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How to Recognize BAD Poetry - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
How to Recognize BAD Poetry
ozarque has observed that there is a dearth of critique in modern poetry, followed by low quality throughout much of the field. I quite agree. Most modern poetry is technically flawed and artistically flaccid. Many people have abandoned poetry, saying they don't know what's good and what isn't. Usually they do know -- but they've been shown wretched poetry and told it was great, so they've lost faith in their own judgment.

First, if you think a poem is horrid, it probably is. With practice you can learn to elucidate why it is horrid. This is a useful skill for poets, poetry readers, and editors or teachers of poetry. Here are some common flaws in poetry:

  • Imperfect or erratic rhymes. A good poem, if it rhymes, should either use perfect rhymes throughout or use a clear and appealing pattern of near rhymes. Bad poems try for perfect rhymes and fail.

  • Erratic meter. A good poem, if intended to have meter, has a fluent meter that flows gracefully when read aloud. It need not be perfectly regular, as variations on the meter can add interest; but it must be pronounceable. Some forms demand a specific, exact meter and mistakes there count against quality. Bad poems stagger drunkenly from one word to the next.

  • Topical trouble. The topic should be clear and interesting. Absent, indistinguishable, garbled, or pointless topics cost the poem points. Especially watch out for cases where two poems are tangled together into one, with competing aspects of the same topic.

  • Flawed form. Any poem of a specific form must follow the rules for that form precisely. For poets not skilled in writing to form, there is free verse. Breaking form can be a trivial or catastrophic flaw.

  • Mismatched motifs. The form clashes with the topic, the rhythm jangles against the theme, the metaphors are wildly inappropriate, etc.

  • Misused techniques. Poorly chosen allusions, mixed metaphors, overused similes, awkward alliteration -- these are examples of valid techniques gone wrong.

  • Cliched imagery. Avoid it like the plague! Off with its head!

  • ZOMG-EMO-DRAMA!!! Bad poetry exaggerates, whines, mopes, capers, and generally makes an embarrassing spectacle of itself. Good poetry delivers emotion softly, like snowfall -- or slyly, like a stiletto. If you can see it coming, it's probably not done right.

  • Pronunciation chuckholes. Good poetry demands to be read aloud; it feels good in the mouth. Reading bad poetry is like trying to spit out a mouthful of rocks, one at a time, without swallowing any. Some sounds create tongue-twisters when combined.

  • Cacophanous sound. A good poem sounds delicious in the ear. A bad one makes listeners wince when they hear it. Some sounds don't go well together.

  • Prose flavor. This flaw reveals the content to be prose disguised as poetry, most often found in free verse. Even free verse requires the use of some poetic techniques, and a sense of prosody, to distinguish it from prose; the poet simply has more choice about which ones to use.

  • YAWN. Bad poetry is almost always boring. Go watch grass grow to put some excitement in your day.

When you encounter bad poetry, identify it as such. It's okay for people to write bad poetry; it's not okay for people to obscure good poetry by falsely claiming that bad poetry is good. (Note that I'm referring here to poems with identifiable flaws, rather than to unfounded disputes over personal taste. Not everyone will necessarily like a good poem.) You need not be rude or vulgar, although there are venues that encourage such. You can simply point out the salient flaws. If bad poetry is being hailed as good, it needs to be deflated. In the case of young and/or novice poets, try to be gentle and include praise along with criticism.

The best way of learning how to recognize bad poetry is to practice reading and analyzing it. Some sturdy folks have assembled collections of bad poetry, and related discussions, for public edification:


Bad Poetry Index

The Bad Poetry Page

Very Bad Poetry

The Bad Poetry Seminar

How to Write Bad Poetry

And of course, there is the book that got me hooked on deflating bad poetry: The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse. Special thanks to Prof. U. Milo Kaufmann for introducing me to that book. Like an owl pellet, it is revolting in a fascinating way. This should be required reading for poets, poetry editors, teachers of poetry, and anyone else serious about working in the genre. Consider it a field guide to monstrosities.

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46 comments or Leave a comment
glitteringlynx From: glitteringlynx Date: June 5th, 2008 06:52 am (UTC) (Link)
Free verse is still fine however, yes? It's how my poems tend to come out.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 5th, 2008 07:12 am (UTC) (Link)
Free verse is a legitimate form. Like you, I use it often. The quality depends on the poem.

