During my hiatus, I worked diligently to figure out what “bad poetry” meant to me, and once I become empowered to disappoint, how I could appall myself in a poem. I felt vicious, intemperate, outrageous, sleazy, hysterical, cantankerous, willful. I made poems with unconscionable and irrelevant leaps, poems with overblown abstractions heaped upon abstractions (who will ever forget “the turpitude of forgiveness”?), poems with speakers pronouncing upon every character in sight (because “I” always knows so much better than her or his family), poems with social toxicities heightened further by specious speechifying. I made poems that clanked and thumped, beset by sneaker-in-the-dryer iambs, and conversely, poems that used non-metrical speech oblivious to all considerations of sound, the kinds of poems that deserve to be chopped up, but are too often just divided into lines and called free verse. I made poems that ended four times without beginning once, poems that left out crucial details, poems with no details. I made poems that suffered from gender whiplash, empathy deficit, emotional aphasia, and narrative ataxia. I hated every line I wrote (who will ever forget “the hounds of my heartbeat”?), and wanted nothing more than to ball up each of my poems and drown them in a bucket of my crocodile tears.
And I read appalling poems, too. I searched for well-known poets I thought over-rated, bought a book by each, scoured the Amazon algorithms for like-minded horrors, and read on, McDuff. Bruising poems that attempted to meld unethical politics and self-righteousness, those bedmates always stealing the too-small blanket. Vapid poems that combine cosmetically, in the name of originality, unrelated subjects—as Lear says, “two pernicious daughters join'd” (King Lear, 3:2:22). I drank each drop of the soured milk in my summer’s failing fridge.
I crawled inside the zeitgeist and curled into a ball. Oh, the ekphrasis! Oh, the Self as our One Hero! I read fourteen ekphrastic poems on the Dutch Masters by fourteen poets, and forty-seven ekphrastic poems on Frida Kahlo by forty-one poets. (Where goeth Van Gogh? Where fleeth O’Keefe?) I read eighty-eight poems in which the last two lines begin with “I...,” after not using the first-person throughout the whole poem (“Sudden I Syndrome”). I read forty-three poems that begin at dawn or at dusk, but only three that begin after lunch. I read an even two-dozen poems that are centered by Microsoft Word because the software can. I read sixteen poems that mention breasts in the first four lines metonymically. I read—and I believe this is a coincidence, but I cannot be sure—five poems in the month of May about pets running away, poems in which I began to cheer for the pets, “Run, Sparky, Run! Run from the horrid poem....” (I wondered if the pets running away in May had anything to do with April being National Poetry Month.) In one of these poems, the narrator promises to ‘whup’ the dog beater, but doesn’t, because the dog beater turns out to be an elected official: that poem ends with the line, “and this is an allegory, people.” I read thirty-one poems with “Why” in the title, twenty of which also have “Why” in the last line. In the moment, out of time, and bad poem mad, I read so many bad poems I couldn’t tell where the poems ended and my emotions began.
I began to believe there was sand in my mouth, Jell-O in my shoes. I felt as though I had done a Morgan Spurlock, and super-sized all of the awful poetry I could consume. The lines were too salty, my glass of metaphors too fatty: I was threatening my psyche with The Poetry Arteriosclerosis.
After two months of the most god-awful poetry, I became mean to those around me. I kicked my bicycle whenever the chain fell off; standing on the sidewalk, I kicked and kicked. One time, I was so mad at how my own new poem ended, I drove my car straight onto a restaurant’s lawn, and insisted to the policewoman that I receive a moving violation. I felt as though I had enlisted in a poetry assassination squad, a private cohort of beauty slayers, and my code name had become Buzz Kill.
But nevertheless, all the while, keeping a working notebook in which I recorded my abjection, I began to clarify what had ruined my work too often, and especially the kinds of go-to conventions of free verse I had inherited, and learned to teach.
And then I stopped, the alarm went off, and adorned with my obsessions once again, though a little more sure of my weaknesses, I began to write what I hoped might be “good” poetry.
My poems had changed: my poems had become zanier, woofier, airier, less subject to fad-ism, more emotionally unpredictable, both sadder and happier, less touristic, more polyphonic, more intuitive. I had become skeptical of the comma and the period—I, a badge-wielding member of the Punctuation Police. My poems had learned to bang around in the inexplicable, and I had learned to trust how the darkness felt.
