The Art of Bad Poetry

‘Wait, my Lord! At least stay for the mad, bad and dangerous to know category!’

It is National Poetry Month, and I am musing on bad poetry.

In Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), Horace’s charming guide to classical poetry, he traces the history of the genre and explains the elements of writing good poetry.  He also fulminates against inept poets who lack natural talent or knowledge of the art.

The difference between sports fans and poetry fans, he explains, is that sports fans know that they are unlikely to become professional athletes, while every poetry reader believes he can be a great poet.  Although Horace expresses this sentiment elegantly in Latin hexameters, it doesn’t quite come across in English.  Here’s my rough prose translation.

If a man does not know how to play, he refrains from military sports on the Campus Martius,
And if he is unskilled at sports, at ball, the discus, or the hoop, he doesn’t participate,
lest the crowd of spectators laugh at him.
And yet a man who knows nothing dares to fashion verses!

I did laugh.  It is so true:  everybody’s a poet/novelist/critic!

I used to belong to a poetry group. It was fun and therapeutic.  Only one of us, and it was not I, had talent.   Some thought they were as good as our prima, who’d published a few poems in little magazines, but honestly they (we) had a long way to go.  And there was not much grumbling, because our prima was likable, as is so often the case.

What does one do at a poetry group meeting?  Well, we ate homemade cake, gently critiqued each other’s poems, and sometimes did poetry-writing exercises.  (N.B.  There are good poetry exercises on Tuesdays at Poets & Writers.)  We also attended the readings of the few brave who read on Open Mic nights at the coffeehouse.  The great thing about Open Mic nights is that nobody can tell if your poetry is good or bad if you’re a good actor !

Part of what we like is playing the role of poet:  Horace hated that!  He thought it was absurd to pretend to be a poet by neglecting one’s appearance, not bathing, and growing a beard.  Obviously he didn’t know female poets, who spend a lot of time on hair and clothes!

Anyway, here is a poem about poems by Octavio Paz, translated by Eliot Weinberger.  (I hope Horace would approve.)


Octavio Paz, 19141998

   At times poetry is the vertigo of bodies and the vertigo of speech and the vertigo of death;
the walk with eyes closed along the edge of the cliff, and the verbena in submarine gardens;
the laughter that sets on fire the rules and the holy commandments;
the descent of parachuting words onto the sands of the page;
the despair that boards a paper boat and crosses,
for forty nights and forty days, the night-sorrow sea and the day-sorrow desert;
the idolatry of the self and the desecration of the self and the dissipation of the self;
the beheading of epithets, the burial of mirrors;    the recollection of pronouns freshly cut in the garden of Epicurus, and the garden of Netzahualcoyotl;
the flute solo on the terrace of memory and the dance of flames in the cave of thought;
the migrations of millions of verbs, wings and claws, seeds and hands;
the nouns, bony and full of roots, planted on the waves of language;
the love unseen and the love unheard and the love unsaid: the love in love.

Syllables seeds.

Wild Poets in Horace’s “Ars Poetica” (“The Art of Poetry”)

Why do we think poets are mad, wild, and disheveled?

Did it begin with Horace?  I have been reading Horace’s  Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), a  witty guide to the history and composition of classical poetry.  A little more than halfway through this charming didactic poem, Horace mocks unkempt Roman poets who affect madness. Horace’s hexameters are labyrinthine and his expression of thoughts so interwoven with abstruse ancient culture that English translations are unclear without notes:   if you don’t read the Latin, good luck to you.   Here is my rough, mostly literal prose translation of this passage, with notes in parentheses.

Because Democritus [“the laughing philosopher”]  believed  talent was a luckier advantage than [knowing] the wretched art, and excluded sane poets from Helicon [a mountain sacred to the Muses], most poets do not bother to cut their fingernails, nor their beards; they seek seclusion and avoid the baths.  For a man will obtain the esteem and name of poet if he never entrusts his head– which couldn’t be cured of insanity in the three Antyricas (three towns where hellebore, used to treat insanity, was grown]–to a barber.

This satiric passage seems very modern. Certainly we have met our share of disheveled poets at poetry readings, though I mostly see professor poets these days. Some modern translations of this passage, however, make it more difficult than it already is.   In Smith Palmer Bovie’s 1959 translation, he substitutes Swiss psychiatrists  for the three Antyricas towns where  hellebore grows.  He writes,

For surely the name
And the fame of the poet will attach itself to that dome
Which has never entrusted itself to the shears of Licinus,
Which trips for treatment three times as many
As even Swiss harbors have failed to set straight.

