Is There Such a Thing as Bad Poetry?

There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.

My friend Collin Kelley posted an entry on his blog a couple of days ago that had me thinking all weekend. About lots of things—poetry, art, discipline, ambition, and politics, to name just a few. Early into the post, I bristled. From the “slice of pie” metaphor he lifted out of context from a beautiful, balanced, and well-argued blog entry by Charles Jensen (which had not even a whiff of sour grapes), to his comments on the evils of MFA programs, literary magazines, and certain celebrated poets (Ted Kooser, for one, who in my estimation did more to bring poetry to the general public—the non-poets--than any other U.S. Poet Laureate in my lifetime—and still does, with real grace).

I don’t know if I have the energy to respond to everything Collin said, but he made one statement—and so smugly and self-righteously—that I feel compelled to address it right away. He didn’t put it out there as mere opinion, but rather with this preamble:

“Now, I know this next statement is going to make some of you go screaming into the night, because it's one of those things you never really admit. You know what I'm talking about. If you can't handle the truth, you might want to stop reading now and go watch a rerun of Project Runway.”

Wow, that really gives me nowhere to hide. I mean, Collin knows how I feel, deep in my heart, even if I don’t, or even if I do but I can’t admit it. And what is it he knows I know he knows I know but can’t admit? This: “There is no such thing as bad poetry.”

As someone who spent many years writing bad poetry, I beg to differ. As someone who currently sifts through hundreds of manuscripts in a year, the majority of which are at least proficient, I do contend that some are downright bad. The piece a lady wrote about her nine-year-old son’s penis comes to mind. (I’ll be the first to defend the right to write about ANY subject—if it’s done well.) And as someone who has devoted the last ten years to studying poetry and striving for excellence in that art (art being a “made thing”), I maintain that, just as there are bad lawyers, bad customer service representatives, bad basketball and trumpet players, so there are bad writers. Furthermore, there are far more folks out there picking up pens and calling themselves poets than there are those blowing into trumpets.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for everybody picking up pens AND trumpets. I’m for them doing it well or poorly. I’m for singing if you can’t carry a tune.

But I would never put on a tutu and call myself a ballerina. Let me assure you, I’d be a BAD ballet dancer. Ballet actually makes for a pretty decent analogy for poetry. After all, everyone can dance. But years of study and discipline and grueling workouts separate the everyones from the ballerinas. It separates the ballerinas from the ballerinas.

I’m willing to bet, too, that there are some politics in the world of ballet, just as there are politics in the worlds of poetry and dog shows. So be it. In my experience, those who rail loudest against the politics are the most political of all. They’re the ones who never miss an opportunity to tout themselves as “award-winning” or to boast that their books were nominated for this or that award when they’re the ones who nominated them. If that’s not playing the game of politics, tell me what is.

Hey, I admit I want a piece of that big pie in the sky. But I don’t begrudge those who have their forks in it right now. And I don’t expect them to simply move aside or hand it over to me. I might never get a slice. Fine. Not every actor gets to be a movie star. Not every pitcher makes it to the big leagues. But if you love something and you’re good at it, you’ll continue to strive for excellence regardless. You won’t settle for less. Go to school for it or not. But read. Learn from those who came before and those who do it well. Practice, practice, practice.

I think it’s an important point, and I can’t let it slide. I deal with students every day who are working their butts off to get good at something—design, art direction, writing, photography, illustration—and I’m not about to abide the notion that their investment of time, energy, and spirit is for nothing, that there is no difference between good and bad.

It took me six years to get Karaoke Funeral published. It was frustrating. But I didn’t whine about “the Man.” I kept plugging along—and revising it too, I should add. I would never self-publish, because I need to know that a publisher—however small the press—believes in my work enough to put their money and reputation behind it. I’m too close to my own poems. Just because I think they’re wonderful doesn’t mean they are, and I know that. If a small press in Valdosta hadn’t published KF, I’d still be shopping it around; meanwhile I’d be playing with the order of the manuscript, adding or taking out poems. Hmmm…I’m doing that now with the new yet-to-be-a-book.

Collin also derides the writers who say they can’t sit through open mics because open mics are terrible. I’ll admit I’ve said that—many times. I’m saying it again today. However, it’s not the bad poems (and there are BAD poems) that make such events terrible; it’s the lack of humility. Yes, I participated in open mics when I was younger. I did it to test my ideas, to see if anything I was writing connected with an audience. I was humble and not just a little afraid (I still am when I read). I would present one or two pieces, take my place back in the audience, and LISTEN to the rest of the readers to see if I could LEARN something.

