The Poetics of Stinking It Up

For years I’ve had this notion that a compelling area of study would be the poetics of unoriginality. So many critics have anatomized new and original art. Many more have tried to make cases that what we once deemed bad (genre fiction, sci-fi, mysteries, etc.) actually merits more serious consideration. And I am not talking about primitive or naive art. I also don't mean kitsch, which gets inverted into hip irony or backhanded social critique (see Elvis plates, paint- by-numbers Last Suppers or even Jeff Koons).

No, what I mean is just drek, mind-blowingly banal works of art created by unoriginal amateurs. Anyone who has ever gone to an open microphone poetry reading has encountered what I'm talking about. Indeed, bad poems exhibit a curious uniformity in subject and style. How is it that all of these amateur poets came to write the same kind of terrible poetry? You would think that they would stink each in their own uniquely bad way, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

In his autobiography, My Life in Art, the great Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski described how his nieces, who had never seen a stage production, were fully conversant in clichéd dramatic gestures. “Where did they get this knowledge?” he asked. More importantly, how did it become established as the typified or stock form for demonstrating a particular emotion?

Similarly, why are so many bad poems likely to be written along Romantic lines? At least since Wordsworth, it's been a tenet of poetic theory that the “self” is the essential subject of poetry. Of course, Modernists like Eliot and Pound argued that the self should disappear in poetry, but few beginners or bad poets ascribe to the Modernist line. For the most part, they’re thorough-going Romantics, even if they’ve never had so much as a whiff of Wordsworth.

Consequently, most bad poets believe they have to write poems that put their deepest thoughts and feelings on display. But what if that self is not particularly original, interesting or talented? When this happens, it’s excruciating to watch and you only pray that the performer isn’t aware of what he has just done.

The late critic Raymond Williams used the terms “residual, dominant and emergent” to discuss the stages of cultural evolution. Cultural values overlap, he noted. At any given time you can find residual values and expressions (Gothic windows on 21rst century churches, a few mom and pop video stores lingering into the age of Netflix). At the same time, however, you will see dominant and emerging values. What's curious is how dominant Romanticism still is with really crummy poets.


nelly nancy said…
i don't see the difference between visual kitsch and what you describe, which is kitsch poetry - at least from what i think i understand - the amateur is most likely to think in cliches, and the tough guy will cry at "The Sound of Music" because they haven't made a practice of learning the language of poetry and feeling.
my guess is that mr. stanislavski wasn't around his nieces enough to know where they picked it up, much as parents will believe a preference for pink or blue is innate for girls and boys instead of allowing that socialization plays the biggest part.
(further - i saw a bit about "Bindle and Keep" the other day - a clothiers that makes clothing for transgender folk - i thought it ironic that a woman who identifies as a man buys into the binary social system that has excluded her for years.)
Steve Snyder said…
Well, I concede that the Romantic has become the cliche. But how is it that people know this without ever reading a romantic poem? Is it through media representations of the sensitive poet -- something like the cliche of the method actor. Maybe, bit maybe not. My students aren't hip to parody. They really aren't tuned into the media representations, yet when I ask them what should a poem be, they espouse Romantic aesthetics.

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