Hark …Whence Cometh Bad Poetry
Do archaic words always make for bad poetry? I know some writers who would be quick to say yes. Many of them have MFAs from top programs and great publication credits. Before thinking about it too much, I probably would have agreed with them. But no more. There are problems with their knee-jerk antipathy for archaic words. Problems other than elitism, which is bad enough.
The issue of bad poetry is a pet peeve of mine. I don’t like to hear accomplished poets rag on amateur writers. It’s ugly and karmically radioactive. Low hanging fruit for anyone wanting to snipe so-called bad poetry is archaic language. If you can spot a line with a “forsooth” in it, or “long” used as a verb, or the h-less “O,” you have the makings for a chortle so hearty it knocks your Buddy Holly glasses off, or makes you snarf your cappuccino.
But what’s so funny? Is this how other experts react to amateurs? Would NFL players pull over their yellow Hummers to taunt the local beer league playing a few downs of football in the park? Probably not. When we imagine the rich or the successful laughing, they’re always doing it all the way to the bank. Never afterwards and seldom at amateurs. Plus, the NFL generates roughly 10 billion dollars a year. Poetry, considerably less so. Perhaps this astonishing monetary difference has something to do with it. What’s worse in our culture than knowing there’s no money in what you do? Pursuing your dreams with financial and cultural insecurities hanging over the laurels of your head would make anyone bitter and crazy. Maybe even professional poets suffer under the delusion that they could be outdone by amateurs bursting at the seams with moldy words.
It’s as if every “woe” that “beckons” is really an attempted theft. As if every “swath” enshrouds an offensive ambition, in which every archaic Internet poet “partakes.” As if the real “boon” of using words that have that “old-timey-times” ring to them were really the “bane” of the credentialed, the educated, the published and the employed.
The irony is that there’s something rather outdated about poetic snobbery. There’s something so three decades ago about it. After all, it was the 1980s that gave us the commercialization of “Alternative,” pinning a huge scarlet A of shame on the chained, leathery lapel of 70s punk (that “A” stood for ACCEPTED, by the way). And it was the 1980s that gave us hip hop, an artform so unsure of its own invention that it was plagued in its earliest rhymes with a crippling paranoia for Sucka’ MCs, invidious posers and wannabes. As with some of today’s poetic elites, this derision is driven by the fear that pretenders are siphoning off a desperately limited supply of cultural value for the form at large. And that there’s only so much of it left to go around.
The funny thing about it is that snobbery for so-called bad poetry comes now at a moment when the Internet seems to be forecasting a democratic comeback for poetry. All sorts of people are indulging in a pleasure for language, recording their breakups, the sound of the ocean, the majesty of the night sky, the changing of the seasons, and O so many other topics that would make an established workshop leader’s upper lip twitch itself into a snarl fit. Little wonder that some of this poetry turns to the archaic: a language that connotes Shakespeare and the Bible and, most importantly, a time when there was undeniable poetry in the world, when poetry seemed to have infinite value and all the street cred that could be had in a world before streets.
Forsooth, worry not, O you swains! This dost bode well for all of us.
Archaic language in poems everywhere on the Internet is only vulgar in the oldest sense of the word. Etymologically, the “vulgate” denotes the masses, the speech of the people. Hundreds of years of aristocratic notions re-interpreted the word to mean something detestably low and common. Some folks lost their heads over those notions, to make a story short, and now we ought to rejoice in this latest outpouring of everyday poets–and not just for fear of Sucka’ Robespierres.
The poetry made by the people remembers Ralph Waldo Emerson’s saying that, “Every artist was first an amateur.” It remembers Wordsworth’s promise, to honor “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and it does so in what is thought to be Wordsworth’s own language. Ultimately, the poetry of the people wonders what could be more unmistakably powerful than poems written by the billions for free in words that ardently and unabashedly resurrect the historical?
I wouldn’t call that vulgar. I’d call that a renaissance.