Terrible Poem Breakdown: “Raise or Quit”

The Terrible Poem Breakdown series analyzes poems that are just not making it. We do this with the best intentions but pull no punches. Previous entries in our series can be found at the bottom of each post.

As always, the only rules are that the poems cannot be intentionally bad and the poet must be completely willing to submit to the analysis. I’m not qualified to judge poems for their formal qualities or even their poetic merit. I offer only the opinion of a willing reader and honest opinion provider.

Off we go!

Raise or Quit

I heard the story a hundred times
How my grampa and his brother Bill
Had worked for a farmer one summer picking beans.
Raise or quit, they told him one morning,
Just before the farmer sent them packing.
At lunch their mother sent them back.
That’s how life was for Hungarian immigrants
In Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin: You always went back.
Everyone in the room laughed. How foolish they’d been!
Thinking they were big shots!
Their mother, the embodiment of toughness and good sense, set them straight.
I carried these lessons deep within.
I’ve lived in many other places now.
Seen a lot of different people.
A lot of different parents.
Twenty years later I realize not everyone would have reacted the way we took for granted in Wisconsin.
Learned that there are parents who would think
That goddamn farmer could afford to throw another penny in the direction of two kids
Working like dogs on a hot day.
And that sometimes in life you need to say raise or quit
And have the guts to follow through.

The poet knows my weakness! Maybe it was my call for poems about Wisconsin. In any case, I have a soft spot for poems about grandfathers, and Wisconsin, and even Hungarian immigrants. I want to like this one, I really do!

Ugh…do I have to be critical? I guess that’s my job. The poem has problems: there’s some confusion about who’s exactly talking. Who’s telling the story? I had to read it twice to figure it out.

And then there’s…okay, I just don’t have it in me to keep going. I’m going to praise this one. I like the last line, which rings true to me (and more importantly, it just rings. And I love the twist, and the convoluted way it leaves us wondering. What do we think about this grandfatherly wisdom? And the narrator who sort of rejects it? What does it say about the Midwest and the humility of its people? Is that quality admirable or self-defeating?

The answer of course is: Yes.

That’s what I like about this one. Nice job, poet.

As always, my thanks to the poet for agreeing to submit to my scrutiny. Lesson to future poet-submitters: Play on my weaknesses! The Beatles, Shakespeare, Friday night high school basketball games, summers working on the farm, carnivals, the Honda CRX, Rocky Rococo’s pizza, New York City at night, Bologna in the snow…

Previous Terrible Poem Breakdowns:


2 thoughts on “Terrible Poem Breakdown: “Raise or Quit”

    1. I know, I don’t know if I have it in me to keep posting these. Some are not all that terrible! And the sincerity is starting to get to me. I think I have a few more in the hopper; after that we’ll take another look.


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