Javier Huerta: More and more I am convinced that what we need now is a revival of bad poetry. So I’m working on a book of bad poems.
Friend Unnamed: You mean another one.
JH: Ah, well . . .
FU: Listen, why do you speak of “revival’? Don’t you think bad poetry has been alive and well all these years. In the biggest journals. In the smallest zines. In slams. In MFAs.
JH: I’m not interested in passing judgments. Those poems you consider bad poetry, I’m sure, have their defenders. When I say “bad poetry,” I mean a value neutral category of writing that involves the affected, the hyperconventional, the ornamental, the anticlimactic, the disproportionate.
FU: Neutral, you say.
JH: Well yes, you can have good bad poetry or bad bad poetry. I read somewhere that the International Society for Humor Studies discontinued its annual Julia Moore Good Bad Poetry Competition because the entries failed to ascend (I was going to say descend) to truly memorable badness. Writing good bad poetry is an art. When I say I’m working on a book of bad poems, all I mean to say is I want to engage this art form. Now, if you consider my first book to be bad poetry, I can only say that that badness was not intentional.

FU: That was just a jest. You shouldn’t dwell on it. But let’s consider that all-important question of intention. Good Bad Poetry competitions can never succeed in achieving that earnestness so essential to great bad poetry. Ogden Nash and Mark Twain both consider Julia Moore a model for their humorous poems. Twain places the ineptness in the poetic attempts of fictional characters, and Nash’s poems perform this ineptness while winking at us the whole time. Nash self-identified as a good bad poet, and we feel that even this was not said in earnest. No, Nash is one of our most brilliant humorists. Moore had serious intentions and wrote (unsuccessfully) on serious, tragic subjects. Yet we still laugh at her efforts and value her poems for the unintended humor. Self-conscious efforts at bad poetry miss out on this unintended humor. To be ironically bad is in conflict with the essence of bad poetry. In an age of insincerity, all genuine feelings spring from bad poetry.
JH: I don’t completely agree that the poems were not intended to produce laughter.
FU: We can’t know what Moore or, since we’re now not just talking about bad poetry but about the worst, William McGonagall intended with their verses. What I’m saying is that the main reason we value those poems is because we interpret the humor as unintentional. We arrive at this interpretation by flattening out the tension between poet and speaker. We assume no construction of a bad poet persona. The badness falls on the poets.
JH: But what if instead of focusing on the unintentional nature of the laughter we focus on the inappropriateness of it. To quote Hardy,
FU: Thomas?
JH: Yes.
FU: As an authority on laughter?
JH: Yes. “All laughing comes from misapprehension. Rightly looked at there is no laughable thing under the sun.” As you rightly point out, Moore and McGonagall engage the tragic only to provide a poetic response that is too much or too little. The failure of their engagement with the tragic causes us to laugh. In our reading of these poems, we confuse seriousness and lightheartedness. There is no proper reason why we should ever find any depiction of local and national disasters, charred bodies, and dead infants humorous. Inappropriate laughter helps us face the tragedies of life.
FU: But wouldn’t you—as a poet aspiring to write this type of bad poetry—still require the unintentional aspect of the humor. Don’t you think that if your readers believed that you intended to make them laugh at the tragedy of, say, immigrants dying in the desert that they wouldn’t despise you for it. They would consider your project not only immoral but also disgusting. I’m not saying that it can’t be done. I’m just pointing out some difficulties I see with the project.
JH: No, no. That’s cool. I appreciate the questions you raise.
FU: You mentioned a revival of bad poetry. Did you see yourself as the new McGonagall in this movement?
JH: I think I’m modest enough not to believe that I could ever reach those heights of badness.
FU: I don’t believe a McGonagall in our age is possible. All poets, including award-winning ones, are accused of badness, and all poets, including the minor ones, have their defenders. We no longer have a concept of the worst. Or, more correctly, McGonagall holds the place of the worst, so that we, no matter how bad we may believe we are, will always be assured that at least we are not the worst. What those good bad poetry competitions do, most importantly, is continue a joke at the expense of Moore and McGonagall. We all want to be in on the joke because we dread to be the butt of it. We are afraid that others will see what we see, that we see ourselves in McGonagall.
JH: Perhaps that’s true for me. Perhaps that’s what’s behind my plans to write a book of bad poems. But that’s me, and I dwell in Insecurity. I cannot speak for all.

Originally Published: November 29th, 2008

Javier O. Huerta's debut collection Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Publico 2007) received the 31st Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. He is also the author of American Copia (2012). A graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at UT El Paso, Huerta is currently a PhD student in the...

  1. November 29, 2008
     Chris Piuma

    (McGonagall was intentional.)

  2. November 29, 2008

    bad poetry, er, okay. there is plenty of intentional/non-intentional (whose intent, by the way -- writer/reader?) in the slush piles of magazines. i think what you mean is that you're bored by even the intentionally bad poems out there and that if you attempt to mimic them you'll end up writing something pretty good by happy accident. if that's not what you intend, then it seems like a, well, worthless, so to speak, project.

  3. November 29, 2008
     Friend Unnamed

    McGonagall was intentional because God intended him!

  4. November 29, 2008

    Great "conversation" you have going here, Javier. I think your friend is quite the sage, which is probably why I hear people calling for him all the time ("Hey, FU!") in the Town.
    Another height (depth?) of bad poetry to aspire to might be Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. I am sure Eliot is wondering why Andrew Lloyd Webber didn't set "Prufrock" to music.
    On the flip side, I don't think there is any work that has stooped so low and reached so high as Eve Merriam's Inner City Mother Goose. Almost forty years later and the poems are still just as relevant to today's urban realities, making it one bad book of poetry.

  5. December 3, 2008
     Jeff Charis-Carlson

    This seems a very timely discussion of good bad poetry -- especially given Mike Chasar's recent article, "Writing Good Bad Poetry," in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Chasar himself seems to have something things to say about JH and FU at http://mikechasar.blogspot.com.