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The snob in me wants to say this out loud to everyone I encounter on the street:

Stop foisting your bad poetry on the world.

Everyone thinks they’re a poet. And, really, since Wordsworth, and before him, Burns, everyone is. But just because you write a few lines of what you think is “deep” (without any punctuation) doesn’t mean that you’re writing poetry.


You’re not.

Here’s the deal:

In the middle of the 18th century (1740s, really) there began a bit of a reaction against Pope, who was nearing the end of his life). After he died in 1744, a massive vacuum was left in English poetry, and the big question was “Who’s going to be the next Pope?” This question is more significant than you might think, since it’s essentially like asking “Who’s going to be the next Shakespeare? The next Milton?”

I shit you not. Really. There’s a ton of poetry about this in the 1740s and 1750s, the most significant of which are poems like Richardson’s “The Seasons” (1746) and William Collins’s “Ode on the Poetical Character (1747).

In the 18th century, poetry was all about skill. It was all about wit, which means several things, but we can best think about it in terms of “poetic skill.” And the apex of poetic skill was writing in the heroic couplet. Pope did this, and Pope did it in a way that earned him a position, seriously, alongside Shakespeare and Milton. He was that good. Pope was the Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan of his generation of poets.


I’m not kidding.

After Pope dies, though, there’s a void, and every poet in England is scrambling to fill it. Gray does a good job. So does Collins. And how do they do it?

They ignore Pope.

They skip right over him and go back to Milton’s verse.

One of the effects of this is that English poetry becomes more about the subject than about the style, and in addition, poetry becomes democratized. This is crucial. Really. Unbelievably important. Gray writes about his “mute inglorious Milton” who, rather than achieve the recognition he deserves, rots in a grave somewhere. Where is all this heading?


Wordsworth is the first person who sees the gap left by Pope and steps in to fill it. And he fills it by writing about the common man. He fills it by writing about what are, supposedly, his own experiences, expressed without reflection, and which are unmediated by any kind of editorial process.

It was all al lie, of course. He revised and revised and revised. None of that stuff was “spontaneous” or “recollected in tranquility.”

He lied.

And so the Romantics come along and pile personal angst onto the heap (Byron, Keats, and Shelley, most notably), and we’re off. In a big way.

And while Romanticism might seem to die pretty early in the 19th century, remember this: anything, and I mean anything, that represents the internal workings of the human mind, or that shows an interest in the life of the working man, comes out of it (this includes Freud and, really, all psychology). And in addition, any representation of the tortured artist, or of teen angst, comes out of it.

This is the real origin of most of the bad poetry we find on the internet comes from.

But the 19th century is the age of the novel, and so poetry winds up on the back-burner.

However, by the tail end of the century, though, Walter Pater comes along. In his conclusion to The Renaissance, he lays out a theory that the poet needs to experience as much as possible.

Now, Pater meant that the poet needed to have as wide of a range of experience as possible. He didn’t mean that the poet needed to drink and smoke as much as possible. But that’s how people like Wilde interpreted him.

And Pound.

Pound is crucial here. He was undoubtedly brilliant. But he was also quite insane.

By the time we get to Pound, we’re home free here, folks. Really. The modernist poets are really a renaissance of the Romantics—folks like Wordsworth.

And so…by the 60s and 70s, we get this notion (postmodernist) that everything is text, and that every utterance is of value. This, when combined with the Wordsworthian notion that the proper subject of poetry is the actual man, gives us the idea that whatever shopping list you might put out there becomes valuable poetry. No matter how bad it might be. Seriously.

But tie into this the Byronic/Shelleyean idea that the poet needs to be some kind of tortured soul, and you wind up with most of the juvenile poetry we find on the web.

Or on blogger.

This is a long way of saying this:

If you fashion yourself a poet, do us all a favor: go and read a bunch of poetry before you publish your own. And I don’t mean read a bunch of cummings. I mean read a ton of poetry. Read it all. Go buy anthologies of poetry (old, new, and otherwise) and read them. Memorize them. Study them. Talk about them with your friends. Please. Seriously. Please. Do this before you force it upon unsuspecting readers.


I’m begging you.


Written by srogers

July 2, 2011 at 2:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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