The Worst Poetry I Have Ever Read

At the home of some good friends this past weekend, reclined nicely in a warm armchair, the warmth of various ales coursing through me, I picked off the shelf by my right hand a crumbling first edition of Modern Library’s A Comprehensive Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Conrad Aiken. I opened at random and found a small and perhaps undue joy that my stochastic flipping led to sections 10 and 11 of Song of Myself—maybe my favorite parts of Walt Whitman’s longassed poem.

Do you recall these bits? The trapper’s wedding? The runaway slave? The twenty-eight bathers and the woman who spies on them? I read them aloud to the room, ostensibly to the people in the room, but maybe just to myself. Walt Whitman’s storytelling is at its best when he moves most away from himself, when he puts on different hats, wears different ears, strolls around America a bit. I love his free verse in spite of—or even maybe because of—its swollen scope, its tendency toward bombast or even hamminess. O Walt! Get over yourself!—but not really, never change! Song of Myself is one of my favorite novels, or one of my favorite epics, or one of my favorite monologues—whatever it is, it’s one of my favorites (especially taken with doses of Emily Dickinson’s strange potions).

I don’t really know a lot about poetry, despite teaching the study of it in certain literature survey classes.

But hang on, it seems I was telling a story, or at least teasing out an anecdote, or at least going somewhere with all this: So, after riffling through the anthology a bit more, my friend says, Hey, if you want to read some really terrible poetry, check out that book to your right. Here is the book:

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I had never heard of Walter Benton or his (unintentionally) hilarious volume This Is My Beloved until that moment. So what is it? Combining the worst elements of Whitmanesque free verse with a downright silly conceit that these are diary entries, This Is My Beloved attempts to be the erotic record of a passionate love affair. Benton tries to keep his language sultry, sexy, and sensuous without veering into pornography, but the results are bizarre and grotesque. Here’s an entire page as evidence:

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“Your breasts are snub like children’s faces”?!

“…your lips match your teats beautifully”?!

And my favorite: “The hair of your arm’s hollow and where your thighs meet / agree completely, being brown and soft to look at like a nest of field mice.” A nest of field mice! Women love to be complimented on their matching pits and pubes, followed by a simile comparing said regions to a rodent’s hovel.

Indeed, Benton loves animal similes for his lady—later he writes: “Yes, your body makes eyes at me from every salient, / promises warm, lavish promises— / curved, colored . . . finished in a warm velvet like baby rabbits.”

But it’s not just the rabbits and mice that are gross. Lines like “We had loved hard—it’s all over your throat and hair” are simply queasy, bad writing. Or this nugget: “The white full moon like a great beautiful whore / solicits over the city, eggs the lovers on / the haves . . . walking in twos to their beds and to their mating. / I walk alone. Slowly. No hurry. Nobody’s waiting.”

Or this snippet:

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It’s just really, really bad—I mean, at least when Henry Miller is gross, he’s deeply, earnestly gross, abject even, depraved perhaps (recall the famous lines: “I have set the shores a little wider. I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel”).

So, to return to my little story, we read most of Benton’s book aloud, doubling over laughing at times at just how wonderfully awful it is. And, wiping the tears from my eyes, I went to my trusty dusty iPhone to do a little background research—surely the world knew of this awful, awful poetry? Surely folks were getting the same giggly fun as happy we from poor Benton’s lurid verse?

And here, really, comes the occasion for this post, the real reason I write: It turns out that folks love this book—in a sincere, earnest, serious way. No fewer than four audio recordings were made of the book, all set to music (the most famous seems to be by Arthur Psyrock); the book has near-perfect five star review averages on both Amazon and Goodreads; and, perhaps most shocking of all, the book has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1949—it’s in its 34th edition (prestigious hardback with prestigious deckle edges, by the way). And of course you can buy an ebook version! (Unlike, say, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual). Even worse, hack crooner Rod McKuen cites Benton as a major influence, so we have that to thank him for as well.

I don’t know. Am I wrong? Is Benton’s stuff actually good? I mean, I’ll concede that I enjoyed reading the book, but only inasmuch as it made me laugh so much. I don’t know. I already admitted I don’t know much about poetry. (As I write this, I pause to watch and listen to Richard Blanco read his inauguration poem “One Day”; I have no idea if it’s good or not). Benton’s verse seems so hammy, clumsy, indelicate; too earnest, too priapic, tripping over its own boners. It reads like a bad cribbing of Whitman and Miller, with an occasional lift from Hemingway. Even worse, it strikes me as amateurish, as the sort of thing that a teen might scrawl in his Moleskine only to cringe at later before hiding it somewhere. I just can’t believe that this book has been in continual publication from a major house (Knopf) for more than a half-century.

But maybe I’m misreading. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe the poem is beautiful and profound and not icky solipsistic dreck. But I doubt it.

Book Shelves #40, 9.30.2012

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Book shelves series #40, fortieth Sunday of 2012

So we dip into the penultimate book shelf in this series, the one I shot last week in hazy hangover.

(This shelf is lower right; I’ll be working down to up and right to left).

Kids puzzles and a toy accordion block some books on folklore, history, and music.

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As always, sorry for the glare, blur, and poor lighting. Blame my ancient iPhone 3gs .

A book my grandmother gave me a few years ago:

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Sample:

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This is a wonderful old collection:

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Pissing in the Snow: I’ve gone to that well more than once.

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Kind of a motley crew here; the Barthes is misshelved but the lit crit shelves above are too full, so . . .

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Musical bios. More of these are scattered around the house. I gave away a few recently.

Some of these books made it on to a list I wrote of seven great books about rock and roll.

