Saturday, February 26, 2011

So, I hate to be a Negative Nancy ...

But this is one of the worst poems I've ever seen in print:

How many poets does it take to change
a lightbulb? Two. One to change
the lightbulb and one to

envy the one that got
to change the lightbulb.

How many poets does it take to change a lightbulb?
Two. One to change the lightbulb
and one to write, "I'm screwed."

How many poets does it take to change
a country? How many presidents? How much pain?

This is Michael Ryan's contribution to Crossing State Lines: An American Renga (the book is one long collaborative poem by 54 poets). A review copy has been sitting on the back of our toilet for a while and today I opened it randomly to this page. All I can figure out is, Michael Ryan was actively contemptuous of the project, because there's no way he spent more than five minutes on this. I mean, really? Two lame, cynical jokes about bitter poets and a completely inept appeal toward sentiment?

This will henceforth serve as my go-to example of a bad poem.

Lest you think I hate everything (not so!), I'll share a poem I like too. I think it's rare that poems I like have an obvious single subject, but I would say this poem (by Matt Henriksen) is about moving. (And, you know, relationships, and change.)


Better present than in any future conceived,
I brought boxes to pack books in.

What can two people make but one bigger loneliness
before falling asleep shoulder to shoulder

in a room of crowded things
the same nameless light hits morning

after merciless morning?
A pile driver in the movie

slams mud until a slum apartment collapses,
Naples in black and white.

Pretend above all to love this thing,
this monstrous idea of a room.

Forget where to put
what and what to give away,

or suggest another corner
worse than the one you know.

And here's one by Dan Boehl, from Kings of the F**king Sea (just out from Birds LLC). KOTFS is a concept book, by which I mean it resembles a concept album, more than what we usually think of as "conceptual poetry."


Everybody was talking
bullshit bullshit
about the new sincerity and messianic tradition
so I looked out over the ocean.
Debris floated far out.
I couldn't see what it was
I wondered how it got there.
The world is mostly water.
I'm mostly water
and the thought gave me vertigo
that I could be so far from land
standing on the ocean.
I thought about that album cover
with the highway
and high-tension wires
captured in electric blue so you
could actually
feel them
When I saw that
and heard the music
it was inside of me
that desire to remake the world.


  1. Yes but it's bad in a hilarious, liberating, McGonnagallesque way.

  2. But do you know who Michael Ryan is? Because I don't think it's on purpose. Which makes it all the more shocking. Unless it is on purpose. Which still makes it shocking, given the context, his reputation, etc.

  3. i've never heard of him, but i can tell he's a bad poet just from his bio.

    "'Ryan shows himself to be a superior formalist—' the poet David Baker said in The Kenyon Review," tells you all you need to know.

  4. His poem called "Sex" addle-pated me. I think this poem was on purpose.

  5. I don't think I've ever heard the term "addlepated" before -- at first I thought it might be pig latin.

  6. I know he's supposed to be famous and that I must have read some of his poems but I don't remember any of them off the top of my head. I think Ryan is definitely in fuck-you mode here. Perhaps it is significant that renga anagrams anger?

  7. Who's he saying fuck you to, is the question? The editors of the book or the reader?

  8. I feel like "I'm mostly water" is one of the moves you defined, Elisa. Revision in the poem or some such. And yes, I know, that doesn't "make it bad."

  9. E, are you serious? Never heard of addlepated?? I'm so happy to facilitate this acquaintance-making!! :)

  10. Dead serious. Well, maybe I've heard it before, but not enough for it to stick. Had to look it up. Thanks for enlightening me. :)

    I clicked on the Sex poem but it was toooooo long for me to bother with. Not after those light bulb jokes.

  11. Did I contribute to that Across State Lines thing? I know I wrote something for a similar project at one time.

  12. I don't recall seeing your name among the contributors. The editors are Bob Holman and Carol Muske Dukes. Ever work with them?

  13. No. It was something else I'm thinking of then.

  14. I've heard (or read) "addle-pated" before. I want to say I first encountered the word in a comic book (some comic book or other), ca. late 1960's -- it's the kind of thing a melodramatic comic book bad guy might have said in exasperation to a less-than-brilliant flunky, e.g. "You addle-pated numbskull!" Not quite the level of melodrama as "Bumbling dolt!" or some such, but in the same ballpark.

    (Seems to me I've previously encountered "addle-pated" used solely as an adjective. Not sure if I've encountered it used as a verb before.)

    Comic books as early vocabulary builders: one of the great closely-held secrets of the modern world.

  15. Michael Ryan was on the panel that awarded Michael Dickman's forthcoming book the James Laughlin Award (along with Major Jackson who blurbed Matthew Dickman's book). In the citation, Ryan writes: "Hilarity transfiguring all that dread, manic overflow of powerful feeling, zero at the bone—Flies renders its desolation with singular invention and focus and figuration: the making of these poems makes them exhilarating."

    Have you read these/his poems? They're not hilarious (except unintentionally), nor do they have a "manic overflow of powerful feeling" (what the fuck does that mean any way?). Yikes. That's all I need to know.

  16. Hi Michael,

    After seeing a few of Matthew Dickman's poems excerpted in reviews and whatnot, I wasn't really compelled to seek out more of his work. I file them under Man Poetry, var. Sentimental.

  17. Matthew? Or Michael? Or both? I file their work under a different category, but same difference. All you need to know about Michael Dickman's poetry is the first line of this poem ("Emily Dickinson to the Rescue") that will surely be in Flies: "Standing in her house today all I could think of was whether she took a shit every morning." That pretty much summarizes his aesthetics.

  18. Sorry, I confused my Dickmans -- I haven't read either at length, but I was referring to Matthew. I've usually heard that Michael's work is better/more subtle. Not so?

  19. Michael is, in technical terms, the better poet, but like I said in my review of Matthew's All-American Poem, that's like saying of a basketball player "He sure knows how to dribble."

    As for more subtle, the next time you find a copy of The End of the West (which I've not read cover-to-cover but have read enough of), check it out. "Subtlety" is not in his vocabulary. Check out this poem, "Ode":

    I'm surprised that their books don't come with giant mallets to hit yourself over the head with in case you don't get the point that they're so sensitive. 'Cause that's how I feel about fisting poems.

    They'll each have a poem in the Best American Poetry 2011 thanks to Kevin Young. So you've got that to look forward to.

  20. Whoa! That poem made me feel like "meat being tenderized by hand" -- mallets indeed.

  21. Maybe he'll read it at a VIDA event.