Bovie’s translation is clever but too coy for my taste. Swiss psychiatrists in a Roman poem composed in the first century B.C.?  I  finally remembered “dome” used to be slang for “head.”  But it was only after I read the Latin that I realized Bovie was trying to update the Latin passage  for a 20th-century audience.

Are modern poets mad?  Certainly  many have had depression or manic-depressive illness (bipolar disorder):   Edgar Allen Poe, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ezra Pound,  Robert Lowell,  Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, to mention a few.    Some believe madness is part of creativity. Personally, I think it must have hindered their work.  Think of how brilliant they would have been without that pain.

Who are your favorite mad poets?  And what is your theory?   Does madness enhance or obstruct creativity?

Aging Women in Horace & Bridget Jones

Horace loebToday, a perfect gray fall day for curling up with a good book, I read Horace’s Odes and Epodes and mused about the women in his poetry.

Horace dislikes older women, which is perhaps not unusual, though we don’t often read about it in poetry.

In the elegant, if angry, Ode I.XXV, Horace addresses an aging woman, Lydia.  He says that young men bang less often on her shutters than they once did; they no longer deprive her of sleep.  Does Lydia miss this, I wonder?   Now “the door loves the threshold, while before it often moved on its hinges.” That is a sexual metaphor in Latin poetry.  Whenever they talk about doors…

I wonder whether the windows and doors are really open for women today in the age of “hook-ups,” or whether choices are narrower and cause more anxiety.   In the late twentieth century men never banged on our windows, though they banged on the door sometimes. Once my boyfriend and I were sleeping when a strange man turned on the light.  Oh, sorry, he was looking for my roommate.

My roommate was really more the Lydia type than I. Men might have serenaded her, as the young men do in Horace’s Lydia poem, in the days before the Pill, if we had been adults then;  I was as far from Lydia as one could get, the type who hung out at the coffeehouse, chatted nonstop, sat through Days of Heaven again and again, and went jogging.   One day my roommate informed me that I “owed” her and must attend a champagne breakfast and go out on a boat with her and two of her men friends.

This spawned my famous dating advice, “Don’t get on the boat.”  Once you are on the boat, you are likely to be bored for hours, because there you are, with nothing to do but drink beer…  The champagne is gone.  You have little in common with the guys.  Sure, they are nice, and I appreciate the invitation, but…

Horace doesn’t give dating advice.  He complains instead about impotence with older women.  I would now, according to his calculations, be an older woman,  because I am  older than Lydia, who might not have lived to be very old back in Rome of the first century B.C.

In Epode XII, an early, rude poem, he complains about a woman’s wrinkles and smell.  This is David West’s translation.

The sweat and nasty smell get worse all over
her wrinkled body, as my penis droops
and raging passion cools
and all the while the powdered chalk
and crocodile shit run on her face as she ruts away…

And one can see why we didn’t read Horace’s early poems, the Epodes, in grad school.  About one-third of us were women, and we would have been terribly offended.  I am not shocked by poetry nowadays.   One can see the greatness of his poem about Lydia, the second-rate-ness of the Epode.  Did one come from the other?

And in Epode II, he again is impotent, and again complains.

You dare to ask me, you decrepit, stinking slut,
what makes me impotent?
And you with blackened teeth, and so advanced
in age that wrinkles plough your forehead,
your raw and filthy arsehole gaping like a cow’s
between your wizened buttocks.

Not quite the gorgeous language one would expect in poetry.

Ode I.XIII is another graceful poem about Lydia, or at least a Lydia (I’m not sure if it’s the same one, and I have no reference books about Horace).  Again, what a difference between the Odes and the Epodes.  The following literal translation is my own, and captures the shortness of the lines, though certainly not the grace.

When you, Lydia, praise Telephus’
rosy neck, Telephus’ wax-
white arms, oh, my
liver swells with angry passion.

And something else perhaps swells too.  That is the way Roman poetry works.  That is what the word tumet (swells) implies.  Catullus, Horace, and Ovid used it, as critics tell us.  The poets were  risqué.

Anyway, it’s been an interesting, quiet day of Latin, not answering the phone, and considering the way women live now and the way we don’t.

N.B. Bridget Jones:  Mad About the Boy is being trashed online by both men and women, partly a copycat effect, I think.  Bridget is condemned for being an older woman with a sex life.  This charming novel, which should be passed around instead of reviewed, is making me laugh out loud.

