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Alphabet Poems: A Workshop

Presenting the worst alphabet poem I’ve written!

I’ve numbered the lines because I’d like to workshop the poem in case my process has something to offer other writers. Commentary follows the poem (it makes me cringe to call it “my poem.”)

M is for Bad Poetry
By Emile DeWeaver

1   Members of Congress dismember
2   merry lambs and sing
3   melodies to bleating sheep
4   massed around the reflecting pond. The
5   message: lamb-parts
6   made this nation great.
7   Mistakes we
8   make, but if
9   memories cannot be trusted, how can you not
10  misconceive our sins.
11  Mops in a closet damp with
12  mold spores that climb the dust
13  motes settling in the once-dark room
14  mucus on linoleum
15  maggots in wood grain
16  moco-colored moccasins hissing on a squaw’s
17  mumbling feet.
18  Milk spilling strings through a cheese grater, dripping curdled
19  murals on the floor.

Okay. Bad writing is always hard on my ego, but I’ve learned that bad writing has this fantastic quality. It makes clear what you want to express. This holds for poetry and prose; more often than not, it’s not the content that sucks, it’s the delivery. The good news is a bad delivery is fixable in revision. So let’s start that revision process.

The first 10 lines share three big problems. One, I’m talking at the reader, beating them to death with what I think about something. This is not an essay; it’s a poem, so if I want to climb up on my soap box, I need to find a more subtle way to do it. In other words, if you find yourself standing on a soap box, break out your smoke and mirrors and make sure your box looks like a magician’s stage to the audience.

The second problem in first 10 lines is the lack of imagery. (For the purpose of this workshop, I include smells and sounds in my idea of imagery.) 10 lines of pure ideas in poetry is sacrilege. To add insult to gunshot, several ideas parade through my lines disguised as images. This is how I find them.

I select a culprit, put myself in my readers’ minds, and ask “What does that look like?” If I have to construct the image, I might be looking at an idea in disguise. At the very least, I’m looking at a shitty image.

Examples: (1) “Congress dismember merry lambs.” What does that look like? Compare it to “Mops in a closet.” How quickly did the image of mops spring to mind? Did that happen with the first image. (2) “sing melodies to bleating sheep. ” Who the hell sings to sheep in Congress? Nobody. So I’m clearly trying to convey an idea (a cliched idea, to boot). It’s fine to convey ideas in poetry, but ideas in poetry benefit from being grounded in concrete imagery, not floating among 10 other ideas.

One reason why we root out images (and metaphors) that make the reader work to imagine is because we have a contract to uphold. The reader didn’t come to the page to construct images — that’s our job, to step inside their heads and do it for them. Poetry is the art of speaking through the reader’s mouth (not my quote but wish it was). Ideally, the process should be that seamless.

The third problem is in line 10. “Misconceive.” Please never use the word “misconceive.”

What works about my poem begins with line 11. I’d like to interact with my readers, so please leave comments about why the last half of my poem does or doesn’t work more effectively than the first half. I’ll get on my glory-of-good-poetry soapbox and talk about why I like them more in my next Alphabet Poem post.

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