As long as there's been poetry, there's been bad poetry.
And now bad poetry may be emerging as its own genre.
It's sparked by a creative backlash against so-called vanity publishers
that print poetry anthologies, then sell the books back to the very
writers who submitted the poems.
Vanity publishers insist they provide a service to those who want
to see their work in print. Critics, however, say the anthologies
deceptively encourage untalented poets; and they have set out to
prove this by intentionally writing poetry awful enough to be rejected.
Which is tougher than you'd think.
"It really is a subtle art," said Jendi Reiter, an editor
at winningwriters.com and former winner of a National Endowment
for the Humanities grant for poetry criticism. "It's a poem
trying to be a real poem but failing and not realizing it."
Reiter and her husband, Adam R. Cohen, run their Web site as a resource
for writers. They sponsor an annual contest for deliberately bad
poems submitted to vanity publishers; last year, it drew nearly
1,400 entries. The start of this year's competition is Aug. 15;
deadline is April 1, 2006.
The Wergle Flomp Poetry Contest, as it is called, pays homage to
the pseudonym of David Taub, whose poem "Flubblebop" is
often credited with igniting this recent horrible-poetry wildfire.
"I've become more renowned for Wergle than for my serious poetry
-- which I hate to use that phrase because it sounds so, well, serious,"
Taub said from his home in Derbyshire, England. "Wergle Flomp
is a nonsense name I made up, and he's gone before me around the
world," landing in hardcover anthologies as far away as South
As feature editor for the British national magazine "Poetry
Now," Taub is often asked about vanity anthologies. "I
thought, how do I write something that demonstrates quite clearly
that this is not an organization they should be sending their work
Taub decided to pen a nonsensical poem and submit it to a vanity
publisher to prove that he could get literally anything accepted.
In 1999, using his pseudonym, he wrote and sent off "Flubblebop"
-- three-quarters of which, he readily admitted, "is not even
pronounceable." (An excerpt: "Reqi stoobery bup dinhhk/yibberdy
yobberdy hif twizzum moshlap.")
He promptly received a letter of acceptance for publication in an
American vanity anthology titled "Promise of Love," published
by International Library of Poetry.
"I could not get them to send me a rejection slip," Taub
Eric Mueck, vice president of International Library of Poetry, a
major vanity publisher, said an average of 30 percent of all submissions
to its Poetry.com Web page are rejected. That site, headquartered
in Owings Mills, Md., receives millions of poems annually -- and
is also a prime target of the poetry protesters.
Which doesn't bother Mueck.
"Bad poetry is subjective," he said. "Anything poetry-related
we're happy about. If writing bad poetry gets people participating
in poetry, that's great."
Writing intentionally bad poetry actually dates to 18th-century
poet Alexander Pope and before, said Seamus Cooney, an English professor
retired from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
"The relishing of bad poetry has a long tradition," said
Cooney, now a bookseller living in Portage, Mich.
He cited as proof Pope's "Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking
in Poetry," from 1727, a treatise on how NOT to write poetry.
Cooney is a fan of bad poetry. Recognizing the bad, he said, helps
readers appreciate the good. His bad poetry Web pages (http://homepages.wmich.edu/(tilde)cooneys/poems/bad)
have received more than 53,000 hits since 1996. "I did the
pages for fun, really," he said. "I still get e-mails
Writing awful poetry also has long been popular at Columbia University.
The Philolexian Society, established in 1802, sponsors an annual
Alfred Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest.
The poet Kilmer, class of 1908, is perhaps best known for his lines,
"I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree."
He also, however, wrote deliberately wretched poetry for years under
the pseudonym Alfred Watts.
For poets aspiring to awfulness, Michael Gorelick of Phoenicia,
N.Y. -- nom de plume, Sparrow -- created a Bad Poetry Seminar that
is part of his upcoming prose book, "America: A Prophecy"
(Soft Skull Press).
One bit of advice: Talk endlessly about whatever poem you're currently
crafting. "How often you discuss your poetry (times) 6.419
(equals) how bad your poem is," according to "Cooper's
Bad Poetry Index," which Sparrow said he made up because "it
just sounded scientific somehow."
As for Colin Ryono of Portland, Ore., he stays busy gleefully excoriating
the bad poetry he reads flowing through poetry.com, under the name
Professor Roy and the Amazingly Bad Poetry Journal. (His commentary
-- some in language not suitable for a family newspaper -- is at
Ryono admitted he just can't look away.
"It's not so much like watching a train wreck but watching
a series of train wrecks," he said.
But he also has to take care not to read too many.
"If you focus too much attention on the poems your head starts
to throb," Ryono said, "like an animal chewing rhythmically
on the back of your skull."
Aug. 3, 2005
(Dru Sefton can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)