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“Good Bad Poetry”: A Conversation
Now, far be it from “Poetry & Popular Culture” to take particular umbrage at the Poetry Foundation’s use of the term “good bad poetry”–despite the fact that Huerta doesn’t cite the essay “Writing Good Bad Poetry” that appeared in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine and that was excerpted on this blog back in October. No, there is no umbrage taken, in part because the term “good bad poetry” is an adaptation of George Orwell’s term “good bad fiction.” While the Poets & Writers essay did acknowledge the Orwellian origin of “good bad poetry,” it’s perhaps no surprise that the folks at the Poetry Foundation want to make it seem like the term originated there—in the million-dollar Chicago offices of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious little magazine. After all, it’s Poetry’s own standard-bearer T.S. Eliot who famously quipped that while good writers borrow, great ones steal—a quip Eliot himself cribbed from Oscar Wilde.
I apologize to Mike Chasar for troubling him over my use of the phrase “good bad poetry.” (And thanks to Jeff Charis-Carlson for pointing out Chasar’s blog post.) Chasar faults me for not citing his essay “Writing Good Bad Poetry,” which appears in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. I have not read Chasar’s essay, but now that I know about it I definitely plan to read it. Perhaps had I known about it sooner I would have added his essay to my 3rd field/”Aesthetics of Bad Poetry” list for my PhD qualifying exams. The list, which I’ve been working on for a year and a half now, includes a section of primary works called “Good Bad Poetry.” I didn’t feel that I needed to cite a source for my use of “good bad poetry” in the McGonagall post because the phrase is commonly used in the literature I’ve been reading for my field. A difference: Chasar sees his supposed coining of the term “good bad poetry” as a discovery, as a revelation; I see the term “good bad poetry” as the given, as a starting point. Had Chasar had access to my reading list he might have been more familiar with the history of the phrase in question.
Chasar calls the term “good bad poetry” Orwellian because he claims to have adapted it from George Orwell’s term “good bad fiction.” This claim signals to me that Chasar is ignorant of Orwell’s essay on Rudyard Kipling, in which he says,
There is a great deal of good bad poetry in English, all of it, I should say, subsequent to 1790. Examples of good bad poems — I am deliberately choosing diverse ones — are ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, ‘When all the world is young, lad’, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, Bret Harte’s ‘Dickens in Camp’, ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore’, ‘Jenny Kissed Me’, ‘Keith of Ravelston’, ‘Casabianca’. All of these reek of sentimentality, and yet — not these particular poems, perhaps, but poems of this kind, are capable of giving true pleasure to people who can see clearly what is wrong with them. One could fill a fair-sized anthology with good bad poems, if it were not for the significant fact that good bad poetry is usually too well known to be worth reprinting.
Of course someone did compose an anthology of good bad poetry. I’m speaking of the infamous The Stuffed Owl: An anthology of Bad Verse. In the Preface, the editors explain their selection process by saying,
Bad verse has its canons, like Good Verse. There is bad Bad Verse and good Bad Verse. It has been the constant preoccupation of the compilers to include in this book chiefly good Bad Verse.
New York Review Books republished The Stuffed Owl in 2003 with an introduction by Billy Collins, who writes,
All Good Bad Poetry is formal poetry because the reader is allowed to see exactly how the poem is failing to be good.
The term also appears in the secondary criticism. I will only quote one critic: Hazard Adams. In The Offense of Poetry, Professor Adams dedicates a chapter to “The Double Offense of Great Bad Poetry.” He writes,
It is my thesis that certain bad poems rise to greatness by committing a double offense, including the offense against poetry that all bad poetry commits. The great bad poem, in contrast to the embarrassingly dull, simply bad poem, causes us to confront the offense of badness and makes it possible for us to pass through it.
I really don’t think there’s any pleito (beef) between Chasar and Huerta. We seem to be on the same side because we both believe that “good bad poetry” deserves critical attention. Now Chasar also faults me for reducing “good bad poetry” to the question of intention/nonintentional humor. Of course if Chasar, instead of being so preoccupied with claiming the field of “good bad poetry” all to himself (and Orwell), engaged the critical conversation on “good bad poetry,” he would know that “humor” is a central concern. Again I feel we agree on this issue because we both believe there is much more to “good bad poetry” than the humor question. One way to go beyond that question is to be critical of the humor. That’s why I attempted to discuss “inappropriate laughter” in my McGonagall post. (Perhaps my post was ineffective in expressing this, but I want to emphasize that I alone, and not the people at Harriet, am responsible for the failures of my posts.)
We are on the same side. My focus is on good bad poetry of the long 19th century; Chasar’s is on contemporary good bad poetry. I’m excited to add Chasar’s insights to my understanding of this field. I hope he understands, though, that the field of good bad poetry is a conversation and not a monologue. I look forward to reading his essay.