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Seamus Cooney, a retired English professor, contends that studying bad poetry helps readers appreciate the good. (Photo by Luke Wark)
If I'm as Bad as I Can Be, Won't You Please Not Publish Me?

BY DRU SEFTON
c.2005 Newhouse News Service

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More Stories by Dru Sefton

 

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 Africa.

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 to?"

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 said.

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 even now."

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 http://www.livejournal.com/(tilde)reallybadpoetry.)

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 dru.sefton@newhouse.com)