On Bad Poetry (Which I’ve Written Lots Of)

painting by Jivan Lee

painting by Jivan Lee

Just because a poem is famous, doesn’t mean it’s any good. Take Joyce Kilmer’s ‘Trees,” which I think I was forced to memorize every consecutive year in grade school.

 

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain[1].

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

 

How is this poem bad? Let me count the ways. Its meter is sing-songy, its imagery idiotic. Tree roots don’t resemble mouths, nor does the earth around them resemble a breast, so it’s hard to visualize a tree breastfeeding, nor do you want to.

Then in the penultimate couplet, the tree now has a bosom and has been “intimate” with rain. So essentially the tree is personified; it’s a suckling female child with bosoms who raises her arms to pray to God, who seems to have fashioned each tree individually with His own hands.

[Understatement alert] Here are some considerably better lines of verse concerning a tree:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,

Nor beauty born out of its own despair,

Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Yet, the author of this exquisite example of ottava rima, WB Yeats, also produced this poem, entitled “To a Squirrel at Kyle-Na-No”:

Come play with me;

Why should you run

Through the shaking tree

As though I’d a gun

To strike you dead?

When all I would do

Is to scratch your head

And let you go.

Squirrel to poet: You must be kidding me, man.

Dylan, whom I revere, can also come up with some clunkers.[2]   For example,

Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me

“How good, how good does it feel to be free?”

And I answer them most mysteriously

“Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”

What’s up with the Biblical diction? And the paradox of the last line doesn’t work as an image, and what does it have to do with the rest of the song, which is about breaking up with someone because her sister is an asshole?

My favorite type of bad poem was written intentionally to be bad. I have one of these, a poem I wrote after having read mass murderer Pee Wee Gaskins oral autobiography. I had to write the poem to purge myself of Pee Wee’s tortured syntax and obscene backwoods locutions.[3] I reproduce it here with the warning that it’s disgusting in about every way possible, so if you’re squeamish and find things in extraordinarily bad taste offensive, quit reading now:

Pee Wee Gaskins Stopping by a Lake on a Summer Evening

 

Whose corpse this is I ought to know

Cause I’m the one what kilt it so.

I hope nobody come round here

To watch it in the lake me throw.

 

My common law wife must think it queer

I ain’t been home in over a year.

Running up and down the coast

Slitting throats and drinking beer.

 

Ain’t got no ID on him, cocksucker.

Think he said his name was Drucker.

Now I got him chained up like Houdini.

Teach him call me a scrawny motherfucker.

 

Them chains sure makes a body sink fast

But this here good feeling don’t never last

Just like a piece of prison ass

Just like a piece of prison ass . . .

 

Of course, the greatest intentionally bad poem ever written is the brilliant “Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d” by the great Mark Twain.

 

Enjoy!

 

And did young Stephen sicken,

And did young Stephen die?

And did the sad hearts thicken,

And did the mourners cry?

 

No; such was not the fate of

Young Stephen Dowling Bots;

Though sad hearts round him thickened,

‘Twas not from sickness’ shots.

 

No whooping-cough did rack his frame,

Nor measles drear, with spots;

Not these impaired the sacred name

Of Stephen Dowling Bots.

 

Despised love struck not with woe

That head of curly knots,

Nor stomach troubles laid him low,

Young Stephen Dowling Bots.

 

O no. Then list with tearful eye,

Whilst I his fate do tell.

His soul did from this cold world fly,

By falling down a well.

 

They got him out and emptied him;

Alas it was too late;

His spirit was gone for to sport aloft

In the realms of the good and great.


[1] Huh?

[2] You can read my argument why he deserves a Nobel Prize here.

[3] When can read about my close encounter with Pee Wee here.

89dcb58198f5d58b8271e6dc67c03a83

 

Joy Riding with Pee Wee Gaskins

Warning!  This post deals with depravity – violence, vulgar language, sadism – in a word evil. Please don’t read if you’re squeamish.

The most terrifying book I’ve ever read is the clunkily titled Final Truth: The Autobiography of Mass Murderer/Serial Killer Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins as Told to Wilton Earle.