I can’t tell you how many open mics I’ve sat through over the years where people hijack the stage with their thick spiral notebooks, reading every single coffee-shop doodle they’ve committed to paper for the past six months. To make matters worse, half the time they can’t read their own handwriting and have to backtrack, lest we miss that one line that will most certainly change all of our lives.

Those are the people who come in late and leave when they’re finished. And there are plenty more where these came from, sitting in the audience, frantically scribbling the “poems” they plan to read that very night, never hearing anyone else. The air of self-importance, the lack of craft, and the absence of a modicum of appreciation for their peers make these events unbearable for me. I have a busy life, lots of kids. I don’t have time for nonsense. So I pick and choose what I attend.

Collin is unquestionably generous with his time and resources on behalf of younger and emerging poets, as well as with his promotion of his peers in Atlanta and elsewhere. We should all heed his example. I’ve benefited from his generosity on a personal level and on the level that he has tirelessly endeavored to bring more exposure and opportunity to the poetry community in general. Bless him for that.

But, I feel strongly that his overly PC, democratic view of “no bad poetry” is at best na├»ve and at worst an endorsement of mediocrity. I like that things can be bad or good. I love the idea of standards. It gives us--writers, artists, athletes, salesmen, teachers, cashiers, ditch diggers--something to achieve.



I am inclined to agree with you, Tania...I see art ALL of the time that I wonder about...I wonder what kind of craft, thought or ingenuity were put into it...in the world of art, it seems that, sometimes the most fucked up, confusing pieces are understood to be the most avant-garde and cutting edge.

I, like you, like the idea of measurement. I like knowing that I can improve, get better, work smarter create more profoundly and clearly and have some way of measuring that change. If not, what IS the purpose of school, of learning, of taking courses, of anything designed to help push us?

All of that said, I admire anyone who is willing to put themselves out there, take risks, put their heart into something that comes from within them...even if it is "bad" writing, art, dance or whatever...I don't know that you can be good at something if you've never been bad at it.

Jennifer said...

Bravo, Tania! Everything you say here is right on! You already know I agree with you on these counts (and many others). May I make a 9/11 request? Will you post your "September, After" (I think that's the title) poem here today? It's one of my favorites of yours!

Collin said...

I think you missed some of the humor and sarcasm I was tyring to inject into this ongoing (and pointless) debate over the "death of poetry." Labeling me as smug and self-righteous was a bit harsh, but it's your opinion. You also take out of context MY words on MFA programs. Those ideas are lifted from Barr and Gioia and countless others like them who play good cop/bad cop with MFA programs. Here's what I said:

Then there's the MFA programs. I don't have one, don't think I want one, would probably wind up punching some professor in the nose for fucking with my music. Many of my fellow poets have survived MFA programs and come out with their voices intact. They've become more knowledgeable in history, form and the mechanics of poetry. On the other hand, there are plenty of MFA casualties who have been stripped of their voice to please the professor who swears that they "must write poetry like this" to earn their...ahem...credentials. If they want to teach, earn grants, get fellowships and be part of the elite, they must fall in line with today's poetics. You have people like Barr and Dana Gioia (who I despise politically, but occasionally has an enlightened thought about poetry) who in one breath say MFA programs are the death of new poets, then intimates that if you don't have an MFA you're a nobody. You'll always be an outsider looking in at the world of poetry. You won't get grants, win awards or be paid $10,000 to speak at a university.

I know quite well you have very high standards for poetry, but I would say most casual readers -- and listeners -- do not. They are looking for words and images that move them. I see this at Java Monkey and other open mics on a regular basis. I watched a woman last night get misty-eyed over a poem that was fairly mundane and didn't interest me at all. Does that mean her feelings are invalid? Does that mean the writing has no merit at all? One of the reasons poetry has become this insulated world of the academics is because writing for the "everyman/woman" was pushed aside in the attempt to impress their peers. Casual writers of poetry were/are marginalized because they don't live up to some standard set by someone else who attempts to regulate what is good and bad poetry. What is downright bad to you, is good to someone else. Is it bad because you, Tania Rochelle, say it's bad? No...it's not. As I said, you can't regulate personal taste, although their seems to be a whole bunch of poets out there who would like to.

I'm not even going to touch some of your other digs about self-publishing, self-nominating, etc. Those comments are beneath you, Tania. Hell, if Ted Kooser can support self-publishing (which he does, by the way), then certainly you can be a bit more generous. Many great poets began by self-publishing: Whitman, Robert Bly, Margaret Atwood, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings and the list goes on and on. I'm sure they believed in their own work...as I believe in mine...and didn't need the validation from someone else to give them an ego boost.

