Bad Poets of Pop Culture: A Brief Survey

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Are you a bad poet? Are your rhymes ridiculous? Your meter mediocre? Your enjambments a joke? Well, take heart, gentle friend: you’re not alone. Some of the best characters in fiction of all kinds also happen to be terrible poets — whether their deficiency is played for laughs (or tears) or whether they’re actually so bad they’re kind of good. Hey, something to aspire to! After the jump, a brief survey of some of the best bad poets in pop culture. Add any favorites missing here to the list in the comments.

Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Well, duh. Back in 1880, Spike was just William — William the Bloody, that is, named after his “bloody awful” poetry. He attempted to use it to woo a young lady, but was thoroughly shot down. And can you blame her? Here’s the thing now:

My soul is wrapped in harsh repose, midnight descends in raven-colored clothes, but soft…behold! A sunlight beam cutting a swath of glimmering gleam. My heart expands, ’tis grown a bulge in it, inspired by your beauty… effulgent.

That might be worse than a stake through the heart. Then again, Angel always secretly liked Spike’s poetry. Then again again, Angel likes Barry Manilow.

Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing)

Benedick could never be accused of being bad at wordplay, but when it comes to setting his thoughts down on paper? He’s got a bit of writer’s block. He asks Margaret for help writing a sonnet for Beatrice, but when she brushes him off, he sits around trying to rhyme. But at least he knows his weakness:

I mean in singing. But in loving, Leander the good swimmer, Troilus the first employer of panders, and a whole bookful of these quondam carpetmongers, whose names yet run smoothly in the even road of a blank verse, why, they were never so truly turned over and over as my poor self in love. Marry, I cannot show it in rhyme. I have tried. I can find out no rhyme to “lady” but “baby” — an innocent rhyme; for “scorn,” “horn” — a hard rhyme; for “school,” “fool” — a babbling rhyme; very ominous endings. No, I was not born under a rhyming planet, nor I cannot woo in festival terms.

Hey — in the end, it’s good enough to get the girl.

The Vogons, the Azgoths, and Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

You know your poetry is bad when you can weaponize it:

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning” four of his audience members died of internal haemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled “My Favourite Bathtime Gurgles” when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain. The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England, in the destruction of the planet Earth.

And an example of Vogon poetry (just don’t let anyone read it out loud to you):

Oh freddled gruntbuggly, Thy micturations are to me As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee. Groop, I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes, And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles, Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts With my blurglecruncheon, see if I don’t!

Carlos Argentino Daneri (“The Aleph,” Jorge Luis Borges)

Borges’ Daneri (you should definitely be reading “Dante Alighieri” in there) is a self-obsessed poet working on an epic poem entitled The Earth, which consists of a description of everything on the titular planet. The narrator describes him thusly: “His mental activity was continuous, deeply felt, far-ranging and — all in all — meaningless. He dealt in pointless analogies and in trivial scruples.” Then, he starts reading from the poem. A stanza:

Mine eyes, as did the Greek’s, have known men’s towns and fame, The works, the days in light that fades to amber; I do not change a fact or falsify a name — The voyage I set down is … autour de ma chambre.

Comments our narrator:

He read me many other stanzas that also won his approval and his profuse commentary. There was nothing memorable in them; I wouldn’t even judge them much worse that the first. Application, resignation and chance had collaborated in his writing; the virtues that Daneri attributed to them were after thoughts. I understood that the work of the poet was not in his poetry; it was in the invention of reasons why his poetry was admirable; naturally, this later effort modified the work for him; but not for other people. Daneri’s oral diction was extravagant; his heavy-handed metrics kept him, with a few exceptions, from transmitting this extravagance to the poem.

Yes, the narrator is rolling his eyes all over this story, and ultimately gets his revenge for having to listen to such drivel — sort of. Later, Daneri gets second place in the Argentine National Prize for Literature, so maybe we’re all missing something.

Quinn Morgendorfer (Daria)

In “Quinn the Brain,” everyone decides Quinn is smart because of her essay “Academic Imprisonment.” So she starts playing the part, tutoring Kevin, wearing black, and writing poems. “Yeah, I might do writing for a career,” she tells the Fashion Club, “It’s not like real work or anything.”

Here is one of Quinn’s amazing, amazing poems, which she wrote while eating her fries:

The greasy fry It cannot lie Its truth is written On your thigh Does it really Come from France? It makes your butt Not fit your pants Potato chips Are even worse Keep carrot sticks Inside your purse.

Can you believe the Fashion Club suspended her?

Christopher Chubb (My Life as a Fake, Peter Carey)

What to do when you’re a hopelessly mediocre poet? Invent a poet better than yourself. If you can, that is. The whole thing is based on one of the most notorious hoaxes of 20th-century letters, which makes it even better.

Jonathan Strange (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

Strange’s status as a bad poet is all in a footnote, of course, but it’s a memorable one:

It appears that Strange did not abandon the notion of a poetical career easily. In The Life of Jonathan Strange, pub. John Murray, London, 1820, John Segundus describes how, having been disappointed in his search for a poet, Strange decided to write the poems himself. “Things went very well upon the first day; from breakfast to dinner he sat in his dressing gown at the little writing table in his dressing room and scribbled very fast upon several dozen sheets of quarto. He was very delighted with everything he wrote and so was his valet, who was a literary man himself and who gave advice upon the knotty questions of metaphor and rhetoric, and who ran about gathering up the papers as they flew about the room and putting them in order and then running downstairs to read the most exhilarating parts to his friend, the under-gardener. It really was astonishing how quickly Strange wrote; indeed the valet declared that when he put his hand close to Strange’s head he could feel a heat coming off it because of the immense creative energies within. On the second day Strange sat down to write another fifty or so pages and immediately got into difficulties because he could not think of a rhyme for “let love suffice.” “Sunk in vice” was not promising; “a pair of mice” was nonsense, and “what’s the price?” merely vulgar. He struggled for an hour, could think of nothing, went for a ride to loosen his brains and never looked at his poem again.

It’s probably better to be a world-renowned magician, anyway.

Arnold “Poet” Jackson (Oz)

Not only is Poet a bad poet, he’s a bad poet. As in, you know, heroin addict/murderer bad. But here’s an example of his other badness:

Son, come on son Let me squeeze them titties I been fiending for this freedom I been begging for the beat I been jonesing for the jump over the wall But all I keep coming back to is them titties Round and firm, for the vein burn I keep bugging over the reasons For this shit I yearn Years in this piece got me Wanting the shit that I unlearned Got me wanting to block it out Forget about Erase it from my think.

Don’t hate that last line, but still.

Ewan McTeagle (Monty Python’s Flying Circus)

I’ll let the above video speak for itself, except to say that McTeagle is based on real-life, famously terrible poet William McGonagall.

James Franco

(Apparently he’s not actually that bad, but still — had to.)