The Good, the Bad, and the Good Bad

Our ongoing fascination with terrible poetry.

“Yet just as cheese sometimes gets too moldy—to plunge forward with my metaphor in the blithe manner of James McIntyre—so can bad poetry rot beyond possible appreciation. Charles Lee and D.B. Wyndham Lewis discussed this problem in their famed anthology The Stuffed Owl (1930), a collection of bad poetry that has served as a model for many such volumes to follow. They outlined distinctions between ‘good Bad Verse,’ which they sought for their book, and “bad Bad Verse,” which they avoided.”—Abigail Deutsch examines the good, the bad, and the good bad.

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Bad Poetry. Original Illustrations by Paul Killebrew.Original illustrations by Paul Killebrew.

What are we to do with lines like these?

We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze,
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.

We might grow slightly nauseated. We might (who knows?) get hungry. We might gleefully illuminate the poetic palsies that weaken the frame of this work, James McIntyre’s “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese”: the clanging rhymes, the collapsing meter, the misguided coronation of a Canadian dairy queen.

Alternatively—as we reread in delight, as we probably just did—we might note the workings of a mysterious alchemy. Just as milk ferments into cheese, so can bad poetry, in this and other cases, transform into something rather enjoyable. Like a pungent Roquefort, bad poetry can stink in marvelously complex ways.

Yet just as cheese sometimes gets too moldy—to plunge forward with my metaphor in the blithe manner of James McIntyre—so can bad poetry rot beyond possible appreciation. Charles Lee and D.B. Wyndham Lewis discussed this problem in their famed anthology The Stuffed Owl (1930), a collection of bad poetry that has served as a model for many such volumes to follow. They outlined distinctions between “good Bad Verse,” which they sought for their book, and “bad Bad Verse,” which they avoided. “The field of bad Bad Verse is vast, and confusing in its tropical luxuriance,” they opined, before launching into a description of its authors (“the illiterate, the semi-literate, the Babu, the nature-loving contributor to the county newspaper, the retired station-master, the spinster lady coyly attuned to Life and Spring”). When it came to explaining their preference for the elusive “good Bad” variety, however, Lewis and Lee grew cagey:

It would, indeed, be a permissible exercise in dialectic to prove here conclusively and inclusively, if we had the time, that good Bad Verse has an eerie, supernal beauty comparable in its accidents with the beauty of Good Verse. . . . We will merely assert here that good Bad verse . . . is devilish pleasing.

To what do we owe the devilish pleasure—and how has it grown powerful enough to prompt the succession of bad-poetry anthologies that followed The Stuffed Owl? These works include, but are not limited to, The Worst English Poets (1958), Pegasus Descending: A Book of the Best Bad Verse (1971), The Joy of Bad Verse (1988), In Search of the World’s Worst Writers (2000), and Very Bad Poetry (1997), edited by a brother-and-sister team who also published The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said (1993) and The 776 Even Stupider Things Ever Said (1994). In 2009, according to Nielsen BookScan, Very Bad Poetry has sold as many copies as Richard Ellmann’s Oxford Book of Verse, suggesting that the anthology-worshiping public values the good Bad as much as the good Good. But why?

Is it because lovers of bad verse are bad people?

Dan Chiasson’s 2003 review of the reprinted Stuffed Owl lends support to this possibility. “These poems join us to generations of supercilious snobs,” he wrote. “We all harbor an inner sherry drinker, and this book belongs in his billiards room.” The gleeful nastiness to which Chiasson refers dates at least as far back as Alexander Pope. In Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry, Pope classified bad writers according to the animals they most closely resembled: “The Eels are obscure Authors, that wrap themselves up in their own Mud, but are mighty nimble and pert.

In constructing this zoology of poetasters, Pope hinted that he himself was no eel. Accordingly, we might enjoy bad poetry because it helps us feel better than its floundering authors.

But that assertion of superiority becomes paradoxical—like the “good-bad” label itself—the moment we confess that we like the bad stuff. Is it bad if we feel good when we read it? What do “good” and “bad” mean in this context—and would any two readers define them the same way? The very terms that designate this type of poetry muddle its analysis.

Perhaps it is with good Bad Poetry as it is with camp in Susan Sontag’s treatise on the subject: “Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or that bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different—a supplementary—set of standards.”

Good Bad Poetry, likewise, seems to inhabit an aesthetic universe governed by unique laws (where gravity, for instance, often results in levity). Take, for example, Theophile Marzials’s “A Tragedy”:

             The barges down in the river flop.
                        Flop, plop. . . .  