What bothers me is that you are dangerously close to sounding like one of those poets who think they are "owed" recognition, but won't lift a finger to do anything and help promote their own work. It might make you look like a "careerist" and god knows you don't want to be perceived that way. Not every poet is an academic or has their MFA connections to fall back on, so if self-publishing and self-nomination is way to find more readers and more recognition, I say more power to them.

Open mics will always be "hijacked" at some point, but the two or three hours I spend at Java Monkey or some other open mic usually yield at least one or two poets who move me...who make the evening worth it. That's what I go for. Just as you sit sifting through what you consider shit for the literary mag, I sit at open mics doing the same, not to mention reading the poetry that just appears in my inbox from total strangers.

As for being naive or embracing mediocrity, perhaps I'm guilty of a bit of both. I like what I like, because it moves me. It might not have the greatest craft, but I enjoy it a hell of a lot more than what I've been reading in most poetry journal these days.

Tania Rochelle said...

Collin, my point about self-publishing was that it was a long, tedious road to my book, which required a great deal of patience. I didn't wait because it was an ego boost; I did it because I was sure I wasn't the best one to judge whether my book was even finished. To each his own in that regard.

And I promoted my own book to the tune of 750 copies sold so far, not bad for a small book from a small press. And that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good book, either--just that I did a good job of promoting it. And I'll remind you that I stay away from academia, and my MFA "connections" had nothing to do with my book getting published. It was dedication and perseverance.

And that's probably what chaps me most about all of this. I don't think any less of you because you don't have an MFA, but you're going to suggest that those of us who do have them are getting a special leg up. I haven't found that to be the case at all. I've found, just like you have, that networking--going to conferences, reading, etc. gains you more exposure and invitations down the road. I don't care if anyone calls me a careerist. I would love nothing more than to be invited to read all over the country.

But I don't think I'm owed ANYTHING, which was my whole point. None of us are. On the contrary, I think we owe our work.

Collin said...

Tania, I'm not suggesting that you personally have used your MFA to get a "leg up," but if you think that many poets aren't using their MFA connections, then you are totally out of the loop (which may not be such a bad thing). I can give you a list of folks. I can think of one in particular who is reaping the benefits even as I type this. Call me. We'll discuss.

And what chaps me is that you selectively pulled things that personally pissed you off from the post on my blog, but didn't look at it as a whole. Do you think poetry is dying or in a rut, as the two articles I referenced suggested? That was the crux of the whole post. I'd like to hear your thoughts on some of the other points.

Collin said...

Oh, and one other thing that chaps my ass (and has been even before this)...why didn't you make a comment about this on my blog where the original post appeared? As a matter of fact, you never comment on my blog at all. I suppose that should hurt my feelings, but I'm sure you have your reasons. God only knows what they are.

minus five said...

dang, kids. i'm pretty much with tania on this one. i don't know much about the poetry ring, but in the world of design there seems to be the same kind of issues as well. the politics, the man, the opportunists. its all laughable.

but being the peacemaker i am, i'd like to sponsor a group hug for you guys.

Tania Rochelle said...

I've commented about the heavier issues on your blog before, Collin, and didn't enjoy the conflict that resulted. I also felt I was coming into your "house" and telling you how to live (my opinion that you should not post drafts, for instance, because it's detrimental to the poems). So this time, I created my own post instead. And I responded to the things that disturbed me personally. I don't give a rat's ass whether someone else thinks poetry is dying or in a rut when all around me I see and hear beautiful poems. I talk to people every day who are writing them, and I'm trying to write them myself. From where I sit, poetry is alive and well.

Collin said...

Well, that's what I wanted to hear. And you couldn't have posted that on my blog? Now you're just being stubborn. You know you are welcome in my "house" -- both online and in real life -- anytime. Say what you feel and let their be debate. You have just as much right to your opinion as anyone else who posts on my blog.

I'll group hug, but Minus has to take the helmet off. lol

Tania Rochelle said...

I think Sarah should get in the middle.


yeah, you guys definitely need a group hug. or a cookie. or group therapy. or maybe just an opportunity to get together and sing Kumbaya.

Tania Rochelle said...

You're the singer, Mary.

minus five said...

i'm not hugging anybody, i'm just sponsoring it. and my nephew has my helmet now, but if he didn't, i would be wearing it. i will be more than happy to get in the middle and kick both of your asses.

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