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“Good Bad Poetry”: A Conversation

By Javier Huerta

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.

Comments (7)

  • On December 4, 2008 at 9:53 am Don Share wrote:

    Dunno if anyone’s doing end-of-year favorite blog lists this season, but I’d like to say that Mick Chasar’s blog is terrific!

  • On December 4, 2008 at 10:04 am Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    Ah, yes … Chasar has fallen under the delusion that ideas originate with an individual. A typically American delusion. The history of any idea reveals group genius at work. So fair warning: memes are abroad and belong to no one….

  • On December 4, 2008 at 12:39 pm john wrote:

    Orwell and Wyndham Lewis were pointing at different qualities and calling them bad. Orwell objected to sentimental poems and begrudgingly allowed that some of them still gave pleasure. To which I say, poor Orwell, that he disdains the sentimental — how macho, how 20th century, how modernistic, how . . . fashionable. (Down with Guilty-Pleasure-ism! A pleasure’s a pleasure. I suppose Orwell derives pleasure from scolding me for loving “Jenny Kissed Me” [which I do]; I know I derive pleasure from scolding him in return — ain’t life grand!)
    Wyndham Lewis and Lee (editors of “The Stuffed Owl”), by contrast, were laughing at rhetorical mismatches, as when a poet, for example, described the circulation of blood in a tone and style that earlier poets had used to praise a possible sex partner. An anti-sentimentalist might say that it’s equally rhetoricall mismatched to wax exuberant about a friend’s wife leaping from her chair to give him a kiss (the purport of Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me”), but not me. It’s a charming and delightful piece of flattery.
    The “goodness” that Wyndham Lewis and Lee see might be described as the energy and vitality of rhetorical excess.
    The use of concept like good badness eludes me. You like something or you don’t. Or, you like it AND you don’t. (Some Beatles songs strike me that way — delightful music, off-putting words.) Abstracting aesthetic rank is a job for rankers. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose. (And if you get it, oh won’t you tell me how?)

  • On December 5, 2008 at 1:50 am Mike C. wrote:

    Well slap me down and call me shorty -
    Huerta knows his stuff!
    Good-bad and bad-good:
    Starting with Orwell’s not enough.
    I’m humbled and chastened by this exchange;
    I don’t know where to begin.
    Huerta’s no Hatfield and I’m not a McCoy:
    It turns out we are kin!

  • On December 7, 2008 at 2:55 pm martin hickel wrote:

    good bad poetry
    we know it afterward by the traces it leaves on paper
    but if no one reads it “the history of the phrase in question”
    remains more meaningless than most
    like the story of the cat watching the dog all day
    silent in its second-story window
    the way certain flowers bloom on a heath near the arctic circle
    far from the songs of bees
    or the man in the bar whose mother died
    never hearing from him again
    each a part of history but in of themselves only
    trees falling in forests beyond hearing
    good poets borrow and the best steal
    the rest sail over and over the same sargasso sea
    proudly stressing this wheel invented here
    although now in the age of google all it takes
    is a pair of quote marks and an internet connection
    to find out how trite you really are
    no — what this poet feels and has written
    not so that anyone has read — is as the good doctor johnson has it
    defining poetry is more a measure of the narrowness of the man
    if indeed it is poetry it can never ever be bad
    with thanks to you and “A Man of Fetters” by Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, 12/8/08

  • On December 9, 2008 at 12:15 pm Don Share wrote:

    This is from a 1999 interview with Harriet alum D.A. Powell; the interviewers were Sam Witt and Sean Durkin.
    DPA: I stopped writing bad poetry after a while because what happened was I wrote bad poetry so well that eventually it became a lot like the bad good poetry that I would see in anthologies and magazines. And it didn’t interest me anymore, because suddenly, it wasn’t itself anymore, it was just a lot like regular old poetry.
    Question: So the line between parody and what was being parodied was suddenly blurred, and all of a sudden you were just like everybody else.
    DAP: Right. And I couldn’t have that.
    Full interview here.

  • On December 10, 2008 at 10:26 am Mike C. wrote:

