“In the beginning” and other cliches

Dunce One’s post about Very Bad Poetry got me thinking.  Once upon a time, I used to like poetry very much, and fancied myself somewhat of a burgeoning poet.  The reality is, I haven’t written or attempted to write a poem in well over a decade (life gets in the way; you know how it goes).  So imagine my excitement when I came across the “¡Poetry!” group on www.Goodreads.com, a group for poetry enthusiasts to share favorite poems and ideas, as well as original works, in hopes of praise, acclaim, advice, understanding, or (one would hope at least constructive) criticism. 

Now, for anyone who has ever written and shared a work of fiction, you know there is a certain amount of vulnerability at play.  And as I confessed in response to Dunce One’s post, I do live in mortal fear of appearing in a World’s Worst… anything.  Nevertheless, I decided to face my fears.  Taking less than five minutes, as I was busy at the time, I came up with the following:

“She Knows”

In the beginning
There was only her
Smile, and a hint of something more
But then smiles
Became thoughts
And thoughts
Became whispers
That would scream at me
In my almost sleep
Until I saw her again
And it all started over

This is not the best poem ever written.  In fact, I am fairly confident this is not the best poem I have ever written.  This may actually be the worst poem I have ever written.  But I was just anxious to get back on the proverbial horse, put myself out there, and engage in some dialogue with my fellow poetry enthusiasts.  For my troubles, I was treated to the following:

The ideas seem strung-together and have no innate coherence. The use of a cliché as an opener is also a signal to the reader that you are inexperienced. And, in fact, it doesn’t mean anything, nor does it fit with the rest of the poem, which is very fractured, disjunct, and unclear. The progression ‘…smiles/Became thoughts/And thoughts became whispers/That would scream at me/in my almost sleep’ doesn’t mean anything really. We readers are forced to make it mean something by the nature of its vagary. Don’t make us connect the dots, because there is too little here for that to be profitable. You had some intended meaning, right? Well, tell us what it was, don’t merely dust vagary on the page and force your readers to try to guess what you might have meant. And finally, like almost everything in this folder, you’ve written prose:

‘In the beginning there was only her smile, and a hint of something more. But then smiles became thoughts, and thoughts became whispers that would scream at me in my almost-sleep—until I saw her again and it all started over.’

Whoa, buddy!  There are some big words in there.  And you can tell, for sure, that somebody takes his poetry criticism very, very seriously (can’t you just picture this guy, smug and angry, with his Nietzsche anthology in one hand and (though he would never admit this) a much-used thesaurus in the other?)  He left me no choice:

Okay, okay, you’ve got me.  Guilty.  I admit, I am not a professional or, apparently, even a passable novice poet (if I can call myself a poet at all).  Sorry to have wasted your time.

Your critique was so inspiring, however, and was delivered with such unabashed glee, it makes me wonder if, rather than trying to create anything original, my time would be better spent criticizing what other people write.  Yes, I think I will try that, starting with your critique.  I hope you don’t mind.

I’m afraid I can’t endorse the hyphenated “strung-together,” appearing, as it does, after the noun it modifies.  Maybe, if you would have placed it before “ideas,” I could have given you a pass; but as it stands, I’m afraid you have created a hyperactively-hyphenated modifier, and that simply will not do. But what are your feelings on alliteration?

And “in the beginning” is a cliché, you say?  I wonder what Dylan Thomas would say about that, having drafted the following:

“In the Beginning”

In the beginning was the three-pointed star,
One smile of light across the empty face,
One bough of bone across the rooting air,
The substance forked that marrowed the first sun,
And, burning ciphers on the round of space,
Heaven and hell mixed as they spun.

In the beginning was the pale signature,
Three-syllabled and starry as the smile,
And after came the imprints on the water,
Stamp of the minted face upon the moon;
The blood that touched the crosstree and the grail
Touched the first cloud and left a sign.

In the beginning was the mounting fire
That set alight the weathers from a spark,
A three-eyed, red-eyed spark, blunt as a flower,
Life rose and spouted from the rolling seas,
Burst in the roots, pumped from the earth and rock
The secret oils that drive the grass.