And now I’ll tell the story backwards, at least partially. Here’s a passage that might help explain my initial motivation, aside from the endorphins of the self-flagellant. In “The Use of Theory,” an essay first developed in 1955 and revised again in 1963, French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet writes:
"There is no question, as we have seen, of establishing a theory, a pre-existing mold into which to pour the books of the future. Each novelist, each novel must invent its own form. No recipe can replace this continual reflection. The book makes its own rules for itself, and for itself alone. Indeed the movement of its style must often lead to jeopardizing them, breaking them, even exploding them. Far from respecting certain immutable forms, each new book tends to constitute the laws of its functioning at the same time that it produces their destruction." (Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction; Northwestern U Press, 1989; trans. Richard Howard)
Substituting the word “poem” for the word “novel” here, and thinking about the unrecognizability of “each new book” to the readers of the moment, I am interested in the notion that a poem “makes its own rules for itself, and for itself alone.” Even within received forms, isn’t this what happens, the work of art becomes a combo of promises kept and un-, the poem a linguistic and prosodic entity predicated upon the appearance of constant reinvention? Consider, in this context, the opening of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet V”: “I am a little world made cunningly / of elements....” I believe that Donne is talking about the poem itself here, and the behaviors within the poem consistent with specific physical constants and the text’s idiosyncratic rules of gravity.
But somewhere between reinvention, promises kept and dashed, and style, I had suffocated in my old little world, in my AMP-ocentrism. It’s a struggle, I think, to act upon a mature vision without parodying whatever artistic progress one has ostensibly made. A mature vision may yet generate a single (and singular) poem: however, a mature vision that corresponds too easily and too readily to Robbe-Grillet’s notion of the “pre-existing molds” that yield to “immutable forms” – which I believe the mature artist invents for herself or himself – threatens subsequent works with the prospect of being paler imitations of art already done well.
In other words, if you’re in the box, it’s because you are the box. And the box might look pretty, but that’s because you made it.
I’m no Kenneth Goldsmith, and this is not a stump speech for the uncreative; I’m much more inclined to Cathy Park Hong’s understanding of the history of the avant-garde anyway. Nor am I arguing to write against one’s own talents, which I realize constitutes an extremely complicated idea packed into a gnomic truism. Nor am I saying the zeitgeist is only a prison. Instead, I’m trying to endorse a healthy skepticism of the familiar: lesser versions of our own best poems need to be preempted by continued experimentation.
When I wrote bad poems on purpose — and hold your tongues here, social media wags — informed by my reading of bad poems, I found myself filling in the silences and the spaces between the words. Appearances aside, I’ve never been a narrative poet: my poems often perform what I call “the attitude of narrative,” and present in narrative ways their lyricism without succumbing to story. Filling in the silences and spaces, for me, might have meant adding plot, undermining inference, dumbing down ambiguity — but really, what it means, and what I think may be the best individualized lesson I learned during my Season of Hell, is that sound by itself isn’t a sufficient poetic phenomenon until dynamically interpellated by white space and silence. Perhaps I’ve come upon a commonplace in music composition, and/or a truism implicit to my earlier work, but the idea seemed a newly articulated notion for me.
You might expect a rant in a piece I’m calling “Bad Poems,” as I detail all that is execrable in the art form today, and name the worst offenders. I’m not going to do that —in part because I have an allergy to negative campaigning, and it’s a bad year for vitriol, but also because I wrote horrifyingly bad poems myself, and now I know they’re in me.
Besides, I wouldn’t trust me. Whose opinions aren’t provisional anyway? What working artist could possibly believe in an idea beyond its utility in the studio? Although I want what I want from a poem, and I tend to teach what I want, my desires have proven fungible with age, disproven as I go. Moreover, I remain a man suspicious of what I call “managed aesthetics.”
I am often reminded of a moment in 1993 when I was adjuncting at Rutgers University, and moderating a forum at "Writers at Rutgers" with visiting Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. A persistent questioner insisted upon asking Milosz to share his “world view,” a mode of inquiry I couldn’t seem to countermand; the questioner was trying to pin down Milosz, to get the great poet to collate all of our truths for us.
Milosz was gracious — he raised a spectacular eyebrow and smiled at me; he could handle this one, his gesture said — and answered wryly: “A world view is a world order.” I feel that way about learned experience in poetry writing, about my “moves” and their power over my aesthetics, but bad poems have now helped me work toward unlearning such vanities.
Here’s Milosz reading on March 26, 1998. At the 8:35 mark, he reads one of his masterpieces, “The Day the World Ends,” first in English and then in Polish; that’s the wild, good Milosz poem for me.
Cartoons © Felicia van Bork, 2016