Bad Poetry

Sunday 2nd March

William Blake is notable not only for the very questionable quality of his poetry, but also for his paintings and engravings; efforts which are, to say the least, regrettable: what unspeakable anatomical study, for example, could have provided the musculature for Blake’s Newton?

In the meantime, his poetry is massively overrated: rhymes are amateur, scansion is sloppy and the content is unintelligible, bordering on insane.

Now I’ve been a bit hard on him… But only because I think it’s important to knock back the bewildering reverence people have for him as a poet, an artist and a philosopher. It’s not all bad, of course: the first quatrain of ‘Auguries of Innocence’ is deservedly famous:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Some of the more insightful proverbs yield marvelous aphorisms, particularly if you are writing an essay about the French Revolution:

A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.

At other times, Blake seems altogether to have lost the ability to rhyme faithfully:

He who respects the infant’s faith
Triumphs over hell and death.

…not to mention his control of the metre:

The child’s toys and the old man’s reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.

… and the capacity for rational thought:

He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov’d by men.

I’m fully aware that this is all rather unreasonable. Blake’s poetry has much to recommend it. I would advise newcomers to ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, for example, to ignore the entire first section (sentimental rubbish) and make straight for the more dejected corners of ‘Experience’ – ‘London’, ‘A Poison Tree’, ‘The Garden of Love’. These passages are highly accomplished and not at all complex; each line has an evil, creeping intonation, as self-assured as the Old Testament and bristling with anti-industrial, anti-ecclesiastical fury.

But like all poetic projects that follow on from artistic theory (in this case, the idea that miserable humankind might drift into a state of prelapsarian bliss via the medium of infantile poetry), ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ fails as a set piece. No-one who possesses the wherewithal to make a decent advance on a collection of poems could possibly be induced to read more than a few lines of the sort of insipid, emotionally-reductive trash that constitutes the ‘Songs of Innocence’ (‘Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe; Sing thy songs of happy cheer’). But, taken individually, a number of the ‘songs’ in Experience can be counted among the best, most masterful Romantic poetry…not a particularly competitive accolade – but that’s an argument for another day!

Saturday 26th January

This blog will be concerned, for the most part, with very bad poetry. But I have decided to inaugurate the series with a piece of good poetry, by the unrelenting Australian Les Murray:

Brutal policy,
Like inferior art, knows
Whose fault it all is.

Exploration of the Haiku is the most common misadventure in modern poetics – an offensively red herring, with botched pretensions of Eastern mysticism. Poets writing in English who make use of the Haiku seem to forget that the measure or pulse of English verse is accentual, whereas the Haiku is constructed around the idea of a fixed number of syllables. So a Haiku in English might almost be considered a contradiction in terms.

This blundering category error aside, the nice dimensions of Murray’s Haiku are very persuasive: art is not about taking sides, or as Ezra Pound put it, ‘Don’t be viewy.’ With this in mind, this week’s sample of extremely bad poetry comes in the form of Maya Angelou’s ‘State Package for Hillary Clinton’.

This exhausting panegyric turns out to be a rehash of her famously defiant civil rights poem, ‘Still I Rise’, collated with girthsome lumps of sycophantic partisan dross, and further shot through with ossified metaphor and boring rhetoric. Angelou is better than this, as she proved with ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’, written for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Hillary should be less than flattered by the comparison between the two poems.

As a general rule, polemical poetry is stultifying, diseased from its inception. The design of poetry is fundamentally opposed to the use of rhetoric – just as a Constable landscape is to be looked at, not beaten over the head with. If Angelou cannot decide between poetry and politics, she should not attempt either. Harold Pinter’s poems are deeply awful but he, at least, has the common decency not to take sides. Like Dirty Harry, he hates everyone in equal measure:

There’s no escape.
The big pricks are out.
They’ll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back.

It’s bad news for a writer when he finds his own work eclipsed by pastiche. Private Eye have always had it in for Pinter – I hazily recall their version of his response to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: ‘Piss, bombs, bollocks, and wank, / here comes that twat Bush in a tank’, or thereabouts. More recently their Poetry Corner was inspired to print ‘Lines Written To Commemorate The Award Of The Nobel Prize For Literature 2005 To Myself by Harold Pinter O.M.:

So. They have given me
The Nobel Prize
For Literature.
That’ll show that
Fucking bastard Bush
And his warmongering
Friend Blair.
Wankers.

11 comments

  1. In response to your remarks about Blake, Frye, and Yeats–literary giants of poetry and criticism for all time: you, sir, are a fool. Read what Blake says about Newton, Locke, etc. and apply everything he says to yourself!

    Sincerely,

    Philip Miller
    Mount Union, PA

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  2. What do you mean my comment await moderation? Your use of language reminds me of the great Bushbrain himself, George W.

    p

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  3. To your disappointment I’m afraid the moderation has no connection to the author. It is simply a protection mechanism to prevent spam appearing on our website.