Sontag didn’t quite define standards for judging camp; she emphasized that its protean nature renders it difficult to evaluate. Much, after all, comes down to taste. And yet bad-poetry contests proliferate, particularly around August 18, which Ruth and Thomas Roy of (inventors of Happy Mew Year for Cats Day, among other festivities) labeled Bad Poetry Day. Slate ran a bad-poetry contest two summers ago; started one this August, prompting an administrator to note ruefully the plenitude of “hip-hop verses where the M.C.’s yell ‘Challah!’” Small Press Distribution conducted one at this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. (That competition’s worst postmodern lyric counters the notion, espoused by Billy Collins and others, that bad poetry must be formal. A few lines: “Of an / unguent . . . / unslept / ‘bed.’”). All such events challenge writers to produce the best of the worst, whatever that might be.

The competition that succumbed to the complications of this charge—the Julia Moore Good Bad Poetry Contest, named for the eponymous “sweet singer of Michigan”—closed in 2006. The Oakland Tribune reported that “the Society was looking for Good Bad Poetry; but it kept getting Bad Bad Poetry.”

As head-spinning as these categories appear, the existence of bad-poetry contestants suggests that firm conceptions of “good” and “bad” endure. While authors of anthologized bad poetry—McIntyre, Moore, and Co.—thought their poetry was good, the authors of contest entries think their poetry is so bad it’s good. Theirs is bad poetry, to borrow Sontag’s language, in quotation marks. They break rules because they know rules, and in so doing testify to the rules’ survival. The inner sherry drinkers of bad-poetry contestants go on sipping, unperturbed, through the whole ordeal: by imitating the outsider, the contestant proves he is truly an insider.

* * *

Lest we get carried away in presuming the fastness of boundaries between insider and outsider, good and bad, bad Bad and good Bad, it’s helpful to recall the Ern Malley hoax. In the 1940s, two Australian poets bearing a grudge against Modernism in general, and against an avant-gardist named Max Harris in particular, spent an afternoon crafting Ern Malley and his “tragic life-work”—a purposefully bad product of collage and other Modernist technique. Ethel Malley, Ern’s equally nonexistent sister, sent his poetry, along with a brave biography (“As he wished, he was cremated at Rookwood”) to Harris’s magazine, Angry Penguins. Harris adored and printed Malley’s work. The mischief-makers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, outed Ern as fake and the poems as jokes. Hilarity ensued.

And yet—as David Lehman wrote in Jacket magazine—Max Harris and his colleagues insisted to the end that the poems were good. “The myth is sometimes greater than the creator,” Harris remarked. Lehman noted that the 1992 Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry includes all of Malley’s writing. A sample:

Where I have lived

The bed-bug sleeps in the seam, the cockroach
Inhabits the crack and the careful spider
Spins his aphorisms in the corner. . . .
There is a moment when the pelvis
Explodes like a grenade.

Considering he wasn’t real, Malley certainly read a lot. The second line may borrow its headlong velocity from Tennyson’s “Mariana,” whose “blue fly sung in the pane”; the deft spider recalls Pound’s in The Cantos and perhaps Eliot’s in “Gerontion.” This haunting passage paints the home as a seat for unease, and orgasm as an act of war, an explosion that counters the cautious quiet of the spider. (That insect, weaving unanswerable messages in private, may function as a figure for Malley himself.)

I wonder if it’s coincidence that the Malley debacle—like the age of the bad-poetry anthology, and George Orwell’s seminal writing on “good bad” literature—came in the thick of the Modernist era, when standards shifted disorientingly, blurring the already-contested boundaries of “good” and “bad.” The manifestos of the time announced new styles in no uncertain terms. Collections of bad poetry, by contrast, provide manifestos in the negative, shadow poetics that emphasize what editors don’t stand for. And that hint of preference, however indirect, might be part of the point—an unstated statement of taste, as defined against the embarrassments within the book.

For all its potential to insult, “good bad” is the most noncommittal, the most passive-aggressive of aesthetic categories: a means for critical equivocation. And perhaps equivocation is an appropriate response to a literary form whose complexities and ever-evolving styles can render it difficult to judge—a form that itself often suggests contradictory ideas in elliptical language. Sometimes, even, it argues for its own quality—good or bad—while it nauseates one reader, and sets another dreaming of cheese plates.

Originally Published: December 8th, 2009

Abigail Deutsch, the winner of Poetry magazine's 2010 Editors Prize for Reviewing, lives in New York. Her criticism appears in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, n+1, Bookforum, and other publications.

  1. December 9, 2009
     Seth B

    Great article.

    My love of poetry derives in part from my father's semi-earnest appreciation of classic British poets, especially Housman and Yeats, whom he revered and quoted incessantly. But his recitals had an ironic tone, and seemed to mock the poets' pomposity and fuddy-duddy-ness. Why then did he learn and remember their work?

