Apropos of our discussion of inaugural poems in a recent post ("A Few Thoughts on the Inauguration"), I thought I'd quote an excerpt from Randall Jarrell's essay, "Bad Poets". First, for those who are unfamiliar with his name, Randall Jarrell was literary critic and poet who is probably most widely known for writing this poem:
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
For context, pictured above is the ball turret of a B-17 Flying Fortress1.
Below is an excerpt from Jarrell's essay on bad poets:
[I]t is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with "This is a poem" scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write - a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize. If there were only some mechanism (like Seurat's proposed system of painting, or the projected Universal Algebra that Gödel believes Leibnitz to have perfected and mislaid) for reasonably and systematically converting into poetry what we see and feel and are!
It would be a hard heart and a dull head that could condemn, except with a sort of sacred awe, such poets2 for anything that they have done - or rather, for anything that has been done to them: for they have never made anything, they have suffered their poetry as helplessly as they have anything else; so that it is neither the imitation of life nor a slice of life but life itself - beyond good, beyond evil, and certainly beyond reviewing.
1This photo comes from the website of Britain's Imperial War Museum.
2Elizabeth Alexander, who recited (in a manner fitting for toddlers) her awful poem at Obama's inauguration, doesn't fit into this category of amateur poets guilelessly mailing in samples of their bad poetry; as a professional poet inflicting bad verse on the nation she is worthy of condemnation.