Demerit points for bad poetry


RimbaudAnyone who has endured brief infatuations with folks who thought they were poets has, ipso facto, suffered through poetry readings during which small quiet poets gripped lecterns like the steering wheels of vast ships, explained at incredible length the circumstances under which they committed their poems like raving sins, whispered their elephantine incoherent epic, and then, incredibly, explained at herculean length how the birds in the poem are actually symbols of revenge.

At which point many members of the audience are contemplating the latter, and imagining a world where poets actually do have to get poetic licenses that require them to swear they will not suddenly use French phrases in their poems, personify favorite body parts of lovers, or write poems in which birds represent anything but birds.

Wouldn't that be cool? A world that would require poetic administrative staff, men and women who would design and inflict licensing exams, and take poems out for test drives, and revoke privileges on grounds of obscurity (busted, Wallace Stevens!), and flag down poems that don't meet clean-language standards.

Imagine a raft of inspectors, wearing shoulder patches with Les Murray's gnomic smile, as well as a corps of poetry injectors, citizens responsible for bracing up the boring — adding a little wit and lilt to traffic signs, repairing droning political sermons, running retreats for ministers whose homilies have no heft, spicing up newsletters and manuals, and sponsoring annual switch days during which poets run cities and policemen write poems with schoolchildren.

Think of the advantages of a world with poetry inspectors and injectors: no Hallmark card ditties, no one pretending to be influenced by Rimbaud (pictured) ever again, the admirably clear and piercing Wislawa Szymborska an honored guest on television every week, a small sharp poem on the front page of every newspaper every day.

Imagine the youth of Australia competing hourly for the coolest arrow of a text-messaged poem, and Kevin Rudd opening his weekly press conference quoting Judith Wright ...

A more musical and rhythmic world, perhaps — certainly a world with more of the electric darts to the heart that great poems can be.

For poetry at its very best is the greatest of literary arts (not the greatest of arts, mind you — that would be music, or brewing beer), the one with the most power and passion in the least amount of space, the one that tries most gracefully to find the music in words, that delves deepest into the wild genius of language, that takes the sounds we make with our mouths and uses them as keys to the deepest recesses of the heart and head.

It is entertaining, at least to grinning essayists, that the price for poetry's occasional unbelievable power is the incredible ocean of self-indulgent, self-absorbed, whinnying, mewling muck produced and published annually (though not in Eureka Street, of course) under the tattered banner of the Poem.

But it is an ancient and useful human truth that every real feat is built on a mountain of failures. For proof consider your short-lived early love affairs, especially the one with the poetess, what was her pen name, Willow? Rainbow? Wislawa Szymborska?

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently, God help us, of a book of poems, Thirsty for the Joy.

Topic tags: brian doyle, bad poetry, Wallace Stevens, Les Murray, Judith Wright, Rimbaud, Wislawa Szymborska



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Existing comments

This hints at important policy reform, and would be very likely to fly in the second term of a Rudd government. Please provide more details about the administration of your proposed scheme urgently!
Tom Clark | 06 May 2009

I must be a Philistine but I have much difficulty reading Les Murray's poems yet no problems reading Judith Wrights
Harry | 06 May 2009

Bur seriously, why is there no category for poetry in the P.M.'s literary awards? Only fiction and non-fiction, as if la po├ęsie (note unnecessary French) is the unspeakably ugly sister in the literary salon. (Merde! I did it again, or as we say, encore...)

Penelope Cottier | 07 May 2009

A small sharp poem on the front page of every newspaper every day.

Bring it on!!
moya | 22 May 2009


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