A good free verse poem has a subtle flow of rhythm, similar to spoken conversation, rather than a strict meter. It uses some combination of poetic techniques such as alliteration, repetition, allusion, and metaphor. Every word is carefully chosen for maximum effect. It is not "playing with the net down."

A bad free verse poem may crash and burn for various reasons. Most often, it reads like prose, or is simply incoherent. Many poets get lost without the structure of a form to guide them -- but form poetry is frequently denigrated today, so poets are often taught that 1) they must write in free verse, and 2) it's okay if the result is nonsense. Other times, too much structure leaks over and the poem doesn't really seem "free." The effect is not unlike a literary wedgie.
wiredwizard From: wiredwizard Date: June 5th, 2008 07:19 am (UTC) (Link)

These rules cover prety much every poem I've ever put out. (Most likely 'cause I only write poetry either under extreme duress or after have sat for a couple of hours contemplating the light shining off the blade set aside for suicidal moments...)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 6th, 2008 03:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
There are other reasons to write poetry besides the ones that require "good poem" to be in the goal zone. Therapeutic use, and passing a class (if the teacher lacks fine discernment, as many do), are among those.
dianavilliers From: dianavilliers Date: June 5th, 2008 10:14 am (UTC) (Link)
Ya know, if someone had shown me a bullet-point list something like this one some 20 years ago, I might not have found high school English quite such a waste of time. Nobody ever pointed out to me "hey, this is bad writing, and this is good writing, and here's why". I was just expected to somehow know.

I've just had a realisation. This must be how maths fees to some people. Weird.

Edited at 2008-06-05 10:17 am (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 6th, 2008 03:32 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

*grin* It was only after my book Composing Magic came out that I realized my ability to identify and explain things precisely ... is rather rare and precious a skill. When I'm teaching, I try to illuminate underlying principles. If you don't do that, you're not teaching, you're just telling.

I hope people find this list useful.
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From: browngirl Date: June 5th, 2008 12:09 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Beauty dissected turns ugly

'The arch of gleaming bone, the tensioned muscle strand;
The clever architecture of the uncovered hand.'

In the right context, a dissection can be profoundly beautiful, and I think we gain more from using our faculties to comprehend how things work, be they bodies or poems, than we do from fruitlessly sacrificing the possibility of knowledge on the altar of a blind and unknowable Beauty.

Perhaps it was written by a child, now dead. Would you want to hurl your critique in the faces of his or her parents?

This is a positively incredible appeal to emotion over reason. It is possible to have a thought without repeating it in a deliberately hurtful context.

Edited at 2008-06-05 12:13 pm (UTC)
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slipjig From: slipjig Date: June 5th, 2008 01:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
Excellent points made. (And thank you for the links!)

There's a particular flavor of bad verse that makes me wince every time. It's the sort that the folks at the local literary rag I was helping edit years ago would call "GTBP": "Good Therapy, Bad Poetry." These were the ones that we hated rejecting, even though there was no way in hell we could stomach publishing them, because you know the poet was deeply proud of the emotional content, but because it was all so personal s/he couldn't see clearly how atrocious it was for the rest of us. It was a matter of, "It sounds like this was a very important breakthrough on a deep emotional level, and you seem to have learned a lot about yourself. That's really wonderful. Now, please, for the love of all that is good and holy, keep it to yourself."
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 6th, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, therapy is one reason for writing poetry in which the quality does not matter. *ponder* I am not entirely sure why the effectiveness of that function is independent of structural integrity; that's something interesting to think about.

Another interesting point is that a skilled poet can take a moment of personal emotion and, through use of craft, turn it into a poem with broad relevance.
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ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 6th, 2008 03:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
"I always read my poetry aloud as I'm working on it. I figure poetry started as a spoken form, and even modern poetry should flow easily when spoken."

Excellent idea. The main exception to this is concrete poetry, which is intended for visual experience.

"I may be a bit guilty of cliche, but I truly feel what's cliche to one reader isn't necessarily cliche to another."

You're into exception territory here again, which is fine. A novice ignoring rules out of ignorance or indifference rarely gets good results, but an expert can bend rules into pretzels and still get applause. Two points about cliches are: 1) they don't count as such if the target audience doesn't know them, frex if you're importing colloqiualisms from a different region; and 2) they can be great fun if stacked together or consciously played with in other ways.

