese’ (‘Wert thou suspended from a balloon/You’d cast a shade even at noon./Folks would think you were the moon/about to fall and crush them soon…’) The absolute clunkiest one must be Bruce Weston Munro’s ‘Apple Pies’ (‘Deliver us from apple pies/made in the careless slipshod way/…with fungous growth and seeds galore thrown in and crust supremely tough/These have degraded apple pies…’) Remember, Munro and McIntyre were being serious. Their examples alone should serve as evidence that food might not be a serious enough subject to devote an entire poem to. Rule Three: Do not attempt to write a serious poem in rural dialect. Even if one is irresistibly compelled to write a poem about pumpkin pie, one should have the decency not to purposefully misspell ‘pumpkin’ as ‘punkin.’ Harry Edward Mills did this: ‘What makes you jest ez hungry yit an’ pretty near ez dry/Until you git to workin’ on yer piece o’ punkin’ pie?’ Ugh. No matter what one might think, writing in supposed ‘rural’ dialect does not make one sound down-home and populist. It makes one sound condescending and annoying. Deeply, deeply annoying. And after a while, all those apostrophes start swimming before the readers’ eyes.

Hey…wait a minute. Looking back over my rules, I realize I might have the wrong idea. No doubt there will be people who can think of genuinely good poems that contradict the rules I’ve learned from reading these two books.  No doubt there will be and have been people who have written poems that contradict these rules. The Stuffed Owl and Pegasus Descending taught me a lot, but I haven’t written nearly as many poems since I read them. I fear these books have made me a more timid poet – almost too afraid to write, lest I risk ending up like the wretched failures chronicled by the editors of these old books. I shouldn’t have taken them like that. Badness of all sorts – sappiness, ponderousness and plain old pointlessness – is a trap that all artists risk falling into every time they set out to create. Fear of failure is always more debilitating than failure itself. We can, in the final analysis, learn a lot from books like Pegasus Descending and The Stuffed Owl, but we should not let the failures of our forbearers – or the critical reactions to them – keep us from attempting to create art. Passion is all, as X.J Kennedy and co., put it, and the other rules can be taken with many grains of salt. After we’ve reminded ourselves What Not To Do, we should turn away and remember What To Do instead. Better yet, we should do what we want to do, and hope that compelling art comes out of it.


Works Cited:

Collins, Billy, Lee, Charles, Lewis, Wyndham. The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse. New York: New York Review of Books, 2003. Print.

Camp, James, Kennedy, X.J, Waldrop, Keith. Pegasus Descending: A Treasury of the Best Bad Poems in English. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. Print.


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