Terrible Poem Breakdown: “Ode to a 20-Year-Old ‘Poet'”

A pre-emptive strike from our poet! A poem that has its criticism built in! Let’s take a look.

The usual reminder: the Terrible Poem Breakdown series looks upon failed poems and describe their impact on me. The only two rules are that 1) the writer is completely on board with being criticized, and 2) the poem cannot be willfully bad.

On we go.

Ode to a 20-Year-Old “Poet”

I can say this much: the thing is memorable
As is the story behind it
A dalliance I had 20 years ago with an Italian woman 10 years my senior
A fruit seller. We won each other with smiles
Our love was far more flirtation than fling
We met one night by the broken towers
And then, after a kiss, the dialogue
I spoke in English, trying to convey something meaningful
And she looked frightened, which frightened me
The shock of it all–love, lust, adventure, surprise, fear–
Was too much for the poet in my soul
I, who was drunk with Keats, and who felt like I had just smashed a nightingale
Here we go.

                Can it be the words I speak too many thoughts contain?

Yikes. Look at that line, just look at it and marvel.
It gets worse:

                Exists the possibility mine tongue exceeds thy brain?

Now we’re into seriously deranged territory.
There’s a rhyme. There’s a cadence. Small victories.
Mine? Thy brain? Huge defeats. But we’re only halfway there. Still on the ascent!

                O silence me! With dagger’s point! O silence me! For fain

–and we’ve crested. Fain! A dagger! Not one but two Os!
Did I mention I was reading Keats at the time? (Did I need to mention it?)

                Would I know mortal sleep–cold death would be withstood

Mmm yes. Looking back, probably a bit exaggerated.

                Than speak to thee–thy steely eyes!–and be misunderstood.

Steely eyes! Daggers are made of steel! GET IT, FUTURE CRITIC? WELL, DO YOU?
Ah yes. Mercifully all known copies are destroyed.
Rest in peace, twenty-year-old poet
I miss you.

Oh my. Well, let me say first of all that I’ve never liked those artists who talk about how they predicted what critics would say, and they knew exactly how their work would be received, etc. etc. It’s particularly bad when you put it right into the work itself. “I know what you’re going to say. This is a long boring stretch of dialogue that doesn’t advance the plot. But reader, perhaps our characters are not in the mood to advance the plot? Maybe their dialogue goes nowhere because they’re going nowhere and so they’re talking about it…”

You’ve seen passages like this, right? Do they stand out to you as much as they do to me? Just get on with it, artist! If it’s boring, don’t tell us it’s boring and try to inoculate yourself against criticism. Kill your darlings. Don’t make the reader suffer – then make things worse by trying to be smarter than your work. You’re not. Or rather, you are, but nobody cares.

This poem feels a little different. Not much. But a little.

This poet is looking for something to write about. He’s no doubt failed, in poetry and in life. (He’s certainly evidencing some failure here!) All that is to the good: we like failure on this blog. So the question is: does he redeem his failure by writing about it? Or merely compound it?

Let’s take a look at the poem-within-a-poem:

Can it be the words I speak too many thoughts contain?
Exists the possibility mine tongue exceeds thy brain?
O silence me! With dagger’s point! O silence me! For fain
Would I know mortal sleep–cold death would be withstood
Than speak to thee–thy steely eyes!–and be misunderstood.

That’s serious, full-scale, unmitigated failure! The analysis basically says “Sorry, folks. I’ve moved on. But I miss the days of failing with that much sincerity.” I can kind of get behind that, I guess. So again, the question is:

Does he redeem his failure or compound it?

And the answer is:

Yes.

As always, my thanks etc. for being a good sport. Glad to have a poem about Italy. Still looking for poems about Wisconsin, Scotland, Taiwan, Chicago, etc. Also garbage trucks, wordsmithing, sprezzatura, the Beatles, the nature of genius, Picasso, Aubrey/Maturin, and all my other obsessions.

Other Poems in the Terrible Poem Breakdown Series:

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