Bad bad poems. The worst.


‘Stories won’t fuel me.
Feed me blank pages
and I’ll score them like Hendrix.
Have you seen my chickens?
My chickens are in the forgeworks
Popping their claws like corn.’

Chris McCabe, from ‘Campfire’, in The Triumph of Cancer, Penned in the Margins, 2018


‘this is not to say
she’s like a fish
she isn’t      you’ll think
I’ve said that she
is      like a fish’

Vahni Capildeo, from ‘Charlotte Street’, in Venus as a Bear, Carcanet, 2018


‘To eye apart fine arrow key you know leaf
greeted in fading search ahead, acres ready
set aside, nothing happens here…’

JH Prynne, from ‘To Eye Apart’, in Or Scissel, Shearsman, 2018

or even

‘They have so much trouble remembering, when your forgetting
Rescues them at last, as a star absorbs the night.’

John Ashbery, from ‘The Other Tradition’, in Selected Poems, Carcanet, 2002

…being just some of the words I’ve read and liked this year. Did we all understand them? Does it matter? Should I provide more context? Would it help?

What are we looking for here? Are we looking for answers? Should a poem have answers? Is that a good poetic structure – to pose a question and drill down into it, excavate some sedimentary truth, some human remains?

No wonder poets are always concerned with details and parameters. Start small, build out. Write what you know. Don’t run before you can walk. Never fall over.

A falling over poem is a bad poem. Don’t confuse your audience. If you can’t understand your poem then who else is going to read it?

Write poems that appeal. If a poem doesn’t appeal it won’t have an audience. To appeal is to aim for truth, however small. A broad audience is better than a narrow audience.

But big ideas aren’t better than small ideas. If your poem connects with a broad audience it must have something, something good. We are all of us seeking these simple truths. We seek definition, clarity.

Poems that only speak to poets are bad poems. Bad bad poems. The worst.

Are you a poet? Are you not also a person? I am a person. When a poem appeals to me as a poet it also appeals to me as a person, as I am a person before I am a poet.

What are McCabe and Capildeo and Prynne and Ashbery on about? The back cover of Or Scissel puts it like this:

‘This most recent experiment with words on the page continues the duet-passage between JH Prynne and the possibilities of lyrical transformation…’

Ah! There’s that thought! That poetry can transform the word itself, and maybe the world, or our understanding of it (which, surely, is all we have). Is the world any more than the word, in any case? Language, power, etc.

Out, out damned spot! Are these thoughts not harmful to poetry?

‘Poetry should be left-aligned, Times New Roman, 12pt. So much as an indent gives us shivers.’ I wrote that, earlier this year. I was joking, obviously.

I mean, sometimes it’s like the 20th-century never happened. Some terrible detour into imagist, stream of consciousness, cut-up, bricolage, concrete, cubist, surrealist, Dada, postmodern, post-structuralist, post-colonial, deconstructionist radical feminist radical nonsense that we should pretend never happened.

I mean, how would any of that help describe our world? A whole century of sham poetics. Better we return to iambs and hexameters, nice neat quatrains, learn once more how to describe a flower. We all love flowers, don’t we? Or explain how difficult it is to be a mum, to lose a dad. Real lives, real thoughts, real poetry. Those old rhymes in Hallmark cards – at least they meant something. Bring on the Instapoets, the Nationwide ad masses. Don’t try to be too clever. But remember to make it modern (which means urban, not rural – and the hardships, not the joys, of city life).

And let’s remove the complexities. Let’s get to the point, have each metred footstep lead us on to the petits vérités of life.

And then let us sleep, and let our audiences sleep, sound.

Published by MW Bewick

Writer of poetry and place; editor and journalist. Co-founder of Dunlin Press. Books including Pomes Flixus, The Orphaned Spaces and Scarecrow are available from

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