Wednesday, 8 September 2010

…such bloody awful poetry

to quote the Smiths.

I say this because during the awful speeches delivered in monotones (I exempt the charismatic Students' Union president and Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss from this), I read a slim volume entitled Very Bad Poetry, which is a delight.

Just as the Dean concluded a long speech of which I couldn't hear a single distinct word, I reached the wonderful line
The Dean met his Death with the Ground
 (Samuel Bently, 'The River Dove: A Lyric Pastoral', 1760s?).

But that wasn't the best of the worst poetry. Try these:

From Colonel I. J. Brittain's 'The Tragedy of Ida Ball Warren and Samuel Christie':
A fisherman went up the stream,
     He thought he saw a root,
On closer investigation
     He saw it was a human foot.

And finally, an excerpt from Solyman Brown (dentist-poet)'s cautionary epic about tooth decay, 'The Dentologia - A Poem on the Diseases of Teeth':
Whene'er along the ivory disks, are seen,
The filthy footsteps of the dark gangrene;
When cries come, with stealthy pace to throw
Corrosive ink spots on those banks of snow–
Brook no delay, ye trembling, suffering fair,
But fly for refuge to the dentist's care.

There's a lot more in this vein, and I thoroughly recommend the book. I plan to use it in my classes this year, once I've worked out the DNA of bad poetry. So far, the worst stuff is guilty of being over-specific, or overly abstract, too fixated by the metrical rules, of believing that poetry consists of little more than rhyming, and of trying to stuff significance into insignificant events. The dentistry poem is a good example - it uses the language and syntax of romanticism for a deeply unromantic theme, leading to accidental and unintended bathos. It's comic for us - but wasn't for Mr. Brown.

Only one book in the post today - A collection of Caryl Churchill's wonderful plays, including Serious Money and Top Girls, which aren't just the best plays from the last 20/30 years, but amongst the best plays ever written. If you ever get the chance, go see them. Serious Money is about the financial sector in the 1980s - I saw the very appropriate revival in Birmingham last year, and the City collapsed (temporarily, unfortunately). It's very very rude, bitter, intelligent - and all done in rhyming couplets.

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