What do you think of views of aging women in our times?

Google Glass and Horace

Google Glass, the wearable computer, is the latest device for geeks who embrace the ideology of 1984 and the N.S.A.

I read a few pages of Gary Shteyngart’s very, very funny article in The New Yorker, “Confessions of a Google Glass User,” but put it aside because I am nauseated by the concept of internet-connected glasses that blink, wink, and photograph everything you see.

Gary Shteyngart with Google Glass

Gary Shteyngart with Google Glass

Shteyngart, the author of Super Sad True Love Story, a dystopian comedy set in a near-future where attention is fragmented by the use of “apparati” (tiny computers), entered a Twitter contest for a chance to wear the glasses.  He is no stranger to tech.  He writes that he used the iPhone to research his novel.

The device became a frightening appendage to a life of already sizable anxiety….Returning to the novel five years after its completion, I had the general sense that I had allowed technology to run me over. Now I was…an occasional rather than a voracious reader,  a curator of my life rather than a participant, a man who could walk through a stunning national park while looking up stunning national parks.”

Shteyngart is ahead of the curve in charting what has happened and what will happen in our virtual society.  I wonder how Google Glass is working out for him.  I can’t believe it is good to hook a computer up to your head!  Haven’t they said cell phones can cause brain cancer?

This weekend my husband and I had a silly argument about phones.  He criticized someone who came out of a restaurant checking her phone.  I pointed out that he had just checked his own phone and put it away in his bike pannier.

He denied that he was checking his phone. I don’t know or care what he was doing with it.  Staring down at it anyway.  I don’t have a cell phone myself.   I’m just glad I don’t have to field his calls anymore on our landline.  (I used to promise he would call people right back, and since he seldom did, I was blamed. )

If I had a cell phone I’d check my email even more than I do.  That’s why I don’t have one.


The-Odes-of-Horace-Horace- David FerryCulture isn’t dead yet.  I spent the evening reading Horace.

This is an activity a woman could have enjoyed any time since Gutenberg’s invention of movable type.

I curl up on my desk, i.e., the couch, and read Horace’s Ode I.15, known as “The Prophecy of Nereus.” The cats love to read Horace.  One cat bats the book gently.  Another sits on the big Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary and occasionally chews the scotch tape holding together the Allyn and Greenough grammar. (“No, no,” I say.)

I drink wine (no, actually lemonade) while I read Horace, and the cats drink ice water.  (They love to drink from a human’s glass.)  We are very civilized.

In Ode I.15, Horace intimates in just 36 spare, brilliant lines the horrors of the Trojan War.  When Paris, a prince of Troy, treacherously drags Helen, his hostess, away from Sparta on a Trojan ship,  Nereus, a sea god, stops the winds and the ships and prophesies the consequences of Paris’s actions.  He says, “Greece, sworn to break your nuptials and the old kingdom of Priam, will strike.”

Nereus emphasizes the extent of the destruction in the imminent Trojan War:   how great will be the sweat of the men and the horses, how many the Trojan deaths.

In the third and fourth stanzas, Nereus portends the destruction of transient love, sensuality, and music.  He threatens Paris twice with the word nequiqam (“in vain,” “fruitlessly”).  Here is a literal translation of these stanzas, certainly not meant to be read as poetry, but just to suggest to you the differences between Latin and English (skip to the next paragraph if you like):   “In vain, fierce in the protection of Venus, you will comb your lovely hair and sing songs pleasing to women and play the unwarlike cithara.  In vain, hiding in the bedroom, will you avoid the heavy spears and the arrows (of Cnossian reed) and the noise and swift Ajax following.  Alas, too late!  You will smear your adulterous hair in the dust. ”

Here is the graceful translation of the third and fourth stanzas by David Ferry, who substitutes “What good will it do?” for nequiquam.

What good will it do to sit in your lady’s chamber,
Venus’s hero, combing your beautiful hair
And playing a tune on the cithara, of the sort
that women like?  What good will it do to try,

In a palace room, to avoid the noise of battle,
The spears and arrows and Ajax in pursuit?
It won’t be long, although, alas, too late,
Before your beautiful hair gets dirty enough

Oddly, these stanzas made me think about our culture.  In vain you and I sit in our lady’s or gentleman’s chamber, playing a tune on the cithara.  What good will it do?

It’s all crumbling around us.

It’s not just the culture.  It’s Google Glass!

So comb your hair and play your cithara while you can.

But that’s a different ode.