with critiques by Jendi Reiter
This month, the Critique Corner looks at more runners-up from the 2004 Wergle Flomp Poetry Contest, in our continuing quest to define poetry so bad it's good.
INTERNECINE WITH SPAM
by Anthony McMillan
I acquiescence to Spam, nothing left...
But that one can, acidulous; sitting alone
On the shelf, obeisance to the Cag-mag,
This has gotten out of hand; I am broken
-------The can must be opened-------
I feel a little nostalgie de la boue, as the top of
The can is removed, for it reminds of darkly days
When hunger had its ways and smashed pork in a can
Seemed almost toothsome and grand.
Now I am throe and threnody, loathing my penury
As I spoon the scoria out into a bowl.
It squishes on the spoon, its sibilants, some
Domestic swine like tune; that I cannot understand
But imagine its saying, "Damn, I'm dead/cut up
And crushed in this can". Now I rue the day
I mixed my "babe like," friend in
Effluvium, on bread and I feel such dread
But I slaver nonetheless, I do hope you understand;
It's truly out of my hand, there was only this one
Can of Spam, acidulous; sitting alone.
So shut up and leave me alone
Copyright 2005 by Anthony McMillan
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Anthony McMillan's "Internecine with Spam" is a fine example of the "ode to junk food" genre, to which some of our best Wergle entries belong. As I observed in last month's critique, humor thrives on contrast and incongruity. The cheap mass-produced foodstuffs of modern life defy all efforts to romanticize them in verse. Junk food, flattering our basest tastes, represents the opposite of art's mission to dignify our animal life with meaning. The more elaborate the language, the more sharply the mismatch is felt.
Paying effusive homage to a subject clearly unworthy of the honor is a classic form of mockery. The satire cuts in both directions, however, since lavishing poetic care on a product like Spam also exposes poetry's potential for clueless self-absorption and fussy remoteness from everyday life.
McMillan's poem derives added humor from its occasional misuse of erudite words, giving the impression that the speaker is trying hard to sound "literary" but has more enthusiasm than talent. For instance, the title employs "Internecine" (an adjective to describe internal strife or warfare within a group) instead of the more sensible noun "Interlude". Perhaps "Internecine" is a reference to a lost kinship between man and pig: " Now I rue the day/I mixed my 'babe like,' friend in/Mayonaise".
Similarly, the narrator expresses his inner conflict colorfully, yet ungrammatically, with the words, "Now I am throe and threnody". A throe is like a pang (throes of death), while a threnody is a poetic lament. He might feel throes, or sing a threnody, but his chosen phrasing suggests that the narrator is tossing around lofty words of sorrow without quite knowing what they mean. "Scoria" means "pebbles formed by lava," but it has a vaguely repulsive, medical sound (like "viscera"), as well as being a creative description of Spam's texture.
Another humorous device used by McMillan is the constant intrusion of the grotesque into the narrator's grandiose musings. The narrator tries to give deep meaning to the act of eating Spam: "I feel a little nostalgie de la boue, as the top of/The can is removed, for it reminds of darkly days/When hunger had its ways". However, the disgusting details keep getting in the way: the "smashed pork in a can... squishes on the spoon, its sibilants, some/ Domestic swine like tune". (I found several definitions of "Cag-mag" on the Internet, but the one that seems apt here is the Welsh slang for "offal, bad meat.")
I was impressed by this poem's playful rhythm and internal rhymes, particularly in the third stanza. The last two lines ("So shut up and leave me alone/I'm hungry") broke the mood for me. They seemed superfluous, perhaps trying too hard to be funny, and also out of step with the narrator's self-dramatizing, pseudo-intellectual persona. He suddenly sounded like a teenager, certainly not old and refined enough to have "nostalgie de la boue".
The poem could have ended with "Can of Spam, acidulous; sitting alone," which brackets the poem with similar lines in the first and last stanzas. Another option would be to replace the word "acidulous" in the last line with an equally erudite yet nauseating word, such as "glutinous," to avoid redundancy.
I don't think I feel very hungry anymore....
SPINNY SPINNY PINWHEEL
by Maria St. Clair
Spinny Spinny Pinwheel
Go Round And Round
Pretty Pretty Colors
Like Spinning Flowers
Pinwheel Go Spin Spin
Spinny Spin Spin
My Little Spinny Pinwheel
Spin Spin Spin
Copyright 2005 by Maria St. Clair
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Inane yet strangely charming, "Spinny Spinny Pinwheel" was the best among many entries that tested the vanity contests' willingness to publish childlike babble. This is generally not my favorite type of humor poem, since it's a little too easy to write, and lacks the complexity and inventiveness that allow a humorous piece to stand up to multiple readings. Such poems are also harder to distinguish from one another, which is a disadvantage in a competition.
