A few days ago I was involved in a discussion with some other poets--all poets whose work and opinions I respect--and the subject of "obviously bad" poetry came up. The following poem by Mary Oliver (from American Primitive, 1984) was offered by one of the group as an ostensibly self-evident example of an unintentionally funny poem:
More amazed than anything
I took the perfectly black
with the one large eye
in the center of its small forehead
from the house cat's bed
and buried it in a field
behind the house.
I suppose I could have given it
to a museum,
I could have called the local
But instead I took it out into the field
and opened the earth
and put it back
saying, it was real,
saying, life is infinitely inventive,
saying, what other amazements
lie in the dark seed of the earth, yes,
I think I did right to go out alone
and give it back peacefully, and cover the place
with the reckless blossoms of weeds.
And I must admit, when I first read it, I laughed. I thought it was sentimental, melodramatic. Never mind for the moment the ideological weight of those words (I'll come back to that); that was my honest first response. I also (on another level if you like) found it touching and sad. But let's leave that aside for a moment too. Among the other members of the discussion group, there was an apparent consensus or near-consensus that one of the other things that made the poem "funny" was a certain degree of craft ineptitude. I didn't press anyone to identify specific markers of this ineptitude at the time, but it seemed that these too were supposed to be self-evident. But what are they? What standards of "craft" can one apply in a case like this?
The poem is not in any formal meter, nor does it appear to have been composed according to any fixed rhythmic or structural procedure other than the poet's faith in her own "ear." I can imagine a critique of the poem that would raise the question of line breaks, charging that they are used arbitrarily here. That may be, but certainly they are no more arbitrary than those that appear in countless poems by William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, Clark Coolidge, Rae Armantrout, et al. When it comes down to it, there is no objective basis, within a fuzzy parameter separating a wide sphere of "reasonable" practice from obviously exorbitant extremes of arbitrariness, on which one can judge the aptness of line breaks. For example, the lines "and buried it in a field / behind the house": would they be more or less effective if they read "and buried it / in a field behind the house," or "and buried it in a field behind / the house," or simply "and buried it in a field behind the house"? One might claim that there is no reason the poem should not just be formatted as prose, but again, the same could be said for countless other poems in "free verse"; arbitrary line breaks are a convention, like many other poetic devices, and it is pointless to single them out as a representative vice. On the most functional level, the separation of the poem into verse lines signifies in its gestural totality more than in any particular details: it signals, "this is a lyric poem, so read accordingly." And on that level, the line breaks do their work perfectly well. There appear to be two general reasons for imposing a line break in poems like this one: 1) in order to separate discrete thoughts, images, or actions; 2) to keep any given line from getting longer than most of the others. One might imagine that the poem is being poured into a vessel whose dimensions have been chosen for their appropriateness to the overall lyric utterance, and occasionally those dimensions necessitate a little tucking and squeezing. O'Hara's "right pair of pants," and all that.
Another criterion for assessment of the poet's skill on the level of craft is incidence of cliche or otherwise hackneyed expression. I don't see any obvious cliches here, and "otherwise hackneyed" is a pretty broad category. Who gets to decide such a thing? Most of the language is straightforwardly narrative/descriptive. There are only two metaphors: "dark seed of the earth" and "reckless blossoms of weeds." Are these images hackneyed? If they are, they are so in a way that takes the judgment out of the sphere of craft per se and into the broader sphere of literary taste writ large: they are bad, we might say, because we dislike the kinds of poems that contain such images, not because the images themselves are inadequate to the terms set by the rest of the poem. The two images are consistent both between themselves (the organic contiguity of seeds and blossoms) and in their relevance to the poem's theme (the kitten itself is a reckless blossom of sorts).*
So what then? If one of my workshop students wrote this poem, what criticisms could I possibly make? One might say that although the language itself is relatively free of obviously trite constructions, the poem itself is one big cliche--a prime example of the late twentieth-century "dead animal" poem, the most famous example probably being William Stafford's "Travelling through the Dark." In the dead animal poem, the speaker (usually a white, liberal-humanist, upper-middle-class speaker, as far as one can tell) reflects poignantly on his or her experience with some dead animal or other (in Stafford's poem, it's a pregnant deer that's been hit by an auto), implying in the course of doing so that he or she is also commenting on a set of issues that pertain to the human condition. But what makes this a cliche, exactly? The fact that lots of poets now write this kind of poem? What's the difference between a cliche and a genre, then?
This brings us back to those bad words, sentimentality and melodrama. The poem is patently sentimental. That is, it makes a direct play on our feelings of pathos and sympathy for a creature that is figured as defenseless and tragic. You might say that it is calculated to evoke "maternal" feelings, which gives an idea of the way in which the charge of sentimentality is gendered. "Melodrama" is similarly fraught with gendered associations. Both of these terms have been studied at length along these lines (though there is obviously still a lot of work to be done), so I won't go on too much about this. But do check out David Larsen's wonderful piece "On Melodrama" in The Thorn (Faux Press, 2005), in which he points out that accusing somone of melodrama is about the "lamest thing" you can do, as it implies that the accused's response to whatever trauma is disproportionate. "You shouldn't feel so much." As if anyone could ever be qualified to make such a judgment.
If a student of mine wrote this poem, I might wince internally, but I wouldn't really be able to say anything negative other than that the student had produced a kind of poem that I'm not particularly interested in, a poem whose philosophical underpinnings I find questionable at best. And even here, as I said earlier, I myself would be guilty of concealing the fact that the poem put a lump in my throat. What kind of dishonesty is that? Whence my wince? Mary Oliver appears to have written the poem she wanted to, in the way best suited to the ends she wanted to achieve. Is it a bad poem? Is it "objectively" funny as a result of some failure of consciousness on Oliver's part? Is it possible to make the argument that a certain type of poem should not be written at all? Such an argument would clearly have nothing to do with craft per se, but would at base be a position founded on attitudes--many, though not necessarily all of them, unexamined--surrounding taste. Too often, these attitudes give rise to a weird process of reification in which the persons possessing them feel justified in projecting such taste onto matters of technical execution. If we set out to wage war against poems like "The Kitten," we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we can deploy an ideologically neutral appeal to craft as our sole weapon. Nor should we pretend that the ideologically loaded appeal of the poem in question is one to which we are immune purely by virtue of announcing our staunch resistance.
* I don't know what to do with this, really, but "reckless blossoms" can also be read as an allusion to Aeschylus' Agamemnon, or at least to the 1914 Harvard Classics translation by E. D. A. Morshead, in which Aegisthus refers to slanderous words as "reckless blossoms of the tongue." Or maybe it's just a coincidence.