I usually like to kick people when they’re down, i.e. celebrities when they’re grasping for an honest meditation or an elevated lexicon with which to attempt writing poetry. It’s loads of fun to revel in the failures of those far above the little people, so in honor of Bad Poetry Day I’m going to focus on the professionals. It’s time to shove poetry by some of the acclaimed greats into the oven, and set those all those dead dears to “broil,” (I’m looking at you, Plath.)
Let’s start with the reluctant potato-muncher. Here’s the end of “Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney:
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
His voice is so distinct. Heaney is one of those poets that could marry (when he was alive) ultra-elevated language with country colloquialisms and straight mud and shit. It’s a really wonderful juxtaposition, which makes us feel quite Irish and pleasantly depressed (one in the same, I suppose.) My beef? This ending is the literary equivalent of threading a flaccid penis. The last words, “knew they would not,” even carry a muffled, buried sound when read aloud. He’s one of my favorites, but I find this problem with many of his poems’ endings. He delivers so much imagery and color until the end when shit gets too real and he gives up, getting literal and confessional instead of submerging himself in the truth long enough to write something more meaningful. This ending doesn’t reach the next level of meditation, unless you consider blue balls a meditative experience. Why do I care that he knows the blackberries will never keep? I could guess but that’s not really the point, is it?
The bespectacled bi-curious. Here’s some of Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck meeeeeeeeee. If that isn’t some poignant shit, then I’m not an middle-class broad with a cozy existence and a perpetual fear of my own death. Larkin is great because the speakers of his poems are easy to empathize with. They’re regular assholes that everyone can relate to (like Larkin himself was,) and his heavy use of rhyme creates a throwback sing-song effect that’s enjoyable for the reader the same way “Green Eggs and Ham” is. However, much like Heaney in the above excerpt, Larkin often forces rhyme for the sake of rhyming. It has the ability to distract from the ideas in his poetry and create awkward syntax. To me, he’s the poetic embodiment of cheesy, 70s bands like T. Rex (“Move like a cat, talk like a rat/Sting like a bee, babe I wanna be your man.” Wow! Thanks, T.Rex!) Phenomenal. Indulgent. Sometimes misguided.
And of course, the original Cambridge c*nt herself. Here’s an excerpt from “Sow,” by Sylvia Plath:
Maunching thistle and knotweed on her snout-
Bloat tun of milk
On the move, hedged by a litter of feat-foot ninnies
Shrilling her hulk
To halt for a swig at the pink teats. No. This vast
This is a perfect example of why Plath is both a non-living legend and a giant pain in my ass. If you read this poem in its entirety, you’ll see that it has everything that makes the poetry-reading experience an act of emotional purging. It’s got a herky-jerk type of sound that amplifies the tragedy of the sow’s prize-winning existence and her unexpected slaughter. Plath uses every device in a poet’s arsenal to make her reader feel empathetic for a pig (a true accomplishment, unless you’re directing a movie with a teacup piglet and heavy voice-overs) and she ascribes all the feminist undertones we love to the poor creature’s plight. Nevertheless, Plath also busts her readers’ labes with painfully esoteric word choice and strange hyphenation. It’s almost like you’re reading another language. “Thinking makes my brain hurt,” says the average reader who doesn’t have the energy to piece together what “litter of feat-foot ninnies” means in this poem. Plath is a literary hero and one of many trail blazers for women writers, but she also contributed to the turmoil that poetry is in today. Although “Sow” is inherently unpretentious, no poetry-newcomers are going to see that beyond “shrilling her hulk.” Instead they will continue thinking that poetry is inaccessible. Plath, you were a fucking goddess, you give me brain boners from beyond the grave. I just wish more people had read Gulliver’s Travels these days or knew what the fuck you were talking about. I’m not saying poets should settle for what’s mediocre and digestible, but they should have as much concern for clicks as Buzzfeed if they want anyone to read their work.