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Good Bad Poetry


George Orwell, in his essay on Rudyard Kipling (1942) happens to mention that “ours is a civilisation in which the very word ‘poetry’ evokes a hostile snigger.” His essay isn’t an apology or defense of Kipling, but one of the things that interests him – a real Orwellian theme, I think, that runs through a lot of his writing – is the phenomenon of ‘bad’ art being so durable, so well-loved, so remembered. He enumerates a number of Kipling lines & phrases that have made it into everyday speech – and then lists, with impish relish, a number of terrible but popular poems that everybody knows (yes, several are American… numbers by Bret Harte, and of course “The Charge of the Light Brigade”).

Poems of this kind are capable of giving true pleasure to people who can see clearly what is wrong with them. One could fill a fair-sized anthology with good bad poems, if it were not for the significant fact that good bad poetry is usually too well known to be worth reprinting. It is no use pretending that in an age like our own, “good” poetry can have any genuine popularity. It is, and must be, the cult of a very few people, the least tolerated of the arts.

Why is this? 

Pottery is the same, I think, in an age like our own. If you say “I’m a potter,” people think (rightly, probably,) that you’re just nuts, or that you’re terribly atavistic. Like saying you’re an organ-grinder, or a shoemaker. Why would you be this? For this reason, among others of course, a lot of potters say they’re “ceramic artists” and avoid making work that is direct, simple, historical. They want to write “The Waste Land,” not “Jenny Kissed Me” or “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

And yet. Having become a potter, I reach, for inspiration, to a book of poems – and not The Collected Kipling, either. From the start – as I have mentioned a number of times – right since I was building my first kiln it was Harmonium and Ideas of Order that lay alongside the chisel and the level and the bucket of fireclay. Now I’m delighted to see a new biography of Wallace Stevens is out – The Whole Harmonium by Paul Mariani. “His first book…published in 1923, established Stevens as the patron saint of the inner life held captive by the outer life – a peculiarly American condition,” Adam Kirsch comments in the current Atlantic, reviewing the new biography. He points out that many of the most influential & radical artists – particularly poets, for whatever reason – live the most mundane, uneventful, ‘outer’ lives. I love that. The guy who wrote “Sunday Morning” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” showed up to work in Hartford Connecticut in a three-piece suit, every day for decades, for his job as an insurance executive. I read his poems all the time. A potter is a bit the same, I like to think – all the art is on the inside, hidden – there’s something uneventful and even mundane about the repetitive, physical, craft of the job. Kind of the opposite of signing insurance contracts…maybe the same in some ways too. It must be this rhapsody or none, as Stevens put it. The rhapsody of things as they are.