BAP Stands for Bloody Awful Poetry
Self-portrait of the author, aged 17, as a self-concealing & technique obsessed aspiring poet
During my two dozen years as a high school teacher, my more literary students would, on a fairly regular basis, demurely ask me to read their poetry. Their adolescent oeuvres were-- with one exception toward the end of my career-- the usual free verse effusions of sentiment decked out in pedestrian imagery. This was to be expected and excused in that outside of school the closest thing to poetry they’d known was usually song lyrics. If they had read canonical poetry on their own, it tended to be the same stuff that had been popular among teens in my day: Sylvia Plath or maybe Maya Angelou for the girls and Alan Ginsburg or the other Beats for the boys.
I too turned out a slew of mainly bad poems between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one, the high school and college years, but mine were bad in the opposite way to those of the other adolescent authors I knew either then or later in life. I’d heard from one of my middle school English teachers, an old fellow with wild white hair who retired the following year, that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net. He had told our class this in the course of teaching us the most famous short poems of Robert Frost-- a framed eight by ten, black and white portrait of whom, similarly white haired, hung in his classroom. I took the dictum wholly to heart.
As such, I had no time for the poems of my school’s most famous graduate, William Carlos Williams, yet those of his equally modernist, yet contrastingly formalist, contemporary, E.E. Cummings, I held in high esteem. All the poetry I esteemed then, and pretty much still do now, tended to be by dead white males. Thanks to their having both committed suicide in middle age, John Berryman (d. 1972) and Randall Jarrell (d.1965) just made the grade. Dead before I’d been born automatically conferred a greater level of greatness. Frost (d. 1963) and Cummings (d. 1962) squeaked in there. Theodore Roethke (d. Aug. 1st, 1963) snuck in by a mere three days.
Meanwhile, my own poems were formalistic play with the sounds of words in which-- revealingly, I see now-- I was never present or available other than intellectually. Looking into a faded blue cardboard clip folder saved from those days, I see that I gave my game away in one, a tailed sonnet composed when I was seventeen. It’s a dramatic monologue in the manner of Browning pretentiously entitled ‘A Farewell from the Retiring Art Professor’, in which the sestet counseled:
A sculpture may move, though at rest on its base.
The painting has depth, although it’s a plane.
The marvel of art is this power to feign.
Don’t let the eye leave a clue the hand can’t erase.
If you craft a god, never give it your face.
Let image be image not in part but in main.
I sent this one off, along with a sheaf of others, to a host of little literary reviews with titles like ‘Nimrod’ or ‘Rhombus’, by all of which my verses were deservedly turned down. Rejection notices in those days came on standard envelope size slips bearing the magazine’s logo above a typed message thanking you for your submission, wishing you success in future and sometimes soliciting you to take out a subscription to facilitate this. Only one editor saw fit to offer me personalized encouragement. I can still recall his name; it was Willard Cheeseman.
In my freshman year of college, I took two consecutive courses in Lyric Poetry of the English Renaissance and The Epic Tradition in English and its Classical Antecedents, each of which finished with close analyses of Milton. Courses like this are hard to come by these days in elite American undergraduate English departments because they don’t lend themselves particularly well to reading texts primarily in order to discuss oppression and victimhood with regard to race, gender and sexual orientation. Nevertheless, forty years ago I found them swell, and was inspired to write a Miltonic sonnet in praise of Paradise Lost, the conceit of which was that the power of Milton’s verse seduces the reader into sympathy with Satan in a manner analogous to the way in which Satan’’s rhetoric charms Eve, and through her Adam, into the Fall.
Having recently perfected my little poem, I happened to meet my old classmate who’d been the editor of our high school literary magazine. He was a character of carefully cultivated Wildean wit and whimsy who went on to win both a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. When he asked me whether I was still writing any poetry, I proudly reeled off my Milton tribute, conventionally entitled “We’ll Not Soon See the Likes of Him Again” after the first line of its overly alliterative octave. When I reached the conclusion of the sestet, which ran:
The fateful fiery bite that made us choke,
Left us gasping at that Arcadian dream
And taught us with a powerful, painful poke
Of that right recking rod that reigns supreme
To be wary of him whose words redound
“To justify the ways of God to man”...
My sparky school mate, who was positively grinning, widened his already prominent eyes and remarked something along the lines of, “My, that does sound terribly
exciting.” Only then did the dire double entendres of my Puritan pastiching become clear to my ‘sophomoronic’ self.
At the start of my junior year of university, having lately entered the third decade of my life, I signed up for a poetry writing course taught by a real live, premier league contemporary English poet. I was expecting such a person to look, sound and write something like Ted Hughes. The teacher I got came from the north of England and the working class, the existence of which I was aware in only the vaguest sense from having read a bit about the life of D.H. Lawrence. Tony Connor, who remains alive and intellectually kicking in his early nineties, was also a die hard adherent to the Frost doctrine of tennis strictly with a net. I was also a surprise to him since composers of ambiguously imagistic free verse were the norm in his classes. His frequently repeated advice to me was essentially that of Gertrude to Polonius, “More matter, less art.”
Slowly, slowly my old (to us...he was only in his early fifties) master’s teaching sunk in and I became willing to reveal myself, taking to heart the Wordsworthian dictum that poetry should spring from emotion recollected in tranquility so that by the end of the semester I was able to write something still metrical, yet also properly human, like this, of which I find myself able to remain proud, nearly four decades on:
Better Atone Late Than Never
I once tripped up another boy
Who had a mouse (How could I know?)
Stowed inside his blazer pocket.
I shed no tears for his bruised bones
But wept to hear the mouse was crushed.
Recalling this, I wonder if...
Somewhere the boy unfurled the mouse
Lying still inside his jacket
And scarred the earth like his stitched scalp
To make a grave fit for my sin,
Where I might in my mind’s eye stand
And try to make amends to him.
Restoring thus a little of
The honor of this fragile world
Silk-lined like a tailored pocket.