Unlike the plainly bad or the merely mediocre, very bad poetry is powerful stuff. Like great literature, it moves us emotionally, but, of course, it often does so in ways the writer never intended: usually we laugh.
— introduction to Very Bad Poetry, edited by Kathryn Petras and Ross Petras
Is there such a thing as “bad poetry”? Or is “bad poetry” just a state of mind, something to aspire to rather than something that happens when an inexperienced poet writes a poem? Can a human even write a bad poem?
August 18 is Bad Poetry Day, and the consensus seems to be that what this holiday means to you is up to you. Do you want to write some intentionally bad poetry? Do you want to read bad poetry? Do you want to embrace your inexperience and call whatever you write “bad”? That’s what the day is all about!
Below are some examples of what “bad poetry” means to other people, from an annual Bad Poetry Contest, to artificial intelligence trying to emulate famous poets, to “bad poetry” being embraced in a college classroom!
Bad Poetry Contest
The Alfred Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest has been held at Columbia University since the 1980s. Every year, more than 30 students compete to write and perform the worst possible poem. The contest is named for Alfred Joyce Kilmer, who wrote the poem “Trees” in 1908. While “Trees” is nowhere near as atrocious as some of the entrants to this contest, Kilmer’s rhyming lines were overshadowed by the more modern and experimental poets of his time, including Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens.
Writing a bad poem may sound simple, but some say it’s an art form of its own. One 2018 contestant, Jonah Zinn, told the New York Times, “Anyone can write a bad poem. This requires an understanding of the form, but used in a bad way. To use a football analogy, you have to throw a great spiral, but in a completely wrong direction.” Another contestant that year worried his entry “might be too good to win,” as that was the judges’ top complaint the previous year. (It was once again “too good.”)
According to the judges, who are all professors at Columbia, selecting a winner is difficult because the entries are all “bad” in different ways — which “badness” is truly the worst?
Read some past winning poems and runners-up at the website of the Philolexian Society, the group that puts on the contest.
Like most of us, maybe robots just need some inspiration before setting out to write the next great poem. The book Transformer Poetry is the result of this idea: A human feeds some lines from famous poetry into an artificial intelligence bot called GPT-2, and the AI completes the poem. Some of it sounds really good! And some of it…sounds like a robot tried to write a poem.
I tried out this AI by revisiting our friend from above, Alfred Joyce Kilmer, and inputted the first two lines of the poem “Trees”:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
And here’s how the AI continued the poem:
O what majestic tree:
An ancient oak I be!
What immortal leaf’s ev’ry hue
By dawn’s early light doth show,
What everlasting clot of life in grass,
But perpetually fades!
O what immortal tree!
Considering how little of the original poem I fed it, I think this output would definitely qualify as “not bad.” (Or at least as “bad” as the original poem was!)
You can try out this AI for yourself at this website. Just type or paste in some text and click “Generate Text.”
"Bad" Poetry Slam
In 2009, Rebecca Brown taught an English class at Texas A&M University–San Antonio, a school that mainly enrolls students older than traditional college age. Brown noticed that the poetry unit of her class was most challenging for students: The terminology was “intimidating,” and since Brown herself rarely taught poetry, she was similarly uncomfortable with the material.
Inspired by poetry slams, events where poets recite their poems onstage and the audience can be as much a part of the performance as the poet, Brown opted to try the format in her classroom — with a twist. Knowing that some students might be afraid to read their work aloud, she decided to create a “Bad” Poetry Slam. Instead of performing their best work, students were encouraged to perform their worst work. Students would take the terms they learned — metaphor, alliteration, rhyme, etc. — and exaggerate them, distort them, and employ them in ways that most poets wouldn’t.
The students were extremely engaged in the poetry slam — yelling, making hand gestures, and modulating their voices onstage, and laughing, snapping, and cheering in the audience. Poets were eliminated for their work being too sentimental or just making too much sense. Brown found that changing the culture of the classroom made even the shyest students excited to participate and encouraged everyone to pay rapt attention to each poem so they would understand every word. Overall, Brown said, it made her optimistic about both the future of poetry slams and of teaching poetry in the classroom.
Citation: Brown, Rebecca. “Promoting Cooperation and Respect: ‘Bad’ Poetry Slam in the Nontraditional Classroom.” Pedagogy, vol. 11, no. 3, 2011, pp. 571–577, https://doi.org/10.1215/15314200-1302804.