Monday, July 29, 2013

On good and bad poetry

There is an art gallery called MOBA – the Museum of Bad Art – where the motto is “Art too bad to be ignored”.

I went to the website to check out the collection. I was intrigued. But a corner of my mind was also truly anxious. Anxious for the artists who find their work featured in such a gallery. It is all very well to say the work is being 'preserved' and 'celebrated' but who can stomach their work to be called 'bad'? What would it feel like to walk into such a gallery and find on the walls a shred of your own soul?

To my relief, I found that much of the work was listed as Anonymous or Artist Unknown.

I still had gooseflesh though, just thinking about the people who run this thing. They unapologetically use the phrase 'bad art' even though the curator has been quoted in Wired magazine as saying: “The paintings are all inspired, genuine attempts at something. There's a lot of passion in them, but something ran amok. As a result, they need to be seen.”

So, then, this is not 'bad' art at all. It is simply art that doesn't quite transcend the artists' limitations. It fails to be stunning. But it remains compelling (check out some of the portraiture, or the 'noods' online: ). In fact, it is better than a lot of art I've seen in mainstream, popular art galleries. Besides, somebody is putting time and money into a 'bad art' project. Thousands of miles away, I'm staring at 'bad' paintings, trying to tap into the energy that fired the artist. I actually like a lot of what I saw.

So, what makes these paintings collectible and viewable if they're neither good nor bad? And what would be truly bad art?

Perhaps, bad art would have to be something you can ignore. It neither offends nor grabs you. It disturbs nothing, triggers nothing, causes you to wonder about nothing. Art that can, at best, be described as the sum of its materials – canvas, colour, representations of live creatures or abstract shapes. Art that does not seek to speak. Not only does it leave you cold, you suspect that even the artist did not care to submit her/his soul to the canvas.

Now, just replace 'painting' with poetry. I think, the principle holds.

It is true that I write a fair bit of bad poetry myself. I write across genres and poetry is the thing that pays least. My soul has to be hurting. My mind has to be exhausted, flying, longing to be centred and stilled. At such times, I write a poem. If I'm lucky, if I work hard and long, it turns out okay.

Occasionally, I also write for practise. Art doesn't like dabblers. Your muscles get flabby. Your eye stops 'seeing'. There's a reason for phrases like 'being out of touch' or 'losing touch'; you must keep touching what you don't want to lose. So, I make myself write sometimes even if I don't want to.

Usually, I end up discarding such poems. A stray line or two might be 'working'. I try to salvage them, using them as a diving board to work into new poems.

I destroyed much of my early work. A decade later, I could see what it was – emotional outpourings punctuated by enjambment. As if line breaks could convert a diary or blog post into art. Still, those were good practising years. Some poems escaped being awful. Some were mediocre – some metaphors, some alliteration, a few nice leaps of logic. Maybe five poems over the first five years of writing were good enough to keep in my file.

But I wanted to write better and I went looking for feedback. I joined peer review writing groups. In groups like Caferati, poetry used to dominate. There were many people writing and sharing poems. At one stage, I used to spend several hours a day reading, re-reading, carefully phrasing my critique.

Much of what we shared was bad poetry. And I don't mean 'bad' in the MOBA sense. I mean that these were poems that could easily be ignored. There was nothing to distinguish metaphors and similes. They did not disturb, trigger, cause wonder, or delight. They were a loose collection of impressions and memories. 

Most writers simply do not read and write enough to know that you have to sweat over the lines until the page is slick with meaning. The reader does not want to witness your labours. The reader must be left with only a vague memory of salt.

The reader must be able to see a tar road on a rainy night and start thinking 'sky'. You must pull it off without saying 'sky' or 'night' and if you can help it, not even 'road'. Everyone knows the sky is full of stars. Everyone knows stars shine. Where's your 'art' if you're just going to tell me the sky was dark and the stars were shining and you were driving and the road was shining too?

Knowing this, of course, does not preclude me from the gallery of bad art. I still write bad poems. I put words on the page, trying to capture something – who knows what? Hopefully, something I didn't capture in the last poem. Hopefully, something nobody has captured before. Something that is mine to capture. Something that cannot be ignored.

This was written for Raedleaf, a site devoted to poetry.

1 comment:

Aditi said...

Very well written...where is the imagination or the artistic expression if you say a sky is a sky and it is blue! Loved the post. Will surely check out the MOBA website. If it inspired you to write, surely it can't be that 'bad' :)

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