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Anthony Scaduto’s Dylan bio, which I, ahem, *borrowed* from my uncle years ago.

It made the rounds in high school but I managed to get it back somehow (but not its cover):

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Faulkner House/Crescent City Books (Books Acquired Some Time Last Week)

Had a wonderful if sweaty trip to New Orleans last week.

Great food, great music, and great bookstores.

First up, Faulkner House:

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Faulkner House is a tiny little shop just off Jackson Square. Its two rooms (really, a main room and a hallway) are lined from bottom to top with literature, poetry, and philosophy. I can’t overstate the excellence of the collection in here—all kinds of rare and beautiful tomes, signed stuff, local and localish stuff, etc (local gal Anne Rice was the closest thing I saw to genre fiction). It’s great to walk into a bookshop and see a near-complete collection of new NYRB volumes stacked prominently upfront along with new novels by Richard Ford and Teju Cole.

I picked up this handsome illustrated edition of Thomas Bernhard’s Victor Halfwit, the handsomeness and bigness and luxuriousness of which simply doesn’t come across in this lousy iPhone pic:

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Random framed shot:

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And a random two-page shot with glare:

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My wife picked out three lovely editions from Everyman’s Library Pocket series, poems from Christina Rosetti, Emily Dickinson, and Emily Brontë:

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The owner and the manager were very kind, knowledgeable, and tolerant of my questions about what kind of stock they moved (biggest seller, unsurprisingly, is Soldier’s Pay).

Info for Faulkner House, via bookmark (the manager put one in each book I bought):

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A few days later after a three-Bloody-Mary-breakfast I stumbled into Crescent City Books:

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This is a great shop that, like Faulkner House, doesn’t waste precious shelf space on glitter vampires or self-help books or novelty cookbooks. Lots of art volumes (many rare and in German, French, Italian, etc.), a large poetry section, philosophy, history, etc. Lots of great old prints too. And an old cat, who was basically boss of the place.

They also carry physical copies of Rain Taxi, which I haven’t seen in years.

I picked up Masquerade and Other Stories after a Biblioklept commenter recommended Walser (by way of Kafka). I read about half of this over the next few days (full review to come):

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Book Shelves #31, 7.29.2012

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Book shelves series #31, thirty-first Sunday of 2012

When I started this project I thought it would be a fun way to keep stock of the books that I have, and also a way to perhaps question why I hold on to the books that I hold on to.

I mean, why keep a book after you’ve read it?

Anyway, at times throughout this series I’ve gotten bored, or rushed; other times I’ve thought the idea was stupid, or narcissistic, or something even worse (although I don’t know what).

I like the shelves above the pedestrian, utilitarian jobber that I’ll feature this Sunday and the next: lots of aesthetically pleasing stuff there.

Not so this one, which holds photos and cookbooks and art books and old notebooks and sketchbooks and every kind of etcetera:

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At least that’s what I thought until I started digging into the cramped top shelf, dutifully bound to this project.

I wound up really enjoying myself, pausing over volumes that I haven’t looked at in ages, like this beauty:

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I’m not sure if the aesthetic joy of this postcard collection comes across in these lousy iPhone photo shots.

I got this on a trip to London when I was 11. It was just my mom and my brother and I. First we went to Singapore. We were coming back to the States for Christmas, and also to live, eventually. My brother broke his leg in Singapore jumping down some stairs and we didn’t realize it was broken until we got back to Florida.

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I used to draw and paint all the time, especially as a kid. Mostly animals.

There are at least a dozen skinny books like this on the shelf:

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I must have done hundreds of these as a kid:

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The shelf is also full of old comic strip collections that you probably recognize, like these guys:

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And this guy (and yes, I have the 7″ record from this collection)

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I also spent half an hour revising Rublowsky’s 1965 volume Pop Art, which is kind of fascinating in its contemporary proximity to its subject.

The cover’s not interesting, but Ken Heyman’s photos are; they show the artists in process. This one is kinda famous:

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And here’s Roy Lichtenstein:

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Book Shelves #19, 5.06.2012

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Book shelves series #19, nineteenth Sunday of 2012.

When I started this project, this shelf was all Tolkien and Joyce; now it’s mostly Gaddis and Joyce.

I have dupes of most of the Joyce books here; there’s also Joyce criticism/guides on the shelf.

Another angle. Glare is horrible. iPhone is not a good camera; lots of glare; shelf is much taller than me, etc.:

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Here’s a tight shot of the Brownie Six-16 that serves as bookend:

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Something from Finnegans Wake :

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Book Shelves #16, 4.15.2012

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Book shelves series #16, sixteenth Sunday of 2012.

It’s hard to photograph books, and using an iPhone 3gs probably doesn’t help. Lots of glare. Anyway: This shelf houses mostly Melville, with some Hawthorne, Poe, and Whitman, as well as some critical works on the American Renaissance movement. (Henry James and F.O. Matthiessen). I have other versions of a lot of these books, including a fraternal twin in my office, a bit bulkier (Emerson, Dickinson, Thoreau, etc.), although these days I’m apt to go to the Kindle for American Renaissance stuff. Here’s a better angle, perhaps:

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The version of Typee is bizarre: no colophon, no publisher info, just text. I love these midcentury Rinehart Editions of Hathorne and Melville stuff:

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Book Shelves #11, 3.11.2012

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Book shelves series #11, eleventh Sunday of 2012. DeLillo, Denis Johnson, Pynchon (no, I have not read Against the Day nor finished Mason & Dixon). There’s also a hardback copy of Bolaño’s Between Parentheses; I have an ARC of the same shelved with the other Bolaños, which are on the shelf under—but the finished copy won’t fit on the shelf and it fits here. For now.