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Hark …Whence Cometh Bad Poetry

September 10, 2013
by M. Chaney

by M. Chaney

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The irony is that there’s something rather outdated about poetic snobbery.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.

From → writing tips

  1. Jill Schmehl permalink

    Yes! I tried to read a book a while ago called “the cult of the amateur” – I deleted it from my kindle after the first chapter. The author tried to say that because there is so much more amateurish stuff out there in the world, the ‘good stuff’ would be impossible to find. I believe the democratization of access to readers means that more ‘good stuff’ will bubble to the surface than ever before. The end result being, as you say, a renaissance.

    (btw – would love to hear your take on writer’s workshops.)

    • Thanks for stopping by. My take on writer’s workshops is…when being genuine, complex and balanced. When not…I’d say they’re a great idea, but when will we actually begin having them?

  2. Interesting. Poetic snobbery is usually shown by the least of poets in my opinion. The over thinking, over editing, mundane word twisters who’ve forgotten that it requires heart not credentials to write well, as you said.
    Some of the most intriguing verse I’ve read online by amateurs because let’s face it, the poetry section of either the library or the local big boys of the book selling world, are overstuffed with the classics and very little else.
    If I want good modern poetry there are two places I go: the Internet and the Griffin Anthology.
    After subscribing and reading numerous magazines that house quarterly or monthly collections of the ‘best’ submitted poetry, I can safely say, the best are amateur poets, unheard of, not submitting for publication in the traditional sense.
    I believe the dVerse Anthology will soon join the Griffin in my listing of places to find great modern poets, tho I’m heavily bias. I thought it was a perfect example of how the online phenomena of micro (due to Twitter) has exploded into an insanely powerful ‘form’ in its own right.
    Anyway, use of language, archaic language to most poets I know, is a matter of correct usage. If you’re going to do it, do your homework and do it right; unless like here, you’re throwing it in for humour. Then all manner of mistakes adds to the joy of reading it.
    Anyway, liked this little blurb. 🙂
    Have a beautiful day.

  3. Hear, hear! Or is it Here, here? At any rate I completely agree. Even if you think a particular poem is hopelessly trite, there is no reason to trash it. Just let it die a natural death. And if it doesn’t, if legions of wordpressies swoon over it, so be it. Maybe you’re wrong, or maybe not. Maybe you’re mostly just jealous.

    BTW, I’d love to near the rest of that delicious poem in your cartoon! -;}

  4. marsicowritesite permalink

    This! Yes! Exactly.
    I completely agree with you, and your snarky, but well supported, take on the issue makes me all the more happy to do so. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Those not too busy turning their noses up at certain types of poetry probably noticed the issue a long time ago. Thank you for finally saying it. Enough of the snobbery.
    Also, your take on the meaning of vulgar and its revolutionary qualities makes me wish I’d read this post back in April. I was taking a British Lit course focused on “revolutionary” literature–your thoughts would have been oh so quotable for class discussion.

    • Thank you. I appreciate your thoughts on the subject as well as the compliment… I’ve been known to have a thing or two to say in an English class here and there.

  5. Many young poets read poetry they do not understand and then write poetry not meant to be understood. The rest read Bukowski and write prose broken into little lines.

  6. I am probably one of the masters of bad poetry but your words left me feeling empowered. I shall continue blundering on with my ponderous prose. Thanks.

    • Indeed, sally forth and carry on–and really, don’t worry about ponderosity. With your writing hat on, everything’s a creative possibility. With your evil editor hat on, everything falls laughably short of perfection. The trick is to know when to wear these hats and to stop indulging in the worst fashion faux pas any writer could ever commit, which is to wear them at the same time.

  7. Warren permalink

    Really enjoyed this post! Could you have shoe-horned anymore archaisms in there? Loved it.
    I’m guilty as charged when it comes the *ahem* renaissance. Although I reckon in a lot of cases it depend on whether the poem (rather than the poet) in question is particularly stylised. I suppose an O’ can do stuff for context/ whimsy &/ irony that an OH won’t, & so on, but it should’t mean that they can’t work deadpan either. Ho hum. I guess they’ve been sabre-rattling since Pope. 🙂

  8. Brieuse Bernhard Piers-Gûdmönd permalink


  9. I wonder sometimes if snobbery is just fear. A fear of losing justification for years of study, hard work, and practice. An arbitrary creation of dues needing payment. A way to repress and ignore. But mostly, a fear of other people doing something that they enjoy.

  10. burlwhitman permalink

    Right on. Right on. Right on.

  11. What I find strange is that if, say, you watch a production of Shakespeare in modern dress, nobody snarfs at all. Possibly because there isn’t a forsooth out of place. I shd think that MadMen doing Macbeth would blow your socks off.
    The trouble with using archaic language now, is that generally people use it for effect or to fill a line, and not because it comes straight from the heart. But as you say, why have a go at people for, well, having a go?

  12. Perhaps the problem is the fact that poetry is so little studied in any general sense by most people and therefore they have less ability to differentiate between what is good poetry and what is bad.

    In recent decades poetry has become to mean any collection of words, anywhere from three to thirty thousand, written on a page when much of it is not poetry but prose and some of it akin to shopping lists, bus tickets or delusional dream remnants.

    {….} But surely at some point, just as all systems require principles, standards, guidelines and ‘rules,’ so too does poetry. And if we are to have a world where poetry is again, the finest and highest expression of the bard – the ancient soul workers and guides – then that will need to be pushed not just by those who are weary of so much bad poetry, or prose masquerading as poetry, but by those who can actually tell the difference. And the only way to tell the difference is to spend more time reading the work of our greatest poets, for therein lies not just knowledge but perspective.

    • The notion of rules for poetry seems odd to me. Poetry is a mystery for the most part, I can tell the difference between poetry and verse when I hear it but defining that distinction is a task beyond my ken. Rules need thorough comprehension, the kind a mechanic has when he fixes a car; he knows how it works, or he should do, so he follows the procedure laid down in service guide. The mysteries at the core of poetry are more arcane, they concern: language, rhythm, context, the human condition and mind. That’s not to say that you can’t learn anything, the layman knows enough to keep the car fuelled if he wants to get to work in it but he can’t tell you how it works, that’s where I think we are with poetry. Yeah, I’ve heard the -rules- people do come out with, they’re generally a list of don’ts, about as much utility as water wings in the desert and they betray the kind insight a person looking for a swim in such a context might have.

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