    Thanks for your comments.

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  4. 3 Mar ’08 at 3:10 am

    A Clod of Clay

    Dear Sir,

    Your criticisms of Blake are most irregular! Don’t you know he’s one of our national treasures – like jam trifle or Attenborough?!

    Furthermore, your remarks are worryingly unpatriotic. If it ever got out that the author of ‘Jerusalem’ couldn’t actually scan his own verse-lines, it would be most embarrassing. We English have only had a handful of good poets in the last 200 years (Browning, Hughes, Larkin… but that’s about it!). Everyone thinks the Romantics are wonderful! We can’t hazard uncontested international pre-eminence just because Shelley, Byron, Blake and Coleridge turn out, on closer inspection, to have wasted everyone’s time.

    Also, your deconstruction of Blake’s rhyme and scansion is most unfair. We have methods in place for dealing with literary cock-ups. If two words don’t rhyme, we say that the pronunciation is regional/archaic/regional and archaic. If the author was clearly born in Fulham in the nineteen seventies, then we call it slant rhyme.

    So you see, all manner of poetic incompetence can be explained away thus. And if the verse is completely, irredeemably, bollock-scratchingly ametric, unrhyming, senseless and awful, there is the catch-all excuse: the writer was ‘playing cleverly with the literary conventions of the period’.

    I urge you to be more forgiving with respect to our artistic heritage. Academics still think Blake was a ‘visionary’ (shhh…amazing, I know), and the public agrees. Don’t rock the boat, old boy; it doesn’t do.

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  5. 3 Mar ’08 at 3:13 am

    James MacDougald

    Philip,

    Just looking through trying to find these remarks about Frye and Yeats. Struggling. Enlighten me, please.

    Love,
    James

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  6. Sorry, I realize, now, you didn’t include Yeats and Blake’s major critic, Northrop Frye in your remarks; yet, your remarks about Blake, himself, would have–at the least–disturbed them a bit, don’t you think?

    As to what you said about Blake, my own invective would diminish to pale politeness in contrast to what Blake himself would have to say if he could say about your remarks about his transformation of English prosody.

    PM

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  7. What a load of pretentious rubbish. Go out and get some fresh air once in a while. All of you.

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  8. 7 Mar ’08 at 6:16 pm

    James MacDougald

    Philip,

    I’ve no doubt that Northrop Frye and I would have had our differences, yes. But the whole point of this blog is to challenge, once in a while and with lashings of ironic self-awareness, the unquestioned authority of the western canon. People are too forgiving of good poets when they balls up; too much is excused, and no-one is prepared to point out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

    As for Yeats, I’m not sure what you mean exactly. Do you mean that his poetry also takes liberties with metre? Of course, it does, but Yeats does it with intent and artistry, and the result sounds more like the rhythms of natural speech than botched metricals, thus the possibly anapestic “I have SPREAD my dreams UNDer your FEET” becomes the more arhythmic “I have SPREAD my DREAMS // UNDer your FEET”, or so it seems to me. Or are you talking about Yeats’ opinions of Blake? Forgive me if I struggle to take Yeats – who over the course of his life entertained, successively, numerous political inclinations and almost every set of ridiculous superstitions under the sun – seriously as a critic of anything at all.

    James

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  9. Your comments about meter have nothing to do with its actual use in poetry–poetry of any kind. Blake and Yeats (as very few other poets in English) rediscovered such things as meter, reinvented a prosody that, in turn, served to invent poetry of the present, influencing, in most cases defining (for better or worse), whether they are aware of it or not, every poet writing today.

    My error is trying to argue someone who has no regard for facts; one cannot, sorry. Now, I will make a better choice, the only kind when words won’t work! Silence.

    p

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  10. 12 Mar ’08 at 2:55 pm

    James MacDougald

    Philip,

    I now have no idea what you’re talking about. You’ve lost me. And you seem more interested in insulting me than making your meaning clear, which doesn’t help.

    Given that they lived a century apart, saying that Blake and Yeats ‘rediscovered metre’ is not a meaningful statement. I wasn’t aware that metre had been lost; it seems to show pretty clearly in the poetry of everyone preceding and surrounding Blake (Pope, Swift, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron) and Yeats (Browning, Tennyson, Arnold, Hardy)…

    Please – make yourself clear. Put your grievances into plain English and I might be able to address them.

    James

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  11. I agree with most of the people that have commented. You are truly incorrect in generalizing Mr. Blake. From what you have said, I have gathered, you have no idea what poetry is. You think that you are saying something new by judging such an artist, but you have no idea. Please learn to write and learn to judge. I have no idea how old this article is but obviously you have no sense of taste.

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