Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sod's Law

From The Times Literary Supplement
April 15, 2011

Sod's law

Since last week, we have been mulling over the remark we quoted from Charles Bernstein on the marketing of poetry as a medium for "uplifting" thoughts. Mr Bernstein was reacting to US National Poetry Month, which comes round each April. "The message is: Poetry is good for you", he said. "I want a poetry that's bad for you."

The rhetorical force of this is clear, even if it doesn't stand much scrutiny. Obviously, Mr Bernstein doesn't want poetry that will cause actual harm; he wants poetry that's bad for you that's really good for you. The Waste Land might be one example. T. S. Eliot would not have been asked to dress in spring fashions for a special poetry supplement of O: The Oprah Magazine in 1922. Some of Ezra Pound's early verse was uplifting and good for you; later he wrote poetry that's bad for you that's really good for you; eventually he wrote poetry that was bad for everybody, especially him. "Howl" used to be poetry that's bad for you, but a recent tame movie, with a cool dude miscast as Allen Ginsberg, turned it into poetry that's good for you (and therefore, in Bernsteinian logic, bad for you). Some of D. H. Lawrence's poetry is bad for you. Some of Robert Frost's is good for you, but more bad for you than it seems. The best of Hugh MacDiarmid is bad-but-good; the worst is plain bad. Sylvia Plath's poetry is bad for you; so is Ted Hughes's Crow.

These brief reflections on Mr Bernstein's dictum have brought home to us how much good sense there is in it (good as in good). The above is intended as a step towards a canon of poetry that's bad for you that's really good for you. Further suggestions would be welcome.

Note: for more on Sod's Law, click here.


Jordan said...

JC's Law: Whatever everybody says will happen, will not happen.

JD's Law: Poets exist mainly to keep other poets from writing.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

GBF’s Law: Poetry should focus on the existential and spiritual mysteries we all share. Any further use, e.g., to comment on contemporary political or social issues, is equivalent to opening your finest bottle of Bordeaux to serve with the hot dogs you just grilled up in the backyard. A truly good poem will always transcend the temporary and address the significant social and political issues of any given time. Otherwise, don’t waste your time… just write an essay.

Michael Schiavo said...

Or, as A.R. Ammons suggested, a letter to the editor.