    I appreciate the increased historicity that Huerta provides for “good bad poetry” — pushing the term back twelve years from Orwell (1942) to Lewis and Charles Lee’s anthology (1930). Given that Orwell began reading Lewis as early as 1931 (the two would write about each other into the 1950s) it’s a provocative relationship to think about. As John notes above, however, it’s important to consider how each man’s use of the term was inflected by different literary proclivities and prejudices (Lewis was a generation older than Orwell).
    What has gone unsaid to this point is the extent to which the term — in the hands of either Orwell or Lewis — appears (so far) to be a product of the 20th century and especially (thanks Lewis) of literary modernism with its push toward discrimination and a revolution of taste. While good bad poetry may have been written in earlier eras, the urge to critically diagnosis it as such seems at this point to be a relatively modern(ist) one, though I’d happily stand corrected. I have to say I’m intrigued by Orwell’s use of the date 1790 as a beginning point for the WRITING of good bad poetry. As Raymond Williams argues in “The Romantic Artist,” that is the time period in which British Romantic poets, in the wake of industrial capitalism, began formulating the notion of unrecognized artistic genius as a way of explaining why their writing wasn’t gaining the attention of a public apparently more interested in stuff of lesser quality (including good bad poetry?). Maybe Huerta’s 3rd field/”Aesthetics of Bad Poetry” reading list for his PhD qualifying exams can shed some more light on the related but not necessarily concurrent histories of writing and diagnosing good bad verse.
    Mind you, it doesn’t surprise me that good bad poetry is a mid 20th-century term. As Lawrence Levine has shown in Highbrow/Lowbrow, 19th century audiences didn’t necessarily operate under the evaluatory burden of good and bad, high and low, that we — in the wake of modernism — take (or for a long time took) as foundational categories, at least in the field of poetry studies. Joan Shelley Rubin has said as much about American readers in the early 20th century as well. “While scholars have segregated ‘high’ and ‘popular’ modernists from nineteenth-century romantics and authors of sentimental verse,” she writes, readers themselves felt free to range widely “across intellectual levels” and in the process “became, over time, repositories of both the high and the popular — aware of, but not constrained by, a shifting boundary between them.”
    There’s no doubt that distinguishing between good and bad was an early project of Poetry Magazine authors like Ezra Pound — no stranger to Wyndham Lewis — who called for a “harder and saner” poetry as an antidote to the “emotional slither” and “poppycock” of verse that “Aunt Hepsy liked.” In his citation of Aunt Hepsy, Pound derides the type of sentimental verse that John above claims Orwell had in mind when he used the term good bad poetry; perhaps Lewis and Orwell had more in common than it first seems. Of course, the grumblings of EP meant little to actual American readers of the time who, as Rubin argues, didn’t acknowledge his distinctions — or acknowledged them but didn’t get their panties in a twist over it. Nor, in fact, did other American writers. As Cary Nelson has written of political verse in his 1989 Repression & Recovery:
    “one of the striking things about the gradual emergence of modernist forms in American protest poetry … is the lack of a sense of a radical break with the past. The thematic continuities in this hundred-year-old American tradition are so strong that a sense of opening out and diversification, of thematic conservation and formal variation, overrides the adversarial model of modernism wholly rejecting the more formal traditions in American poetry…. And the rhetoric of the genteel tradition and the rhetoric of modernism were oftentimes counterpointed in the work of individual poets.”
    Other literary critics — see Mark Van Wienen’s work on WWI poetry in “Partisans & Poets” or Maria Damon’s work on micropoetries, for example, or some of the newer work on the intersections of high and low in canonical modernist authors — are in the process of recovering the diverse and eclectic landscape of American poetry from the 20th century that modernist categories of “good” and “bad” have obscured. I’d also mention a journal issue I was involved with at one point; the Spring & Fall 2006 “poetries” issue of the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies takes up these topics with full-length essays by Daniel Tiffany, Nelson, Edward Brunner, Alan Ramon Clinton, Susan Somers-Willett and Maria Damon — plus shorter contributions by Paula Bernat Bennett, Michael Davidson, Heather Dubrow, Rachel Blau Duplessis, William J. Harris, Meta DuEwa Jones, Warren Liu, Jerome McGann, Phil Metres, Aldon Nielsen, Carrie Noland, Marjorie Perloff, Joan Rubin, Juliana Spahr, Van Wienen and Barrett Watten.
    When we use the term “good bad poetry” today, it’s not — at least not in my case — an attempt to resurrect Orwell or Lewis or Pound or their critical perspectives. Rather, it’s an attempt to reclaim or re-appropriate the range of poetries that the term was originally meant to demean, dismiss, contain, or disparage (poems like “Jenny Kissed Me” included). Insofar as our contemporary understanding of the term goes, it’s one inflected by (and, admittedly, catching up to) postmodern American culture and its renewed (with a difference) interest and pleasure in the mixing or crossing of brow lines — or perhaps even the creation of “no-brow” literature. What would it mean to write good bad poetries today — post modernism and post postmodernism — and to do so intentionally in a different set of historical circumstances? What would it mean to begin our thinking about poetry not with the question “Is It Good?” but “What is it good for?” What would those poetries look like, where would they appear, and how would they be used? My sense is that, if we look in the right places, we might find the answers to these questions closer than we’d expect.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, December 4th, 2008 by Javier Huerta.