Unless you’re a sadist, please don’t go out and buy this book. Gaskins takes perverse pleasure in graphically describing torturing, dismembering, murdering, and disposing of the bodies of acquaintances (“serious murders”) and hitchhikers (“coastal killings”). It’s awful stuff, stomach-turning. I would have quit reading it myself except that I’m almost positive I was picked up hitchhiking by Pee Wee Gaskins in the summer of 1971.

Mugshot of Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins

Mugshot of Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins

As the title promises, you get the story from Pee Wee’s mouth, and certainly some linguist somewhere is parsing Pee Wee’s diction and syntax for some study on the speech patterns of South Carolina crackers. In addition to butchering his victims, Pee Wee also slaughters English, yet he has a way with words and takes pleasure in creating colorful, vulgar metaphors and similes.

It’s as if Huck Finn’s pappy’s telling you the story of his life.

on his second wife: [. . .] every time I was around that girl my balls and pecker felt like a nest full of hornets was buzzing around and stinging and trying to shoot out.

on sex with a contortionist: she loved to fuck while twisted up into all kinds of other pretzel shapes.

on his first successful escape: I knew my chances of escaping was skinny as a coon-dick toothpick

You get the picture.

Perhaps the book’s only redeeming quality is that it might offer psychologists some insight into what drives a human being to murder time and again, person after person. Certainly despite Pee Wee’s semi-positive summation of his childhood — “My childhood weren’t all that bad all the time. I certainly weren’t in no way what you could ever call abused” — other descriptions belie that assessment:

Next thing I knew, they [Pee Wee and Marsh’s stepfathers] was dragging Marsh and me to the barn. They stripped Marsh first — roped his ankles together and threw rope over a joist and strung him-up upside down, then his mama commenced to paddling him with a pine slat. Soon his ass was bleeding, and then she told his step daddy to whup him with his belt [. . .] Then it was my turn to be strung up naked. I felt the pine board splitting my butt; then my step-daddy stropped me with his belt like I hadn’t never been stropped before.

And here’s Pee Wee’s explanation to the periodic mental condition that drove him to murder :

But no matter how things went, good or bad, I always felt something bothersome was astirring inside me. It was like I had this ball of plumber’s lead rolling around in my guts. Most time it lay quiet, just weighting me down. Other times, it growed bigger and hotter, like it was going to explode. Every once in a while I dreamed (I still do) that it blowed me apart and there was all these millions of little pieces and parts of me running around and flying around trying to find each other and put me back together.

Pee Wee leading law enforcement to bodies Pee Wee with children Pee Wee - the face of evil

 

 

 

 

 

 

 * * *

I don’t remember how we — my brother David and I — ended up in the middle of the back seat on that beat-up old Buick. Did one of the boys get out and let us in? Did we crawl over the boy? We were seventeen and fourteen, and the boy maybe seven, but he had a cigarette in his mouth and a beer in his hand.

“Where y’all going?” The driver asked.

“Folly Beach,” I said.

“We’ll take you there then.”

He was a very short man chauffeuring a carload of Cub Scout-aged juvenile delinquents. There were four of them, all younger than David and I, all smoking, all drinking cans of Old Milwaukee.

For forty something minutes en route from Summerville, we had been stuck hitching on the side of St Andrews Boulevard across the street from a typewriter repair shop . It was David’s first time hitchhiking. Sure, the car looked sketchy, but we were desperate.

Once we were settled in the back seat, the seven-year-old next to me got out the empty casing of a Bic pen, loaded it with a spitball, and shot the driver in the back of the neck. He whirled around and stubbed the glowing orange tip of his cigarette into the boy’s arm, which immediately brought forth a yowl, tears, and a cacophony of spiteful laughter from the rest of the crew.

It was weird enough to witness a seven-year-old with a beer and cigarette in hand crying, but as I slouched down in my seat, I noticed that the driver had three spitballs lodged in the creases of the back of his neck.

The boys asked the driver to tell them about the [racial epithet] he had killed last week, but he wasn’t forthcoming. Then they asked him how many men he had killed in total. I assumed they were merely trying to frighten us. Throughout the twenty-minute trip, the boys liberally jettisoned trash, including empty beer cans from the moving car. I was hoping — how I was hoping — that a police car might pull us over but no such luck.  Needless to say, their language was filthy.

