Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Exquisite Beauty of Truly Awful Poetry

I love trolling for bad poetry. I search for it, dropping in on community house poetry nights, writers' groups open-mike nights, the culminating ceremony at creative writing night classes. Once, when I was in college, I attended a poetry slam in downtown Asheville. It was a first date, we were fellow counselors at a summer camp for gifted middle-schoolers, and it was pouring down rain. We were umbrella-less, and I was wearing my cutest, littlest top--the kind of handkerchief-for-a-shirt-thing I got away with back then--and torn-up jeans. My date was wearing what my date was wearing--who cares? I don't even remember his name. But I remember the beauty of the event, a hideous naked man hopping around a plywood stage, yelping out his lines, injustices in this world, a hiccup in the outer reaches of space, the outrageous audacity of our comfortable silence. We had better speak, man.

I love really bad rhymes. Milkshake/heartbreak. Tug of war/out the door. Tears in my eyes/it's you I despise. Democracy/We're blind, you see. The girl I love most/choking on charred toast (extra points for alliteration).

Prose writers have a more difficult time pulling off this beautiful awful. In prose, the weak story is made weaker for speaking it aloud, but in poetry, there's the beat. The line and verse. The heady importance of words that rhyme.

Which is not to say that good poetry and bad is indistinguishable. In fact, I think this distinction is painfully obvious. Yet I think there is more than one way to enjoy a poetry reading. There are poems that are so exquisite, you enter into them rather than simply listen to them. The kind that really have to be read aloud to free them from the physical confinements of paper and ink. The kind whose beauty settles into the room like smoke, or like something a person could dine on. Poetry whose technical feats I know nothing of, except that these precisions are translated into something unspeakable, something that transcends the tangible, the worldly. Something so beautiful and pure and true that you can't believe its made out of such a common medium. Words, those things even I use.

And then, there's the poetry that is what it is. The leaping about a plywood stage all skinny and hideous and so very naked, one wants to avert one's eyes. What's happening now is both intensely personal and crucial in its public-ness. Our barbaric yelp. Yes. Here it is, the Thing of It: There's something more beautiful than the work itself--any work. What I'm speaking of, what is often easier to see when the work is awful, what is more breath-taking and startling and lovely. It's the impulse to create. Our humanness, our connecting instinct. We had better speak, man.


Jessie Carty said...

You should come to some Charlotte open mikes sometimes :) the fabulously awful is well represented!

Susan Woodring said...

Oh, I should. Well, and really, awful or not, I love hearing somebody really who is clearly excited about his/her own work. I heard Jonathan Dee read a few months ago, and it was exactly like that: he just loves the story. I don't know why we are expected to play it cool all the time.

Kathy said...

The impulse to create is lovely. So are the belief and the courage it takes to put the creation in front of an audience.

Susan Woodring said...

Absolutely, Kathy. Writing is an act of courage on so many levels.

jonnia said...

Laughing here! This brings to mind my favorite Stephen Crane poem,

"There was a man with tongue of wood
Who essayed to sing,
And in truth it was lamentable.
But there was one who heard
The clip-clapper of this tongue of wood
And knew what the man
Wished to sing,
And with that the singer was content."

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