    I think poetry is relatively embarrassing to most people, and that the category of the 'good bad' helps us appreciators mock ourselves for liking it.

    My father loved to recite this (arguably 'good bad' or maybe 'bad good') poem by Yeats. He had remembered it from his college days, in the early 70's, and found it hilarious. And yet he loved Yeats.

    "The Balloon of the Mind"

    HANDS, do what you’re bid;
    Bring the balloon of the mind
    That bellies and drags in the wind
    Into its narrow shed.

  2. December 9, 2009

    Comments on the article by Abigail Deutsch. An Opinion About the Bad that is "Good" If poetry were to be judged by the critics then the critics may have said that the language of the everyday people is no good. Deutsch's point of view about the lack of interest for good poetry suggest that it is something tasteful, but no good. A taste that is acquired by the consensus of the followers who fueled such distasteful food for thought. However, they are a few points that the author lacks to include in the argument: the establishment of academia, the importance of content and accessibility for poetry. For one, academia has a very good hold on the list of what is poetry, literature and what is consider good. Second, Alexander Pope was solely a man of letters that was given the opportunity collect a bank of knowledge on his own accord as well to come in contact with literary men such as William Congreve, William Walsh and the critic and poet, Richard Steele thus making his standard of good literature at much higher rate than those who write for the sake of fun. Content is also another element of the poem. Some of the content of the poem were used in her article were bad. If the poem is admitted as a bad poem then the outcome for the reaction should not considered as a serious piece of work. Instead, it can be looked at in different ways. One, it could be looked at as a funny piece or even ironic. Two, it's just a pleasant piece to read just for the fun of it. It also depends on the purpose that the publisher is trying to make with bad-good poem. The last point that the author does not make is that the accessibility to the poem is also important. Today, the most popular books around are vampire books along with Harry Porter books and to this humble student of literature do not hold any literary value. There are, however, very successful and very enjoyable to read. Bad-good poems hold that very same appeal to those who read them. A mass majority of the people may find them enjoyable to read and even if the poems are not as successful as the Harry Porter books; the poems are accessible to the reader who may want to have a good time. If the language of the everyday people is not valuable then ideas would never leave the pages of the author. Literature, writing and ideas should work for the language of the everyday people when thought is trying to be conveyed. Literature is left for those who want to take a closer look.

  3. December 9, 2009

    A couple of things. In my experience good poetry - I mean the REALLY good kind - is almost never accidental. Bad poetry (including the supposedly 'good' bad variety) can be either spontaneous or constructed: one could have a felicity for bad spontaneity, or be an embarrasingly inept workman. I'm a little iffy about the acquisition of a taste for bad poetry, even the 'good' bad sort. I'm not particularly fond of cheese, but there's no earthly reason for me to 'acquire' a taste for its more noisome species. I suppose the same could be said for poetry: given the abundance of the bad, the tripe and the bilge I'd much rather seek the rarer bouquet of the good hidden in that midden.

  4. December 10, 2009

    One overlooked aspect of the good bad that is essential to the accidental insight of such a poem is purpose of intent on the author's behalf. I feel the most deliciously bad poetry (art, film, aesthetics) spurns from the notion of the creator thinking the work is truly pure, and good. If, instead, the writer thinks he or she is making "good BAD" poetry, it is more likely to come out being just bad. The Idea of a Bad poetry contest is ridiculous (the real way to go about it—god forbid you hurt some feelings—is tell people they are entering a normal poetry contest and select the best of the worst). But then again, as the article points out, these aesthetic principals have become outdated. Look to Seidel and his aesthetic, which drives itself recklessly with its feet in the air, from this very idea. (not to say seidel is bad, quite the oppisite in fact).

    In response to the non-cheese eating n.b.caballero. I urge you to look deeper into books about vampires and harry potter. Again, ms. deutsch is careful to point out that a lot of aesthetic principal has been determined on context alone. Im not saying either subject, vampire or harry potter, has any real literary value as much as I am pointing out they have large cultural significance which in turn can supply that deeper reading you seek (put in the right lense friend).

    Thats the hinge of camp, is it not. things seeming to appear as they should. Missing the point entirely, but apearing as if they get whats really going on.

    Come now, haven't we outgrown such labels as Good and Bad?

    how about "I like" or "I don't like?"
    those are the only real judgments we can stand behind today.

