Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Good News About "Good Bad Poetry"?

Imagine the surprise over here at "Poetry & Popular Culture" to learn that one of this blog's favorite terms—"good bad poetry"—is now being bandied about by the folks over at the Poetry Foundation which, in its own words, "exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience." On the Foundation's blog "Harriet," Javier Huerta begins "Mcgonagalls All" with the November 29 declaration, "More and more I am convinced that what we need now is a revival of bad poetry" and goes on to try to distinguish between "good bad poetry or bad bad poetry."

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, I repeat, 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.

No, "Poetry & Popular Culture" takes no offense at this, nor even at Huerta's own description of bad poetry as "a value neutral category of writing that involves the affected, the hyperconventional, the ornamental, the anticlimactic, the disproportionate." What does rankle "Poetry & Popular Culture," however, is how quickly Huerta's posting reduces the expansive category of "good bad poetry" to humorous poetry. Barely 75 words into his blog posting, and immediately after distinguishing between "good bad poetry" and "bad bad poetry," Huerta brings up the International Society for Humor Studies and, from there on out, "good bad poetry" and "humor" become inseparable. The specters of Ogden Nash, Mark Twain, and William McGonagall are raised to debate the intentionality or unintentionality of humor, while the larger category of poetry that "involves the affected, the hyperconventional, the ornamental, the anticlimactic, the disproportionate" goes entirely unexplored.

While it's nice to see the term "good bad poetry" gain some currency, it's a shame—though admittedly predictable, too predictable—to see its simultaneous devaluation at the hands of the Poetry Foundation. If the Foundation really is "committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture" as it says it is, then it should be wary of such mischaracterization and explore, instead, the many other ways that good bad poetry—and its ornament and convention—might do more than just provide a chuckle or two for the folks in the Windy City.

1 comment:

JP Craig said...

It doesn't surprise me that the Harriet folks took it to that level. Things get reduced pretty quick over there. I wonder if they'd call Bob Kaufmann's stuff good bad poetry or just bad? Um, my umbrage is showing, but I suspect that there's some pretty narrow definitions of good over on Harry-et.