So what made "Spinny Spinny Pinwheel" stand out? Maybe it was the poem's artless spirit of fun. Like a toddler who can amuse himself (and annoy his parents) for hours by repeating the same jingle, the speaker finds endless satisfaction in repeating variations on a few simple words: "Pinwheel Go Spin Spin...Spinny Spinny/Spin Spin/Pinny Wheelie". Every word is capitalized, every moment as important as any other. The speaker, like a small child, exists in a perpetual present where the same word or object is always fresh and fascinating.
Also appealing was the sense that the narrator has no idea how dopey her little poem is. We receive many other entries in this style that self-consciously call attention to their lack of merit. Like the comedian who laughs too loud at his own jokes, these authors detract from their humor by belaboring it. "Spinny Spinny Pinwheel" maintains a consistent focus, never glancing over its metaphorical shoulder to see if the audience is laughing. Even the final misspelled "forver" is endearing, like a lisping child who mispronounces words in his eagerness to share his latest enthusiasm.
Having now proven that the inventive critic can find Deep Meaning in just about anything, we proceed to our final poem....
by Mark Stevick
On certain mindless summer days
we hear the river's throat confessing fish,
and our eyes grow empty toward desire
which swims below our pupils,
and we will not be
until we are stumps beneath the sycamores,
reaching roots into the liquid music
for the singing trout.
From the shed or the garage
my friend resurrects a spade
barnacled with minerals
and spoonish like my tongue but
pointed slightly--I can just see that.
This iron edge will open up another mouth
pronouncing soil and stones.
We will be digging for worms.
It might be anywhere that we will
drop the blade and bite;
we are reckless and slightly desperate,
pace the undulating lawns past shrubbery
past bricked beds,
pacing generally toward some unattended corner,
toward anonymity in the mulch and
our specific relief.
We are always lucky.
Shovelling in sweat I am surprised
at the hole I myself am widening.
The worms turn up.
We stand in the silence of farmers and stare
at their appalling knots and humid tangles,
knowing, as we fish, that some dashing
invertebrate Romeo leeches after his soft lover.
Copyright 2005 by Mark Stevick
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Mark Stevick, winner of serious contests from such fine publications as Swink Magazine and The Baltimore Review, can also claim the unique honor of having his poem rejected by the Wergle Flomp Poetry Contest because it was too good. Although the poem's sexual innuendos occasionally edge toward absurdity, the vast majority of the piece is so lyrical and original that one cannot help but take it seriously. The final image of star-crossed worm lovers is amusing as intended, but the writing that precedes it is too strong to be undermined by a touch of self-parody. If anything, the occasional bursts of humor make the characters more likeable, and rescue their idyll from sentimentality.
The first four lines beautifully capture the haze of desire that descends upon the protagonists. The literal object of their obsession is catching fish, but that activity stands in for all the pleasures of surrendering to a languid summer day.
Chief among those pleasures is sex, a presence that lingers just below the surface for most of the poem, slyly peeking out through the images of digging a hole. "It might be anywhere that we will/drop the blade and bite;/we are reckless and slightly desperate". The protagonists are like teenage boys in love with their own animal exuberance, so caught up in the magic of the act itself that they are indiscriminate about whom they catch.
"We are always lucky./Shovelling in sweat I am surprised/at the hole I myself am widening." It doesn't take Dr. Freud to figure that one out. As these images accumulate, the innuendo becomes more obvious, and the poem risks making the protagonists seem ridiculous. After all, they're getting turned on by the unromantic and slightly disgusting activity of digging for bait worms.
With the last two lines, however, the speaker reveals that he's in on the joke, enjoying the comical side of sex as well as the passionate side. In the "appalling knots and humid tangles" of the worms, the speaker seems to see (and genially accept) how bestial, silly or weird our romantic couplings might appear to an outsider. I loved this poem, but I felt it was not really a spoof but a serious piece leavened with humor.
In place of the usual list of potential markets for the critique poems, I'd like to close with a selection of my favorite books of humorous verse:
Very Bad Poetry
Edited by Ross and Kathryn Petras
Unintentionally awful verse through the ages. Include 19th-century bard James McIntyre's not to be missed "Ode on the Mammoth Cheese Weighing Over 7,000 Pounds".
The Stuffed Owl
Edited by D.B. Wyndham-Lewis and Charles Lee
Another treasury of cringe-worthy classics, with equally amusing commentary by the editors.
Pegasus Descending: A Book of the Best Bad Verse
Edited by James Camp
Much-praised anthology shows that even Emily Dickinson was capable of a few clunkers.
The following two winners of prestigious first-book prizes are not strictly humorists, but their work displays a madcap inventiveness and levity that are all too rare on today's literary scene:
By Jonah Winter
Offbeat offerings in this winner of the Slope Editions Book Prize include "Hair Club for Corpses" and a sestina in which every line ends with "Bob".
A Defense of Poetry
By Gabriel Gudding
This winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize rediscovers the glorious art of invective in the title poem, comprising several pages of (footnoted) insults such as "your brain is the Peanut of Abomination" and "suing you would be like suing a squirrel".
These poems and critiques appeared in the March 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter. If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.