But true to his word, the driver took us all the way to Folly. In those days, before the Holiday Inn obstructed the view, you could see the ocean itself as you crossed the bridges, and what a welcome sight it was. I told the driver to please let us out in front of the police station, that my daddy was chief of police, and he did, and then two of the boys tossed empty beer cans at us, and the car pulled away in a cloud of smoke.

Happily, we ran into some friends from Summerville at the Washout so didn’t have to hitch home; however, I can’t say that I learned my lesson and continued to hitch until I purchased my first car at age 25, thanks to Ralph Birdsong, my soon-to-be father in law. [You can read about a subsequent and in many ways scarier hitchhike encounter here].

So, I more or less thought about the incident as time spent in a Flannery O’Connor story until Judy purchased for me as a whim Pee Wee’s autobiography from the dollar bin at a Mount Pleasant book store and I read that Pee Wee used to take his nephews and their friends down to the beach occasionally but would “never do no murders on them trips” because you couldn’t trust kids not to blab.

I can’t say for absolutely sure it was Pee Wee, but I do know this: there was evil in that car. You could sense it; it was palpable.

The Lighter Side of the Son of Sam

Back in the summer of ’77 when we hepcats were making that awkward transition from lobbing Molotov cocktails to burning our way across the dance floors of disco, David Berkowitz – aka the Son of Sam – killed 6 people and wounded several others. As far as serial killing goes, this paltry total can’t compare to the number of victims dispatched by Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, or South Carolina’s own Peewee Gaskins; however, Berkowitz PRed his way to the top of the nation’s serial killing charts by leaving a series of cryptic notes like this ditty:

Note from Son of Sam Killer David Berkowitz

What narcissistic nonsense.  Of course, alley cats are going to mate and sparrows sing – if the feline and avian survivors of Chernobyl don’t let a cataclysmic environmental disaster affect their reproductive compulsions, certainly a couple of gunshots ringing out in a Brooklyn night ain’t going to affect their behavior.*

Of course, the media didn’t pay as much attention to Peewee as they did to David.**   Peewee was no poet, and if he had been, his poems would have sounded something like this:

Whose corpse this is I ought to know

cause I’m the one what kilt it so.

I hope nobody come ‘round here

to watch me in the lake it throw.


*This from National Geographic’s website: On the other hand, Mousseau admits that some birds have thrived [at Chernobyl]: drab, non-migratory birds seem to be doing very well, “possibly because they have no competitors,” he said. These birds don’t use up their carotenoids, which are powerful antioxidants, to create colorful plumage, and they don’t need to spend extra energy on long migrations, so their immune systems may be stronger, Mousseau theorized.

** How many serial killers are you on a first name basis with?

image

At any rate, during the Son of Sam’s spree, while bartending at the Golden Spur, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea: to form a comedy terrorist group called “The Lighter Side of the Son of Sam.” These slapstick desperadoes would attack obnoxious celebrities like Tom Snyder of the Tomorrow Show and make him perform demeaning acts on camera, stuff like, you know, like making out with one of Liberace’s exes while David Jones of the Monkees sang “Day Dream Believer” at gunpoint. Nobody would get seriously hurt, and the madcap band of practical jokers would always somehow get away to punk some other obnoxito in the unforeseeable future.

This idea returned to me after I watched the second episode of the Bravo reality show Southern Charm. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some latter day version of the Lighter Side of the Son of Sam could infiltrate the filming and wreck some boomerang karma on the vapidiots appearing on the show? Let’s see. How to punish Shep? I got it! How about updating Sartre with a little No Exit action by locking up Shep, Rosie McDonnell, and Dennis Rodman in a Motel 6 room for forty days and forty nights? [cue demonic laughter]

rosie, shep, and Dennis

Rosie and Dennis could entertain Shep by performing a two man/woman show of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or entertain him by wrestling for the remote that operates a TV that gets only the Lifetime Network and the Shopping Channel.

Just some good old fashioned retributive fun brought to you by that band of lovable losers, the Lighter Side of the Son of Sam!