Joshua Sutherland Allen

Joshua Sutherland Allen

Friday, September 11, 2015

On Writing Bad Poetry

I. Choosing a Meter

Dactyls are second to none in the way that they bear elegiacs,
Mournful, sad songs of the ancients of Greek and of Roman antiquity,
How they can carry the lofty, bold lays of Homeric and Hesiod hymns,
Telling of Muses who sing for departed, old heroes of legend:
Long-haired Achaeans, swift-footed Achilles, and breakers of horses.
And yet, for Milton, Shakespeare, and for Donne,               
The iamb is the mode of choice, its soft
And soothing, restful cadence flowing smoothly
Across an English or provincial tongue.

Trochees rarely make good verses –
Dies irae, the exception
Poe’s stark Raven uses trochees,
As it beats your brain to pieces.
Hiawatha is the same, its
Silly rhythms tear asunder
Any beauty in its text.

Nature haiku are
Sometimes quite lovely, and yet
Rarely have much depth.        

The limerick is always such fun,
And sometimes they make use of puns,
But they’re always so base,
And lacking in grace,
That I want to be shot with a gun.

If you want,
You can sing a song of yourself,
           Your varied carols raise.
And sound of Whitman and his barbaric yawp
           Raising your voice and strain in lyric free verse.

Or if you are of hymnic mind,
This meter could help you,
Eight syllables in the first line
And six more in line two:

The standard meter of the fold
And of its hymns divine.
“Amazing Grace!” fits in this mold,
And also “Auld Lang Syne.”

e e cummings is an excellent model for
all aspiring poets out there except
for the fact that you must                  
be brilliant to be
able to pull this off
or else it just
and sounds
like rubbish

II.  To Rhyme, or Not to Rhyme

So now that we have settled on a time
And meter for our stanzas and our words,
We turn our thoughts to whether we should rhyme.

The terza rima lets us rhyme in thirds,
Dante its advocate both strong and true,
A favorite for those smart poetic nerds.

When I have fears sonnets may cease to be,
Before our pens have gleaned all use from them,
That Keats and Wordsworth we’ll no longer see,
That English textbooks will not teach this gem,
Nor students come to know Donne’s battered heart
Or Shakespeare’s mistress, lovely, temperate, fair,
The beauteous depth of Blake’s and Dunbar’s art,
Or learn how Browning loved with grace and care,
That teachers will not teach the flowing verse
Nor poets write the rich, fourteen-lined form,                         
Which for long centuries was our common purse
Of literary wealth – poetic norm:
Then will I weep and mourn for my dear tongue,
The English lingua franca that I love,
Assume that it’s become a heap of dung
And push it off with one disgusted shove.

And yet, so many of the greats have made
Blank verse their staple and foundation sound.                        
Like Robert Frost in “Mending Wall,” and “Birches” too,
And some of Ezra Pound’s succinct, brief works.

The couplet is a nice poetic twist,
As friendly as a friendly game of whist.

It always works just as it should,
So it’s been used by poets not so good.

Many a bad poet in couplets writes
Rotten poetry that really bites.

This form contains so much gross muck,
That we may rightly say, couplets suck.

(If evidence is needed, then please see
Joyce Kilmer’s verse about a tree.)

Of course, you could create your own rhyme scheme,
It’s easy as a meme, but never think to deflate
The power of your words to satisfy a rhyme –
Life is short, there is no time, you turds.

III.  Internal Sounds

Poetry is, at heart, a spoken word,
A sound from the heart
Passing briefly the tongue
And vocal chords and flying
Through air to the ear
And from there to the brain.
Therefore take care for how you sound,
And not just how your words array
A page in a book, or on a blog,
But how they seize the ear
Of those who listen,
And those who cannot help but listen.

Onomatopoeia is a sizzling hot way
To add a little pop to your sound.
But never overuse the little bams and crashes,
The punching power of sounding words,
Unless you want to bring your poem
Banging down and grinding to a halt.

Alliteration is the poet’s persistent problem,
Patterns of sound
Given pride of place in poetry and prose,
Pretty, playful, pleasing, perhaps,
Yet also with the penchant to be
Persnickety, peevish, petulant,
And perhaps painfully pedantic.

IV.  Foreign Words

For some it is almost de rigueur
To add a French, Greek, or German word or two
Into an English language work.
Of course this adds a certain je ne sais quoi,                          
A sense the author is un citoyen du monde,
A member of the οἶκος and πόλις that is our world,
Ein Mensch und ein Bürger der Welt.
If you do this, ich grolle nicht, and yet
I know that you are merely writing
Because you need the world to know
How smart you are.
It is the writer’s and the scholar’s hell
(Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate)
For their intelligence to go unremarked.
But as for me, I'll say no more:
βοῦς ἐπὶ γλώσσῃ μέγας.

V. Pulling It All Together

So now, we have decided on a form,
Pentameter, iambic, rhyme and verse
Our thoughts can now to pen and paper swarm,
And we may write however grand or terse.

There can be nothing left to do, correct?
We have the perfect sounding, polished phrases.
Just print the damn thing now, and so direct
Your agent to find royalties and raises.

One thing alone is missing from this stuff,
I hesitate to mention it at all,
Your poem is just now grand-standing fluff,
We never chose a theme on which to call.                           

What is the poem about? I hear you ask –
We spent such time discussing rhyme and sound,
We never talked about the crucial task
Of choosing content – themes were never found.

A lovely song of nothing we have here,
Concise and sounding beautifully deep,
But vapid as a day spent drunk on beer,
Good only to be tossed on rubbish heap. 

But do not fear, my loyal, friendly bards,
A truth I tell to you, so listen well,
Great works may be stylistically unmarred,
But deep within no hidden truths they tell.

Some of the greatest poets of our age –
Great emblems of tenacity and grit –
Write poems full of lyric grace or rage,
But deep within, they are just piles of shit.


  1. True ease in writing comes from Art, not Chance,
    As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.
    Couplets offer wit and scope
    When handled by a Dean or Pope.

  2. Ha, yes there are so many ways to write bad poetry after all, and plating the dung with gold , still makes it dung... I like your textbook approach.. Though I battle with form I think the content is better when I wrote prose.

  3. This is quite a poem. I am sure that what is thought to be good form by one poet (or reader) might be thought trite or poor form or boring by another. Thank goodness there are enough forms that every reader or writer can decide for themselves what they write or read. I liked how your poem took a look at so many different styles.

  4. I join you in preferring to shot rather than reading limericks, LOL. This is a wonderful dissertation on writing options, Joshua........well penned. I love best "Poetry is ...a sound from the heart."

  5. A sound from the heart
    Passing briefly the tongue
    And vocal chords and flying
    Through air to the ear

    Such a lovely sentiment :D

  6. nice - you dropped some knowledge today

  7. not always brevity is the soul of a poem!...this is brilliant!...

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and I can see you did too. I forgive your scurrilous remarks about Hiawatha and Whitman, because of your much more apt slur on that dreadful Joyce Kilmer poem. :-)

  9. You've been reading the same collections I have.