The only time I was ever called out in a rap battle, I was wearing a Toothpaste for Dinner t-shirt with the little wobbly guy shouting "shut up shut up shut up." The MC referenced "homegirl's shirt telling you to shut up three times." As a mere rap battle spectator, I don't remember the context. It rhymed well; it worked. I think the guy won. I gave him a hug later.
I was reminded of this because poorly-executed rap battles fit one of several cultural tropes for bad poetry. That particular comic is a tidy summary of why I'm reluctant to say I'm a poet in mixed company: people get all the wrong ideas.
So here's a letter about bad poetry throughout the ages, conveniently subdivided into three headings. Send a copy to your friend or relative whose knowledge of the contemporary canon begins with Billy Corgan's Blinking with Fists and ends with "I heard James Franco did some poems once"!
(God, I hate James Franco. I want to ship his face to the Pacific Garbage Patch.)
1. Boringly rhymed verse
Like many hilarious things in life, this letter started with Bob's Burgers, which Nick and I are currently watching almost every night. We fell over laughing as Sad Cat Lady Gayle tortured poor little devious Louise with her poem "Happy Things We Should Send Into Space." (Here's a YouTube excerpt.)
"You should write a letter about bad poetry," my loving partner said. "Just eviscerate all the stereotypes." The oldest trick in the modern-English book is where I'll start: rhyme scheme! Gayle's poem end-rhymes all the way through (mayo/Baio/"day-o"). It has that sing-songy nursery-rhyme feel that you might've learned to hate if anyone ever made you study Robert Frost against your will. My amazement that he made a poem that might be about taking a leak in the woods into a national treasure is the subject for another discussion.
When I reviewed a collection of sonnets, it was important to start with the form. People know what a sonnet is: fourteen lines long, Shakespeare wrote a bunch of 'em, my mistress' eyes are nothing like her butt, etc etc etc. If you've ever tried to write a sonnet, you know they're far easier to mock than they are to finish. Form and rhyme aren't bad things. They just might not suit you.
2. Terrible beat-inspired emo woes, or your worst slam nightmare
File Aunt Gayle yelling about squatting and the Toothpaste for Dinner "oh noetry" poet here. This is the type of poetry associated with sad dudes at open mics, young women without healthy outlets for their many feelings, and full-grown adults with MFAs and poor judgment. In America, at least, I really think the Beat poets fucked it up for everybody: they set the precedent that a speed-fueled scroll could be a canonical novel, and any old scribble could be a poem.
One of my problematic Beat Generation faves, Richard Brautigan, often descends into terrible drunken emo poetry. Like, come on, dude, there is nothing aesthetically appealing about likening birth control to an actual mine collapsing, and yet here you are naming your most famous volume of poems after that. Way to go, although I give you a slight pass because Trout Fishing in America is a legitimately excellent book, and "I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone" was one of the readings at our wedding.
I saw a writer perform a piece that largely consisted of the words "dirt and dirt and dirt" repeated for about ten minutes. "That's interesting," I thought, "it starts to sound like 'Endure it,' which is what we are doing, together in this room." I stroked my chin in contemplation and thought little more of it — until I saw the same performance in a different gallery about a month later, at which point I hated language itself.
And now we arrive at the craftiest of my three categories, the dis poem. File bad (or culturally appropriative, or boring) rap battles under this one, along with about two-thirds of the stuff under the other two categories. The dis poem is pure haterade directed at The One Who Has Wronged Me, The Poet, Whose Pen Is Pure As Their Heart. I'd write one about James Franco if I did not know that my time on this earth is too finite to waste contemplating his terrible existence.
To fully explore the dis poem and why it might actually be a good thing, we must travel back in time to ancient Rome, where Catullus crafted disses like "you plague and mere famine." In my copy these opening lines are translated as "Socration and Porky, Piso's thugs, / famine scabs of the world," which certainly has a better ring to it.
I picked up that cheap copy of the complete Catullus for help understanding a Dorothea Lasky poem called "Never Did Amount to Anything." Lasky's dis hadn't quite landed for me, and I usually love her work. I like this poem more in light of Catullus 43: it's a feminist complication and rewrite of the Roman. Lasky addresses a "dear sister" instead of a pure hater and throws pronouns around in all the best ways.
Mastery of dis poetics is why Nicki Minaj will be among my favorite living poets for as long as she keeps dunking on men with "all these bitches is my sons." If we've met IRL, you've probably heard me hollering about how this is the world's greatest all-gender boast/dis of all time, and I desperately need a Soundcloud megamix of every time Nicki says it.