On November 16, 1972, while I was still teaching at the S.U.N.Y. College at Oswego, an interview I did for the student newspaper The Oswegonian was published. The interviewer was Peter Bernhardt, and at one point he asked me, “Last year you and one of your students, P. J. O'Brien, gave a reading of nothing but bad poems, mostly by nineteenth century authors. What brought that on?”
I replied, “I don't know what brought it on. I've very often read bad poetry to my classes. It's a good thing to read, for instance, to an introduction to poetry class because many students feel they don't know what a bad poem is. Or a good poem, for that matter. How do you tell? Well, if you read a really bad poem, an obviously bad poem, that gives the students a water mark or, I should say, a low water mark, They can then judge other poems according to how much higher they rise above the low water mark.
“With regard to creative writing classes, I find that young people despair that they're ever going to turn into competent writers. If I read them a bad poem I can say, ‘Look, you're already better than this.’"
Without a doubt one of the bad poems I read to my classes in those days was by Walt Whitman. Before he discovered that prose could be a vehicle for poetry, as in the Bible, Walt Whitman wrote very bad metrical verse and published it in the pages of the Brooklyn Eagle; here is The Good Gray Poet’s very worst rhymed and metered poem (his best is “O Captain! My Captain!):
He lived at peace with all mankind,
In friendship he was true;
His coat had pocket-holes behind,
His pantaloons were blue.
Unharmed, the sin which earth pollutes
He passed securely o’er, —
And never wore a pair of boots
For thirty years or more.
Of course, any poet may write a bad poem, or at least a bad line now and again, and many do:
R.I.P. PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
August 4, 1792-July 8, 1822
He said to the skylark, “bird thou never wert,”
A line for which no poet would give his shirt,
Nor even a pair of socks that were worn and smelly.
Nevertheless, we honor Percy Shelley.
A poet I used to know who was given to overwriting pronounced the word poem as though it were spelled poyme. Unfortunately, not everyone can pull off just writing a poem, and they wind up underwriting a pome. Rather a large number of people, poetasters they are called, can't even rise to that level, and they write a peom. Still others have no conception of what a poem actually is, and they write somep'n else. Those are the categories of my Turco’s Instant Critical System:
A famous bad poem is “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer; why is it a bad poem? Because the rhymes are trite, the sentiment is sentimentality, and the images are ridiculous:
By Joyce Kilmer
Drawings by Socrates Samson
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree,
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Suggested writing assignment:
Write a bad poem.