"I've been told my poems don't always follow "proper form", especially when it comes to haiku."

Poetic forms are like recipes. If you put cloves instead of cinnamon into an apple pie, that won't turn it into beef roast; it'll still be a tasty apple pie, just a little different than usual. Hiding a jalapeno in your apple pie may or may not work.

"I refuse to read much modern poetry because I simply cannot understand it. It makes no sense to me, and I think I'm a pretty intelligent guy."

Precisely. Even after meticulous analysis, many modern poems contain little or nothing of interest. Readers who enjoy decoding intricate meaning are encouraged to look for "kennings" in Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry; for structure, check out Welsh poetry.

"What's your position on "show, don't tell" in poetry? Is it always as vital to verse, especially to short-form poetry, as it is to prose?"

It's a valid rule, but doesn't always apply to poetry. It does apply to narrative poetry, which tells a story in verse. It's much less relevant to poetry written for sound or wordplay rather than storytelling. Other forms fall in between.

newroticgirl From: newroticgirl Date: June 5th, 2008 06:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Do you know dr_pretentious?

Every year near her birthday, she has an International Bad Poetry party. (The one year I managed to make it, I offered up some of my own horrible high school poems and STILL didn't win the Crown of Cheese for worst poem!)

(Edited because it took me 3 tries to spell "pretentious" correctly. *sigh*)

Edited at 2008-06-05 06:53 pm (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 6th, 2008 04:03 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you...

... for the lead! I have Friended her.
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ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 6th, 2008 04:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
If the ideas are good, and it's the delivery that keeps crashing, continue encouragement. Technical skill can be learned. It's the eye for artistry that is difficult or impossible to learn if it's not innate. Meter, rhyme, and word choice can be fixed with suitable application of good workshops, books, and a whole lot of practice.

I've known writers like that too.
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ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 6th, 2008 04:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
Strong emotions are welcome in poetry. Like dynamite, they require careful packing to be effective. Otherwise they just make a big stinky cloud. Look at one of the general poetry-posting LJ communities. Then look at some classic poetry -- Yeats is good at making angst actually work. I also like Kipling's "The Female of the Species." Compare those sets and you should get an idea of what it looks like when emotion is used well and poorly.
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just_the_ash From: just_the_ash Date: June 6th, 2008 02:17 am (UTC) (Link)
May I friend you? I was directed here by chadu, who is one of the only people I know who has real-time, face-to-face discussions with me about poetic form, and who in fact recently forced me -- to my delight, of course -- to pick up Stephen Fry's book.

Edit: Of course, he's also the one who thinks I should do my eventual Ph.D. dissertation on William McGonagall. :P

Edited at 2008-06-06 02:17 am (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 6th, 2008 04:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes, please!

I'll Friend you back when I see the little note. (If I see it. My brain is still preoccupied. Ping me if I haven't responded in a week.) chadu is fun!

My favorite poetry handbook is John Drury's Creating Poetry.

Keep an eye on my blog next week -- that's when the June Poetry Fishbowl should be. I'll be asking for prompts and writing poems based on what people send me. Discussions of poetic technique are common spinoffs.
reileen From: reileen Date: June 7th, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC) (Link)

A wee bit late to the party, but...

...thaaaaaaank you for this post! I don't write poetry very often, mainly because I can never tell if I'm DOIN IT RONG, but this will help immensely whenever I decide I do want to write a poem, and surely will lead to inspiration. Hopefully. :D
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 7th, 2008 07:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: A wee bit late to the party, but...

The most important thing is to practice. It's okay if you make mistakes at first; that's part of the learning process. Make exciting mistakes. Make new mistakes. Eventually you'll figure out where they are and how to avoid them, and your poetry will improve. Mine is tight because I've been doing it for 30 years and I've had time to make most of the mistakes already.

There's a lot more detail about how to write poetry (and other things) in my book Composing Magic. Every section has examples and exercises as well as discussion material. Also check out my "Memories" list here on LJ because I've marked several other "how to" posts relating to poetry.

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ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 7th, 2008 07:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
The more one knows about the rules, the more leeway one has to bend or break them and still create an effective piece of work. Breaking the rules out of ignorance rarely wroks. This is true of most arts, not just poetry.
46 comments or Leave a comment