The Good (Poetry), the Bad (Poetry), and the Ugly (Poetry)

good bad ugly

What is “good” poetry? What is “bad” poetry? Will you always know it when you see it? Or are the answers to such questions automatically suspect due to the “you” in the latter question?

It’s a conundrum even Socrates would have trouble beating–we know good poetry when we see it, supposedly, but what happens to the ticker tape parade when Person B comes along and proclaims your “we hold this goodness to be self-evident” to be so much wishful thinking or, worse, garbage?

From the opposite tack, we often feel sure when we come across “bad” poetry. We scrunch our noses, shake our heads, perhaps abandon it halfway as if it were Joyce’s Ulysses. But what if this obviously bad poem appears on the lofty pages of Poetry magazine, say, or the loftier still pages of The New Yorker? Is it time to look in the mirror and start wondering about ourselves as judges?

I was left to contemplate such philosophical mysteries yesterday when I experienced a first. A poetry journal accepted one of my poems and, when I consulted my manuscript slated for publication around the new year to ensure it hadn’t undergone a title change (I hadn’t seen that title for awhile), I noticed the poem was no longer in the manuscript.

Data malfunction, you ask? Accidental deletion, maybe? Not quite. As I’ve been combing over the manuscript, tightening poems and, in a few cases, and replacing “weaker” ones with new blood of a stronger strain, I’ve placed the cut poems if a file called “Pulled from Ms.”

It so happens that the accepted poem–one that I obviously decided was “bad” because multiple editors had given it the form e-mail boot, in so many words telling me it was bad–was lurking in this “out bin” with some other sheepish poems. Only now it looked less sheepish and more indignant.

“See?” it said. “You doubted me. You doubted yourself and decided I was bad. Ugly, even. Now what?”

I’ll tell you now what. I moved it back into the manuscript. Lines between the good, the bad, and the ugly had blurred dramatically. And all in the electronic flash of an acceptance.

What abstract point does this concrete experience make? Is it the old saw which states that we are the worst judges of our own works? And if so, how does that explain our negative reactions to other writers’ poems that find their ways into the most highfalutin’ of poetry journals and magazine glossies?

We’re told to judge not, but we can’t help but judge. We’re only human (which is, ironically, equal parts good, bad, and ugly at times).

My theory, subject to ridicule by Socrates and heirs to his cause, is that the great middle ground is impossible to pin down with such adjectives. There are extremes at either end–unquestionably good because they’ve stood the test of time and still thrill new generations of poetry readers, and undoubtedly bad because, well, the poet in question assaults the senses and a few other innocent bystanders, when his poetry is inflicted on them.

Still, taking out, say, 20% of poems on either end of the spectrum, we’re left with that huge DMZ: 60% of what we read or maybe even write ourselves. Is it good? Bad? Ugly like a duckling with ambitions?

Good luck deciding. Yesterday’s e-mail has me reaching for a poetic white flag.

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6 thoughts on “The Good (Poetry), the Bad (Poetry), and the Ugly (Poetry)

  1. I can’t recall any writing instructor ever telling me it could be wise to throw a poem away. I had to learn that for myself.

    Later, I read this by Mary Oliver: “It is good also to remember that, now and again, it is simply best to throw a poem away. Some things are unfixable.”

    And this: “About poems that don’t work — who wants to see a bird almost fly?”

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  2. Thom Gunn’s ‘The Man with Night Sweats’ i think won the first Forward Prize in ’96 or maybe the Pushcart, but it was a big deal, no doubt due to dealing with the AIDS crisis, but slap me sideways & call me Charlie if that collection doesn’t bore me to tears. There is some astoundingly dull, even bad, over worn trope, the whole shebang of what i think is wrong with a contemporary poem. & yet, it won prizes. It seems clear taste always is & always will be a matter of personal preference. Yvor Winters outlines in ‘Preliminary Problems’ the impossibility of gauging quality, because, if there is a set of rules to define the required ingredients for a high quality poem, then those rules need only be known & followed. But then wouldn’t that make every poem that is genius pretty much the same, which of course, is not what we see. SO therefore, he acquiesces that taste is personal. But that doesn’t mean we can’t criticize, in the sense of discover more depth, to perhaps discover something in that process that differentiates quality.
    i know what i want to read even if i didn’t read it yet. Like Sir Henry Rawlinson bellowing at Mrs E. “I don’t know what I want but I want it now!”

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    • Ha! I sympathize with Sir Henry! And I feel the same way when I sit down to write. I know what I want to write (the end) and I want to now. Too bad writing is the slow train making all the local stops…

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      • The beginning is always quite intense with the genesis of pooling ideas, especially when the theme sort of presents itself half formed & eager for birth. But then i quite like the crafting part, the taking note of what is becoming, like pruning & watering a bonsai. So taking all the stops means it gets done right. i don’t believe a poet who says the first thing out is right.
        From reading your poems, i’d say you seem to be one who takes the all stop train to the end.

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