How To Write Terrible Poetry

The writing world is a frustrating place full of presumptuous bookworms, grammatically-correct literaries, and metaphor-happy English professors. We writers could really use a break.

As such, I initiated the first Weekly Terrible Poetry Contest. …And was disappointed.

Either I am horrible at giving directions, or my readership is too uptight to give their verse the cringe it can take. Since I know the fault could never lie with the talented people with extremely good taste who come to my site, I have decided some How-To will help.

Let’s take a verse and carry it through the different levels of quality. You may recognize this stanza, though only the truly educated appreciate it for its depth, meter, and metaphor.

So, as fast as I could, I went after my net.
And I said, “With my net
I can get them I bet.
I bet, with my net,
I can get those Things yet!”

Excellent

A poem at this level fulfills its purpose, awakens a response in the reader, its imagery evokes memory and such, and it has meter. Even if the meter is a rambling sort that makes one think the writer was drunk and singing backwards at the time, it works. For some reason, we can still follow it and end up smiling at the end instead of clawing the walls.

Dr. Suess’ poem is at this level, primarily because it was written to educate young readers and not bore them in process. The man takes it an extra notch up by having a repeated word (I) to begin each line and a rhyme that not only appears at the end of each line (net/net/bet/net/yet) but also finds its way midway as well (get/bet/get).

Good

I would deem a poem ‘Good’ if it has no complaint against it except for ‘a little something’ that doesn’t bump it up to first place in a competition. Like its Excellent brother(s); it has purpose, meter, flow, imagery, etc.

Let’s take our example and make it only Good:

So, as fast as I could, I picked up my net.
I said, “With my net,
I can catch them as pets.
I think, with my net,
Those Things I will get!”

Bad

Most people do not even realize they are reading Bad poetry. They circle the poem around the internet, or their pupils recite it in front of the class as a work of memorization. The people with any literary feeling left to them, in process, sit through these readings with the look of a person enduring a tooth extraction with blunt instruments.

Ready for this?

‘Twas the day before school
When I picked up my net.
I stood on a stool,
So I didn’t get wet.
Then I said, “I will get them; no sweat.”

Terrible

In my introduction to The Weekly Terrible Poetry Contest, I said “the worst poetry you can write.” Later, I noted, “I want to cringe. I want to scrub my eyes and go lick something to clear my artistic palate.”

Maybe the poet tries too hard. Maybe he or she is way too fond of adjectives, especially the same adjective. Most likely, the person writes a meter of poetry with the beat of a broken, molding drum he or she found half-price at his or her grandmother’s aunt’s secondhand flea market.

I am so very sorry, Mr. Geisel, to have to do this.

I saw them, the Things with the waving blue wet.
Theyr danced like the sunrise but then they ruined the set
Of our house
Of
Our
Pet. A fish
In a pot, all alone.
And what to our wandering eyes should we get?
My anger, like fire; my passion whet
With confusion.
My net.

I hope he doesn’t come after me in the hereafter.

More importantly, class, I hope you have all learned something. With the skills of atrocious poetry, go forth and re-enter the latest contest. Have fun, get messy, and don’t actually apply any of these lessons to legitimate works.

The Sneetches

The_Sneetches_and_Other_Stories

Ah, Dr. Suess. What a fantastic writer! Many know that his real name was Theodor Suess Geisel, and that he drew political cartoons and even produced several short films before the fame of The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham. If not, I taught you something new.

I love poetry. Perhaps you’ve seen some of mine or have read my post about Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Dr. Suess is the best poet for young children. Believe me: I have children and was once a child myself. Because of those two things, I have read some terribly crappy attempts at rhymes in books geared toward kids. Suess, on the other hand, wrote simple poetry with simple words and simple illustrations long before sight word/level reading stuff. And Suess didn’t suck.

As a parent, I say the true sign of excellence in youth material is whether I can watch or read it and not want to gnaw my own arm off just to get away. I can read Suess’ books repeatedly and enjoy them.

The Sneetches is no exception. The story follows a group of creatures who all look the same -except some have a star on their bellies. “…(B)ecause they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches/Would brag, ‘We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.'” Meanwhile, the Plain-Belly Sneetches are excluded, spending their time together feeling sad at being left out.

And that’s how they treated them year after year.

Why didn’t the Plain-Bellies just hold their own frankfurter roasts and ball games? Well, we get some clue as to the common sense of these yellow, birdlike animals when a stranger comes to their beaches and specifically addresses the left-out group:

“My friends,” he announced in a voice clear and keen,
“My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.
And I’ve heard of your troubles. I’ve heard you’re unhappy.
But I can fix that. I’m the Fix-it-Up Chappie.”

 

McBean builds a machine that can put stars on bellies, and charges $3 apiece. Then, when the original group is upset over the class-leveling, he builds another machine that removes stars (for $10 each!). Chaos ensues, expressed in my favorite stanza of the tale:

They kept paying money. They kept running through
Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one . . . or that one was this one
Or which one was what one . . . or what one was who.

