Poetry News

"Bad is not the Devil": Anthony Madrid at Best American Poetry

By Harriet Staff

We're super into Anthony Madrid blogging over at Best American Poetry. He asks, today, after quoting a bit from "Leda and the Swan," what it was that prompted Yeats toward the line of questioning expressed in the line "Did she put on his knowledge with his power". Writes Madrid: "That question is strictly out of Yeats’s head. There is no warrant for it in the original myth, or anywhere. When you are being raped by a god, you do not 'put on his knowledge.' Anyway it never happens in Ovid." He continues:

My hypothesis has always been that, after Yeats became a celebrity, he had a lot of experience with women wanting to starfuck him, and that he had pondered the way in which a starfucker is partly driven by a desire to share—however obliquely—in the famous person’s glamour. Such is the magic of celebrity. People feel they’re special just by sharing an elevator with you. I passed Johnny Depp on the street in New York once. Joan Jett went to my high school.

Of course, if all this is right, then Yeats’s poem is more about guilty sex with a groupie than about the dreadful consequences foreseeable in violence. But hasn’t it always felt like it kinda needs to mean something other than just the surface stuff? Yeats’s amendment to the myth has a vulnerable and gratuitous quality, I think. Yes: if the poem is highly satisfactory—and it is—I want to propose it’s because we’re all intuiting that Yeats is confessing something here. He’s that swan.

Madrid moves on to wonder at the goodness of twisted syntax and to lament the disuse of epigrams...

You ever read the one by Martial…. I don't know how it goes in Latin but in English it’s something like: “You say all the girls are on fire for you, Quintus. You: who have the face of a man swimming underwater.”

Write twenty poems like that. Poems that would actually do somebody some good.

...before introducing us to some poems by Dolly Lemske, poet and co-curator of Chicago's Dollhouse Reading Series. Section 4 of Madrid's post is the presentation of the "Weapons-Grade Literary Trivia Puzzler." "The idea isn’t to ask the other players questions they can’t answer. No. What would be the point of that. The idea is to ask them questions they can answer—just not right now for some reason." Best of the whole bit:


Mostly it’s not that poets are bad. It’s that they’re nothing. Most readings too. They’re not bad; they’re nothing.

This is something they should have taught us in MFA-land. Bad is not the devil. Bad can be good. The devil is what you see all around you: large piles of neither-good-nor-bad, towering stacks of nothingness. Nothingness and nobody’s ever gonna reread it. Miles and miles of poetry that completely passes for art—but nobody loves it.

Actually, sitting here right now, I can think of at least two poets who aren’t any good, they’re bad, they're wrong about everything, they're dumb and icky—but they are something. I rush to read whatever they print, and I would walk through five miles of flaming snot to see them do their thing. I don’t even care that they’re bad! They’re something!

Originally Published: May 15th, 2012