Why the average poem is even worse than predicted by Sturgeon’s Law

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While I whine a lot about how bad literary fiction can be, I hardly ever bitch about poetry. I consider it beneath me. But today somebody showed me a poem they wrote, and I read it to be polite, and now I have some bitching to do.

The majority of contemporary poetry is terrible. No, that’s not strong enough; the majority of everything is terrible, as Sturgeon’s Law says. Let’s try that again: The vast, vast, vast majority of contemporary poetry is either terrible or (worse?) instantly forgettable.

(Even the better stuff is not especially accessible. To get any pleasure out of it, you have to read patiently, listening closely to catch muted bits of music and wit. This is why contemporary poetry is read mainly by poets.)

So why is poetry so terrible? The bar for something to be called a poem is extremely low. A punchline from a Bazooka Joe comic can be a poem, if you call it a poem. By comparison, the bar for something to be called a story or a novel is a lot higher: it has to have something resembling characters, something resembling a protagonist, and something resembling a plot, with something resembling a beginning, middle, climax, and end.

I don’t want to imply that setting a low bar for poetry is stupid or wrong. The idea that anything can be art is a powerful one. So is the idea that anyone can make art.

But when you take away the barriers, you take away the thing that forces amateurs to learn their craft. Writing in a preexisting form (whether it’s a quatrain or a novel) is hard. It takes time. Once you’ve done it, you can judge and revise your work based on preexisting criteria. Casual poets don’t need to develop that kind of discipline, and it shows. (I suspect that the best free verse poets become good either by putting in thousands of hours of practice, or by first honing their skills in more restrictive verse forms.)

Not only do formal constraints raise the bar, they also tend to be immediately pleasurable even to casual readers, much like characters and plots. I hesitate to suggest that being accessible makes art better, but it certainly makes it more tolerable. Low-quality light verse is often fun to read in a disposable sort of way, just like action and suspense can make a weak story exciting. Most contemporary poetry doesn’t offer those relatively superficial pleasures. Which no doubt contributes to my impression that poetry is, on average, really unreasonably bad.

None of this is meant to argue that poetry lovers shouldn’t read/write/share poetry. I mean, I’m not exactly speaking from the high ground of taste here. I just wanted to say how much I hate poetry, the way you hate somebody who squanders their extraordinary potential doing worthless crap. That is all.

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