It's Good to Be Bad: In Defense of Not-Nice Poetry

Where does the popular idea that good poetry is "nice" come from, and what -- if anything -- can or should be said against it? The short answer is that it's a legacy of Romanticism.
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Lately I've been reading a lot of bad poetry. Not "bad" in the sense of "poorly written"; on the contrary, the contemporary poems I've been reading (and teaching in my Introduction to Poetry course) by authors like Margaret Atwood, Michael Robbins, and Frederick Seidel are, to my mind, some of the most skillfully written and fiercely imagined poems of the past few decades. Rather, I mean they do not conform to the image many people have of poetry as something that is, or at least should be, gentle, sensitive, uplifting, beautiful, soothing, or relaxing. Of course, poetry can be any of these things: but it doesn't have to be.

So where does the popular idea that good poetry is "nice" come from, and what -- if anything -- can or should be said against it? The short answer is that it's a legacy of Romanticism. When William Wordsworth declared in 1800 that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility," he marked a tipping point, after which modern poetry turned decisively toward lyrical expressions of the poet's thoughts, feelings, observations, and meditations. (See my previous post on this subject, here.) Nevertheless, the poems of Wordsworth and his fellow Romantics are far from being entirely composed of pretty descriptions of daisies and skylarks; on the contrary, even a quick look through Wordsworth and S.T. Coleridge's landmark collection Lyrical Ballads (1798) confirms the presence of many disconcerting characters and emotions, including unhappy vagrants, abandoned women, dead children, and vengeful specters.

In many ways, it was the Victorians who, reassessing and largely whitewashing the Romantic legacy, transformed poetry from the record of real life sought by Wordsworth to "the best which has been thought and said" touted by poet-critics like Matthew Arnold as a replacement for the waning power of organized religion. In this "improving" spirit, for example, the poetry of Percy Shelley -- probably Wordsworth's most rebellious heir -- was cleaned up and made fit for drawing room readings, such that he was known for many generations as the poet of ethereal verses like "To a Skylark," rather than as the author of much more strident, political poems like "The Masque of Anarchy" and "Song to the Men of England."

But although the Victorians could temporarily scrub the records of their Romantic predecessors, they could not suppress forever the many wonderful examples of bad behavior in English poetry. To see where today's contemporary trouble-makers hail from, it's worth recalling this counter-tradition. The vengeful monsters of the anonymous Old English epic Beowulf, for example, have long been interpreted as representing the antithesis of the heroic, social virtues of the poem's human heroes. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales introduces a host of memorably disreputable characters, most famously the outspoken Wife of Bath, who happily admits that "Of tribulacion in marriage ... I am expert in al myn age."

In the Renaissance, poets and courtiers like Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, and Shakespeare frequently represent themselves in their sonnet sequences as misguided or overly idealistic; in Shakespeare's "Sonnet #116," for example, the speaker's determination to defend love at all costs ("even to the edge of doom") smacks of desperation and denial. An exciting blend of shamelessness, cynicism, and lust is the calling card of the 17th-century libertine poet John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, whose exuberant poems detailing his sexual conquests, both male and female, bear titles like "Signior Dildo" and "The Disabled Debauchee." Rochester's verses still contain plenty of power to make modern readers gasp, chuckle, and shake our heads in a combination of disapproval, disbelief, and -- let's be honest -- envy at his frankness, if not also at his exploits.

The evocation of unattractive feelings like jealousy and lust -- emotions we usually keep to ourselves, or even deny -- helps explain, I think, the ongoing attraction of not-nice poetry. Consider this stanza from Seidel's 2007 collection "Ooga-Booga," in which he describes his relationship with a custom-made Ducati motorcycle:

I bought the racer
To replace her.
It became my slave and I its.
All it lacked was tits.
All it lacked
Between its wheels was hair.
I don't care.
We do it anyway. ("Dante's Beatrice," ll. 8-15)

This is nasty stuff, to be sure -- but it is also vibrant, candid, and unapologetic. With his combination of economic meter, ironic rhyme (racer/ replace her), and dirty diction, Seidel offers an unsentimental portrait of how desire and consumer culture go together like a horse and carriage -- or in this case, like a man and his femme fatale motorbike.

Do I think all poetry should sound like this? No. But am I very glad such poems exist -- both to provide a counterbalance to the clichéd image of poetry as necessarily pleasant and uplifting, and to provide a voice and outlet for the socially unacceptable, ungenerous feelings all of us harbor at one time or another? Definitely! There will always be a place for poetry that represents the Arnoldian ideal of the best that has been thought and said, but there should also be an ongoing place for poetry that articulates the obscene underside of that ideal. In the words of another great "bad poet" of the modern age, Jack Torrance: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

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