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.
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. 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. 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.
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.