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Today is Bad Poetry Day, an important, neglected, American holiday on which for just one day out of the year we face up to the fact that most poetry is terrible and demoralizing.

The much-touted National Poetry Month tries to make us believe that our poetry strengthens us as a nation, but in our hearts we know most American verse is demoralizing. Not merely because it’s so bad, but because we’ve got to walk around pretending it’s good.

Let us, on this day, begin by revisiting something UD wrote some time back about National Poetry Month:

“…[T]aste occasionally dies,” writes Brian Phillips, surveying our mobbed up, wheezy poetry scene. “The capabilities of taste are not present to the same degree in every art audience; they will sometimes, with regard to one medium or another, seem to weaken, to shrivel away.” And when they do, “a kind of obscurity, something felt but not quite formulated, overwhelms aesthetic judgment. It becomes difficult to say what is good or bad, and worse, what one likes or dislikes…. [T]he loss of a sense of a shared standard of value has left readers of poetry somewhat numbed in their own preferences. There is something oddly anonymous and neutral in the expressions of enthusiasm one encounters for contemporary poetry, in book-jacket blurbs, for instance; one often feels as though it is the system of poetry itself, or some aspect of the poetry culture, that is being approved of, and not any poet or poem. … [T]aste [has] dissolved until we find ourselves unable to form intuitive aesthetic judgments, unable to know the ground on which such judgments could legitimately be formed, and thus adrift in an indifference that we ritualistically pretend is something else.”

That something else is the neutral enthusiasm for verse as a sunbeam in this dark world of ours.

Phillips continues: “The problem for American poetry is really a problem of taste, the way in which the power of intuitive judgment, and the kind of aesthetic experience it makes possible, is really what is felt to have been lost. … We are living among the consequences, in other words, of what has been a profound weakening over the last two hundred years of the objective capability of taste. … There is now virtually no sense among poetry readers of a fixed and commonly accessible standard of aesthetic value, either as a set of widely accepted critical principles or as a sense functioning intuitively among readers.”

The public thing, the NPM thing, the thing about how we have to get more people to read poetry, degrades the artform, which will always be of interest to few readers. “James Longenbach,” Phillips notes, ”has written that poetry’s expanding audience ‘has by and large been purchased at the cost of poetry’s inwardness.’ And Richard Howard has urged that the only way to ’save’ poetry is to restore it ‘to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes our only authentic pleasures.’”

Real critics of poetry, like William Logan and August Kleinzahler, whip up national furies against themselves because they refuse the robotic smiling indifference Phillips describes and instead take poetry with the seriousness the form deserves. For them, every day is bad poetry day. If you read them, you will begin to understand the elements of bad poetry. Here are some of them:

emotionality / sentimentality / over-sincerity / cloying sweetness

the opposite of this also creates bad poetry: faking emotions

pretentiousness, vanity: revelling in your depression, your passion, whatever

a desperate desire to be original that makes you cutesy, weird, obtuse, unserious

formlessness — the poem is, for instance, merely disconnected fragments


Feel free to add to this list. And to the next list: Elements of good poetry:

language mastery – linguistic brilliance, beauty of expression

rewarding complexity – complexity adequate to the complexity of life, not complexity for its own sake

formal control – an understanding of the history of poetic forms, and an ability to work within, or depart intelligently from, that history

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3 Responses to “Bad Poetry Day: National Poetry Month Antidote”

  1. Carolyn Says:

    I like humble, genuine poems. It seems to me that being smug and ironic is all the rage now….

  2. Van L. Hayhow Says:

    This post does raise the issue of what is poetry? Many years ago, there were consistent rules for types of poetry,but, as I understand it, no more. So my question is: what separates prose and poetry?

  3. theprofessor Says:

    The "Elements of Bad Poetry" ought to be be posted in 72-point font on the office doors of poetry teachers.

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