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Brainteasers

Bad Line Contest [by David Lehman]

Susan SontagIn honor of Susan Sontag, who introduced the logic of camp (something so bad that it's good) into the cultural discourse, may I propose a bad line contest? It is remarkable how many bad lines one encounters. Usually I let myself be guided by Frank O'Hara's advice: ignore it, and let it slip into oblivion, rather than call attention to a bad poem.

But sometimes a bad line is bad in a particularly exemplary, even beautiful way, and if this is the case, the author of the bad line should not feel insulted, should feel even honored, to have produced something worthy of analysis dripped not with contempt but with.  . . curiosity. To such an author we might award the mauvais vers prize.

For an example, let me offer a stanza from a sonnet in the Italian by Louise Labe (trans. Richard Sieburth] that appeared in a recent New York Review of Books (2014). Sieburth, an experienced and reliable translator, whose fidelity to the original can scarcely be doubted, renders the sonnet's second quatrain as follows:

Love, your eyes drove through me like a blade,
Piercing my startled heart in one fell deed,
And there you settle down, there you feed,
But you alone can heal the wound you made.

To "Piercing my startled heart in one fell deed" goes the prize for mauvais vers de la semaine. Why? It is a poignant instance of the genuine fake. It doth sound like poetry, does it not? Yet once you remove the bogus words from the line, what are you are left with  but a broken heart? The real words in the line are "my heart." (There is a splendid poem by Frank O'Hara entitled "My Heart," which I recommend.) Piercing, startled, one fell deed: Petrarch marries the oratory of Julius Caesar. The language and imagery are tired, any subtlety or other layer of value compromised for the sake of preserving the A-B-B-A rhyme scheme. "Sonnet" concludes with the clause "I might as well be dead," and you can hear the cry of anguish as the poem asks to be put out of its misery.

Can you beat that? – DL

From the archive; first posted April 7, 2014


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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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