In the beginning was the word, the word
That from the solid bases of the light
Abstracted all the letters of the void;
And from the cloudy bases of the breath
The word flowed up, translating to the heart
First characters of birth and death.

In the beginning was the secret brain.
The brain was celled and soldered in the thought
Before the pitch was forking to a sun;
Before the veins were shaking in their sieve,
Blood shot and scattered to the winds of light
The ribbed original of love.

-Dylan Thomas-

(to say nothing for the poor fool that started the first book of Genesis in that same hackneyed manner)?  Here, I thought “in the beginning” was simply a prepositional phrase, admittedly common, but indicating a relative point in time.  Silly me.

Oh, and if I didn’t know any better, I would argue that your amateurish use of the terms “innate,” “disjunct,” and “vagary” smacked of pseudo-intellectualism.  And using “fractured” immediately next to “disjunct” in the same list, hate to say it, but that seems just a wee bit redundant (oh, and “vagary,” which is an admittedly big and impressive word, yeah, you used that twice; I’m not sure if that more suggests laziness or just a lack of imagination).

Maybe lack of imagination, as the overall gist of your analysis seems to be that I need to completely spell out my intended meaning for you.  I thought poetry allowed for and, in some instances, even required interpretation by the audience.  What do YOU feel? What do YOU think the words mean?  What do YOU think I was talking about?  What would YOU be talking about if it was you?  In fairness, you did give me your clear answer: NOTHING.

But is it truly not poetry?  Maybe not good poetry.  Maybe not the best poetry ever written.  But is it really prose?  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “prose” as “1. a: the ordinary language people use in speaking and writing, b: a literary medium distinguished from poetry esp. by its greater irregularity and variety of rhythm and its closer correspondence to the patterns of everyday speech.”  Do you speak like that every day?  Do people ordinarily write and speak in that way?  I don’t know.

I do know you wrote it all out as a couple of sentences, and that was a very neat trick.  But couldn’t you do that with any poem, to a similar effect?  If you want iambic pentameter, see Shakespeare’s sonnets, and if you want rhyme, try Dr. Seuss.  But accusing, not just me, but “almost everything in this folder” of being prose, of not being poetry, despite the various authors’ best attempts: that is too harsh, unkind, and unnecessary.

They say that those who can, do.  And those who can’t, teach.  Apparently those who REALLY can’t settle for harshly criticizing those who try.

Thanks, though.

You’re right; criticizing is MUCH easier.

I don’t think of myself as a thin-skinned person, but maybe I am.  I don’t know.  But I do know that I don’t like the sense of entitlement people have, and how the anonymity of the internet turns many people into bullies.  I just don’t get the value in non-constructive, harsh criticism.  Maybe this guy just had really strong feelings about seeing that I never attempt to write a poem ever again.  Maybe he was doing the world a great service.  I was not looking for empty compliments or ego stroking.  I’m not certain what I was looking for, really.  But I know it wasn’t what I got.

I don’t think I’ll participate in that group any more, as it was hardly the accepting, virtual open-mic experience I was hoping for.  But I will never, ever stop writing.

5 thoughts on ““In the beginning” and other cliches

  1. BRAVO!!!!! This is truly the most entertaining thing I’ve read in a long time. I know it goes against every single thing you believe in, gentle Dunce Two, but you are truly at your wittiest when ripping somebody a new one.

    Oh, and I very much enjoyed your poem and was able, somehow, to extract meaning from it, in spite of its alleged vagaries.

    • Thank you, Daisy M. You are too, too kind. Again, I don’t defend the “poem” as perfect, but wasn’t he just unnecessarily caustic and smug? It makes me want to temper my own critiques going forward, even of professional and published works. In many instances, if you can’t say anything nice, it truly is best to just not say anything at all.

      Vagaries notwithstanding, I am abundantly pleased that at least one person has considered my meager efforts and found them, even if only just a smidgeon, more than meaningless.

      • (My favorite part of the whole experience, and I say this with sincerity, was the vocabulary lesson he thought he was giving me. You’re going to have to do considerably better than that to wow this prosaist).

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