  5. December 11, 2009
     John Kelly

    Interesting article, And perhaps could be read in tandem with John Barr’s article -from late ’06- Is it poetry or is it verse? Available and archived on this site. One of the lines of enquiry asks if “…bad poetry can rot beyond possible appreciation” Perhaps. But then, subjective perspective is paramount: If something is recognized as bad to begin with, how rotten, or putrid do we allow it to become before we deal with its rank rottenness; bad poetry is quite simply bad; good poetry is quite simply good; Bad poetry all too easily betrays lack of craft, the lack of skill, and the lack of imagination and appreciation for the tools at our disposal as we set about shaping an idea and attempting to encapsulate and constrain it, while at one and the same time freeing it from the limitations of the language with which we would work. Good poetry is, quite simply Good poetry. Oh sure, bad poetry can stink in marvellously complex ways, But then, pungent Roquefort is never considered bad; at least not by those with a nose and palette for fine cheese. Roquefort is a Mature and complex cheese, crafted by mongers using skill passed on from generation to generation. There is no denying that it is not to everyone’s taste, it is just one of the great cheeses of the world, with its own appreciative purveyors. And I have no desire to tackle the bad verse- bad people query; not here at least. Still, as I’ve said, interesting…

  6. December 19, 2009
     Leo Thibault

    Good-bad poetry insinuates its way into the most prestigious of magazines, i.e. The New Yorker, in which one poem recently had part of the title substituted by a dash (for the reader to fill in, I guess).

    I will never accede to Archibald's advice that "a poem should not mean but be". Seems to me we have a lot of abstract beings out there that are thoroughly forgotten as soon as they are published, including some from Pulitzer prize winners. I say, forget the playful dichotomy of good-bad and bad-bad, and concentrate on reading substantial good-good poems...those, like Roquefort, are perfected by age (hard work and revision) and result in "clarity", the quality so prized by Stanley Kunitz, who knew a thing or two about poetry....

  7. December 19, 2009
     Ralph Windle

    I assume that the delightful Abigail Deutsch is pulling our legs ( which could, I suppose, itself be a good/bad experience!). The fact is, as I think she well knows, that all these more recent usurper collections of 'bad verse' are poor substitutes for the original 'The Stuffed Owl' (1930) and its immortal compilers, Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee. Abigail and I are as one in starting here where, I suspect, many of these post-modernists never trod. For Wyndham Lewis and Lee,the sophisticated points were:- (a) that even the 'greatest' poets were capable of excruciating verse; and (b) there is nothing like celebrity status - (as with becoming official 'poet laureate' )for guaranteeing this to happen. That is why the sublime Wordsworth and Tennyson feature so prominently (have you read 'Ode Sung at the Opening of the International Exhibition':- Uplift a Thousand Voices Full and Sweet..?) So, beware Presidential Inaugurals and suchlike ... However, on their impeccable criteria, the pinnacle of all bad verse still belongs to Laurence Eusden ( Laureate to George II) for:- 'Thy virtues shine particularly nice,/ Ungloomed with a confinity to vice' .... Beat that! As an Englishman and friend, can I warn you about the dangers to poetry of all these hundreds of laureates you seem to be appointing over there? Or is it just a marketing plot to create more anthologies of excruciating verse ? Ralph Windle. Oxford. England.

  8. December 22, 2009
     william kershaw

    I know little of what is good or bad poetry, but I know what touches, moves, entertains or lifts me. I write a bit and most would call my scribblings doggerel at best. However, I still scribble whenever the muse grabs me.
    Call my stuff good or bad or even mediocre, but to call it anything but poetry is to belittle the spirit that moves one to put pen to paper and try to preserve a moment in this brief passage we call life.

  9. December 30, 2009
     Max Forgey

    It is regrettable that Ms Deutsch was so absorbed by the hideous legacy of British bad poets that she neglected the execrable verse of two high-minded late nineteenth century Midwestern scribblers, both of whom made a decent living from odiferous poetry--Julia Moore, the Sweet Singer of Michigan and Indiana's own (and I believe even more exquisitely dreadful) James Buchanan Elmore, the Bard of Alamo.

  10. December 30, 2009
     Max Forgey

    It is regrettable that Ms Deutsch was so absorbed by the hideous legacy of British bad poets that she neglected the execrable verse of two high-minded late nineteenth century Midwestern scribblers, both of whom made a decent living from odiferous poetry--Julia Moore, the Sweet Singer of Michigan and Indiana's own (and I believe even more exquisitely dreadful) James Buchanan Elmore, the Bard of Alamo.

  11. January 20, 2010
     Toni H.

    I read bad poetry in a futile attempt to distinguish the good from the bad, and pray mine own does not fall into the latter.

  12. May 12, 2012
     Luke Johnson

    While it is true that both bad and good poetry
    subjectively swing on a pendulum of ying and yang, it is
    vapid to concentrate on that which is good and that
    which is bad, considering some of the "greats" have
    about as much resonance as a rock. The best response to
    any of this, was the perhaps the self - deprecating
    response by Mr. William Kershaw - not to be confused
    with Clayton Kershaw, good - good pitcher for the Los
    Angeles Dodgers ;0).