What's a bad poem ?

Sunday, 05 April, Year 7 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

The less one dables in declarative statements, the less apt one is to look foolish in retrospect.

Let's apply the declarative statement quoted above to the declarative statement quoted below :

One can, perhaps, place Kipling more satisfactorily than by juggling with the words 'verse' and 'poetry', if one describes him simply as a good bad poet. He is as a poet what Harriet Beecher Stowe was as a novelist. And the mere existence of work of this kind, which is perceived by generation after generation to be vulgar and yet goes on being read, tells one something about the age we live in.

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.

The 1930s are but a fog today, and so no, none of those well known-unknown good-bad things are known at alli. Therefore they must be worth reprinting, and so let's reprint.

Jenny Kiss’d Me (by Leigh Hunt)

Jenny kiss’d me when we met, jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad, say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add - Jenny kiss’d me.

Good ? Bad ? I confess to me it seems excellent, like I confess that I never was "that sort of people" - mostly out of rank disinterest, or as the elders of my upper crust social circle would put it, "brinza buna in burduf de ciine". I confess that I shall go straight to alf's hell with my hands in my pockets and say exactly that : if the whole world stands on its head, the kisses aren't ever gotten back.

Do you see what's wrong with it ?

Young and Old (by Charles Kingsley)

When all the world is young, lad, and all the trees are green ;
And every goose a swan, lad, and every lass a queen ;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad, and round the world away ;
Young blood must have its course, lad, and every dog his day.

When all the world is old, lad, and all the trees are brown ;
And all the sport is stale, lad, and all the wheels run down ;
Creep home, and take your place there, the spent and maimed among :
God grant you find one face there, you loved when all was young.

Yes ? Too coarse, the contraposition, too stringent, the contrast, too obvious, the craft ? Good.

Good, and fuck you if you think there's such a thing as "too".

'The Bridge of Sighs' ("One more unfortunate...") is long and therefore bad, so we'll skip it, and 'The Burial of Sir John Moore' idem. 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' is perhaps the most idiotic, ill conceived, malodorously contrived piece of crap ever committed to paper, and so we'll skip it too. 'Dickens in Camp' speaks of "minarets of snow", which are "the dim Sierras, far beyond, uplifting" and that's the end of that - bravery is one thing but dumbfounded confusion can never be poetry. It has well earned the silence of memory.

'Keith of Ravelston' is pure derpitude, in the vein of "Ravelston, Ravelston, the stile beneath the tree, the maid that kept her mother’s kine, the song that sang she! She sang her song, she kept her kine, she sat beneath the thorn, when Andrew Keith of Ravelston rode thro’ the Monday morn." Fancy that! The esteemed McGonagall couldn't have penned it better himself he couldn't better have penned it himself better could not have it penned!

Whereas 'Casabianca' is some womanly retardation about children and nonsense, an so we'll skip it too! Which leaves us with exactly what you'd expect : a quarter of all poems are great, and the rest are horrible for many reasons that have exactly nothing to do with the reason originally given, except in about half the cases.

Or in other words, that the work of selecting good poetry from the bad is not much more advanced (after thirty centuries of practice) than the work of selecting insane men from the sane : in any sample no matter how collected you have about the same proportion of either kind, as a function of the intensity of the collection and as a variable unrelated to the methodology of collecting - which is to say that if you put two hours into selecting specifically for bad poems, or specifically for good poems, by whatever criteria defined, you will at the end have the same proportion of good to bad in both samples. And if instead you spend two years, you'll get MORE good ones, but not by very much, and equally as many good ones in the batch of selected bad poems as in the batch of selected good poems.

Why ?


  1. Let's not go into how poetry is long long forgotten, or into how our ignare friends across the sea are running amok "rebranding" stones, the turning of stones and the worms found under turned stones. Let no stone be unturned! []
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