Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Nine Dumbest Things Poets Say

No doubt I've missed a few but here, off the top of my head, listed in ascending order of obvious stupidity, are the nine most asinine things I've heard poet wannabes utter:

"It's all just a matter of taste!"

See also "Different strokes for different folks" and "De gustibus non est disputandum." How, you may wonder, can something rendered in Latin be considered idiotic? Consider this all-too-common exchange:

"Is this any good?"

"I didn't like it."

It is in the nature of non sequiturs to be moronic even when true.

This dull old saw about taste is dragged out by all failed poets to dismiss any form of criticism. Some hopeless cases even invoke the dreaded coprophagia clause:

"Hey, some people eat dirt--or worse! So it all comes down to taste."

I might not admire such-and-such but as a reviewer my job is to predict whether or not most others will, buttressing that prognostication with arguments and examples. That even some critics aren't clear on this concept illustrates how ubiquitous this silliness is.

"We are ignored today but future generations will love our stuff."

This is how failed poets deal with obscurity and dismissal.

I can't think of many examples of poets being completely ignored in their time--as virtually all are today--only to become famous after shaking off this mortal coil. Emily Dickinson's name often comes up in this context but, personally, I don't consider being solicited twice for submissions by the editor of "The Atlantic Monthly" as "being completely ignored". Such posthumous glory is even less likely now because, unlike the world before WWI, we live in a century when no contemporary poetry is iconic. It's like being among the best alchemists or phrenologists in your time.

All of this comes before "generational narcissism". What are the odds of our grandchildren being more interested in the past than their parents were? Remote, at best. Future academics will, eventually and with difficulty, coalesce around someone of our era but it certainly won't be a stranger to us, even though it will be to the population at large, then as now.

"This work is great because it's written by so-and-so."

These people must wonder why writing contests are judged blindly.

Want to get a rise out of someone? Pick their favorite poet's worst work--almost all of the masters wrote some doozies--and tell the person that that poem is unmitigated trash.

Which it probably is.

"Poetry has to..."

It really doesn't matter how you finish this sentence; it belongs on this list. Has to...be profound? So humorous verse like Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" and emotive entreaties like "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" aren't poetry? Has to...be passionate? So didactic, mnemonic and most modern works aren't poetry? "Poetry has...to have a moral or political imperative?" Oh? Whose morality? What if, like most adults, I'm happy with my sense of morality and don't care to be lectured--subtly or otherwise--on the subject? Is poetry not me for? Should only Jehovah Witnessses and Mormon missionaries be allowed to write it? Do those politics have to be of the left or of the right? All that romantic and light verse isn't poetry?

While we're at it, has the statement that begins with "My poetry was rejected because..." ever finished with "...it wasn't good enough"?

"If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all."

...and the Emperor will continue to think himself well attired. This kind of "thinking" has given birth to the blurbosphere, such that what few filters poetry had have been rendered utterly useless.

Seriously, who is teaching literary criticism these days? Dale Carnegie?

"Poetry was never popular."

I suppose it was inevitable that bullshit would start coming in different flavors, this pile being Sour Grape. Even the most cursory glance or thought puts paid to it. Before radio, poets were the rock stars of their era. Shakespeare kept two theatres alive with verse. It was in almost every newspaper and magazine. It was how people could flirt with each other, even in their parents' presence. Robert Service made $500,000 from one poem. Need I go on?

Do people actually think before they say these things?

"It's [just] verse, not poetry."

This works as humor, similar to Truman Capote's assessment of Jack Kerouac's "spontaneous prose": "That's not writing, it's typewriting." When people say it in earnest, though, they cross a line into imbecility. Were Shakespeare's sonnets "not poetry"? Even if we apply this "standard" only to bad verse we're confronted with the question: "So William McGonigal's 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' is...prose?"

Some poetry is very bad. Hell, most of it is.

Deal with it.

"Find your voice."

Gag me with a shovel.

"Write from the heart."

Gag me with a steam shovel.


  1. I love the Squirrel, whom I have just discovered!
    Couls I ask Earl to take a look at www.lightpoetrymagazine.com?
    I hope he would enjoy it.

  2. @Gail White: You're asking me what I think of a webzine on my blogroll that publishes one of the original curginistas (A.M. Juster), the greatest living poet (A.E. Stallings), my favorite performer (Timothy Murphy) and one of the best critics on the planet (Robert Schechter)?

    I love it!

    Thanks for commenting, Gail. Glad you enjoy our little blog!


Your comments and questions are welcome.