What Poetry Is Not: A Short Rant

These days, going to the gym gives me indigestion. I blame the Food Network. You see, some days the only thing on the TV on the elliptical machine is food shows. So I watch Giada De Laurentis or Ina Garten or Robert Irvine making magic with food. And then there is the dreaded commercial.

I get it. It is now Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, and everybody wants to Get Into the Spirit of the Season, but why do they have to do it by sounding like a stupid Hallmark card? The ad for a new holiday dessert competition tells us about the show that will apparently give chefs only an hour to make their cookies “and dust them with flour.” (Which they say while actually showing a chef dusting a cake with sugar. But you know how it is with rhyming poetry: the only thing that really rhymes with sugar is…wait for it…booger.) At Christmas, cheesy rhymes, especially rhyming couplets (an AA rhyme), come out of the woodwork to make my blood boil.

Now it is one thing if you are under the age of consent to still believe that a rhyme makes a poem. And especially if you do not think of yourself as a poet and you are not trying to become a professional poet, you can believe whatever you want. I don’t care. But I have seen too many badly rhymed pieces of crap labeled poetry. And if that weren’t bad enough, you also get the other side of the coin: prose broken up into very short lines, usually broken right before prepositional phrases, with no rhythm at all, not even conversational or, failing that, blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). It’s like the writers aren’t even trying. And they justify it by saying anybody can write poetry.

Well, you know what? They are right. Anybody can write poetry. Sometimes it is going to be bad poetry. Ted Sturgeon, a science fiction writer, famously said that 95% of science fiction was crap, like everything else, and Ursula K. Le Guin commented, “The Quest for Perfection fails 95% of the time but the Search for Garbage never fails” (223).

So if you are going to insist on writing poems and calling it poetry, then do yourself and the rest of us a favor. Invest in some Peterson’s Guides and a really good thesaurus, so that you know the difference between a birch and a sycamore and you have lots of different words for green. And if you insist on rhyming then also get a good rhyming dictionary so that at least your rhymes will be more original…

…and less boogery.

Le Guin, Ursula. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Berkley Books, 1982.

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