 

It pleasantly tickles a literary nerve, doesn’t it? Sigh.

The last literary element that makes Dr. Suess the best is teaching a moral. The Lorax and such are more heavy-handed than I like, but The Sneetches gives us a gentle tap of reprimand.

After McBean literally takes all their money, he leaves. “They never will learn,” he laughs. “No. You can’t teach a Sneetch.” Seuss, meanwhile, tells us a different message:

But McBean was quiet wrong. I’m quite happy to say
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day….

 

Read Suess, even for yourself. Share this story with others. Then, perhaps, the world will remember that “…Sneetches are Sneetches/And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.”

Grey Thursday

Suess

So, when all of the food
Had been swallowed and chewed,
The guests left the dishes and host
With their brood.

And, forcing employees
To all do the same,
They shopped and they grabbed
And they spent without shame.

 

Please, stay home on the holidays. Popular greed is robbing store workers of time with family.

A Muse, The Blues, Some Clues -AKA How to Write Poetry

Lo! What light, what cackling sun
Burns your eyes?
It laughs as you run;
Jumping, grasping, to
Catch the poem…

If you thought that was bad, you were right. I literally wrote that without any thought, direction, or meter. I took about fifteen seconds.

Don’t get me wrong -sometimes people like that crap. Sometimes the Crap Off the Cuff really isn’t bad. However, poetry is just like any other crafted item: the more practice you have at your skill, the better anything you make will be.
Translation: those who are experts can write a decent impromptu poem, and the stuff they worked longer on is even better.

So, *ahem.* Let’s stop mucking about and finally jump into A Few Steps for Writing Poetry:

1. Don’t.
Seriously, there are already a lot of good poets out there who have already written your idea in a better way. Thanks to Google, you can probably find it.
There are also a lot of terrible poets who have murdered your idea and now it’s bleeding by the side of the road begging people to stop clicking that they Like it.

2. Still determined? Good! You’ve passed the first test: that of true motivation for verse. I feel that motivation, a muse, hangover, emotional distress, late-night deadlines -whatever your name is for it- are vital to writing a poem.
Even if you don’t have a clear subject or good structure, the sheer determination to express what you feel will squeeze something out.

3. Actual Guidelines
So… there is this type of meter I poked fun at initially. It’s called free verse. Let me tell you, from my extremely limited experience, that freely versing can be a BAD idea. It’s the commando version of creative writing, and needs a brave, strong, experienced writer to handle it.
My recommendation, therefore, is to follow a meter. No, you don’t have to go full-out iambic pentameter. Only do so if you wish to be counting on your fingers and looking up rhymes for “depressed” all evening.
A good start is to come up with a few lines in your mind, then count the syllables (and pattern of stress/non-stress) and roughly follow that for the remaining lines.

4. Stress and Non-stress
Really quickly: this is where we put the emphasis on our words when we speak. I threw it in here because I mentioned it in the previous step, and you might be scratching your head over it.
Sometimes, I write a poem and there is one line that is really bugging me. Usually, it’s because I followed my syllable count, but did not follow normal speech rules of emphasis.
Because of that, the syllable count is actually off. Readers (including you) will do a mental glottal stop to be able to stress the words where we are accustomed to.

5. To Rhyme, or Not Some Thyme?
This one is up to you. I mostly rhyme for mine, every other line.
The length of each line and how often you rhyme (every single ending word, halfway through, every other, or randomly) will determine whether your poem feels like a poem, Dr. Seuss, or a rap song.
Keep in mind that even Seuss mixed things up a bit. One of my favorite stanzas in The Cat in the Hat is:

So, as fast as I could,
I went after my net.
And I said, “With my net
I can get them I bet.
I bet, with my net,
I can get those Things yet!”

Try it; it’s fun to read through.

6. Word Choice
Let’s say you want to emote about love and loss of said love. You are going to make us all feel something different than affection if you literally use the word “love” more than about three times. Sometimes, my limit is even one.
This is where your friend, Mr. Thesaurus, comes in. I mentioned this in my How to Not Suck at Writing rant as well, because it’s really important.
Let’s say you’re not that into synonyms. Too much woooorrrrkkk.
You will sound way more mysterious and intelligent if you do it. Like, “I loved and lost and lost my love” could become “Adored, then absent; Carelessly cherished.”

7. More Word Choice
Poetry is all about obscurity. Even when it’s a straightforward tale of a path diverging in the forest, everyone still says the poem is about something deeper.
So, use your new thesaural friend to obfuscate your terms, or make the simple description of your plush tiger on the shelf sound like it represents your childhood memories of being abandoned.

8. Practice and Preparedness
This goes for anything, but especially creative writing.
Read other poets, and copy their style. Keep a notebook to jot down random lines that come to you on the train. Try, try, try again. Everything you read and write will give you experience.

Now, go! Make the world a poetic place.