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Bad Poetry Day

August 26, 2013

We missed it: Bad Poetry Day was August 18. I would certainly have celebrated it had I known. It appeals on several levels.

Least appealing is that it is lower than a Hallmark holiday, being a copyrighted holiday proposed for business purposes. No matter how whimsical, the commodification of celebration remains disagreeable. But such is our way in modern America.

However, “Bad Poetry Day” rolls off the tongue nicely and presents a flexible agenda that could be honored with everything from mere whimsy to postmodern irony to sardonic criticism, potentially satisfying a wide range of the populace.

The producers of bad poetry may object, but the fact is most poetry is bad. Writing a good poem is quite difficult. Few people accomplish it. Thus, Bad Poetry Day becomes a universal celebration. It could be an affirmation of the human spirit.

“I think that I shall never see—”

I would be surprised if anyone reading this did not immediately complete that phrase. Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” has become the whipping boy of bad poetry. It’s not so bad, really, but rather is average, overly sentimental verse. It’s great sin is its popularity.

I came upon bad poetry recently. It was with great disappointment I read some of the 1,100 haiku chosen from a contest to accompany the MAVEN to Mars later this year.

I conclude NASA is confident we will not contact intelligent extraterrestrial life there. The haiku are pretty bad. But then, NASA might already know that Martians know all about us. So there’s no reputation to lose.

“Bad Poetry Day” rolls off the tongue, perhaps, because it makes the first line of a typical haiku:

Bad Poetry Day unembarrassed I recite my favorite lines

What the Mars haiku reveal is the place of poetry in the lives of many people. Poetry provides a form (rhyme, syllable count, etc.) for releasing words and concepts from the mind. For all the sentimentality of much poetry, the writing is not really about emotional release.

Emotions are felt, and words and concepts arise around them, and we have to do something with them. Or we feel we do. Please believe me: I am not disparaging the effort. It’s the only way to get the few gems of literature that come our way.

Sentimentality, as opposed to sentiment, is a “problem” in art of all kinds. We must put that word in quotes because sentimentality is slathered over our culture, which is what permits the ironic stance that further irritates.

The Mars haiku include examples of sentimentality but most are merely stilted by over-reaching. You can only explicitly say so much in a haiku. The form is severely restricted and one is truly released only by saying less.

The Mars haiku with the most votes was this, written by Benedict Smith of the UK:

It’s funny, they named Mars after the God of War Have a look at Earth

This is witty and fits into the long history of haiku, which includes a humorous, even bawdy, period before the poet Basho reclaimed the form. But as a good sonnet is more than just 14 lines of iambic pentameter, a good haiku is more than just the iconic 5-7-5.

A good poem is helped by a good reader. Haiku could rise to refined heights in Japan because common cultural knowledge permitted the mere mention of cherry blossoms, for example, to evoke a rich palette of allusions.

This is all to say we have a wealth of poetry at the library, lots of it new, and, yes, I think you should read it—and write it, even if it’s bad. It’s good for you.

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