I was surprised to discover that America magazine has a $1000 annual prize for poetry. But I was extremely surprised at how laughably bad I found the 2004 winner. I had thought that the decline of the Jesuit order was only obvious in its public dissent and its inability to generate interested novices, but this poem indicates that the rot is much deeper; even the Jesuits' academic excellence, which some contemporary Jesuit universities seem to treat as the only virtue, is endangered.
For now, the bad poem is located at this website but I reproduce it below:
The Mouse and the Human
By Tryfon Tolides
The mouse doesn't really bother anyone. It doesn't
go around holding up banks or shooting people
in the face or locking them up in dank jail cells
and sticking electric prods to their genitals. It doesn't
build jet fighters and bomb our cities in the name
of peace in the middle of the night while we are sleeping.
It doesn't plant toy mines to blow our children's arms off.
All the mouse wants is to share with us some shelter,
food, even the warmth of its nervous body. Yet we plug up
the cupboards so it can't eat, and we chase it around
the living room with a broom and remove all the chairs
till it has nowhere to hide; then we club it to death
as it squeals. Or we set up traps with something it likes
to lure it into strangulation and burst its eyes out
of its head. And against what? A few light scratchings
heard in the ceiling once in a while keeping us company
at night? Two or three crumbs of bread taken from
the kitchen floor? And after the mouse, there are the ants
to be poisoned, the bees to be gassed and burned.
Later, the dandelions to be choked by spraying. And after
that, after that, there must be something after that.
I think the last line is the best line in the poem, both in the mean sense that one is joyful it is finished, but also because it evokes a movement towards uncertainty that otherwise is not present in this moralizing mess of "prose-poetry." But of course the poem fails miserably there, too, since it doesn't take enough space to explore the uncertainty. This takes the saying "poetry does nothing" far too literally, since there is really no movement in it. It's just a simplified version of the old Sesame Street "one of these things is not like the other" game, which, needless to say, wasn't all that complex to begin with.
I passed this on to a doctoral student in English lit, and she wrote the following reply, off-the-cuff:
...this poem makes me want to cry. Or laugh. Or
beat my head against the wall. Hey, if I organize the lines properly,
that would count as poetry, wouldn't it?
"Poem on the poem that won the contest sponsored by America"This stupid mouse poem, so naive
Moves me to despair
agony and self-torment. Only now do I understand
why hermits whipped themselves with thorns:
They had seen the future of poetry
and they saw that it was bad.
Note my 'clever' disregard for punctuation, capitalization, and
sentence structure. That's how you can tell it's a poem.
I've long wondered whether Maritain rightly defended the aesthete's saying ars gratia artis(art for art's sake) in Art and Scholasticism, but this poem makes me even more sympathetic to Maritain's analysis. I don't even know if this is blank verse. Some critic once said that writing blank verse was like playing tennis without a net. This "award-winning poet" isn't even playing with a stringed racket. One wonders if it is a joke, since the would-be poet's name looks like it could be a Hellenic pseudonym. A google search proves otherwise, alas. America indicates it received over 1,300 submission for its poetry contest, which suggest the following:
1) The poetry editor is incompetent.
2) The poetry editor is corrupt, granting the award out of personal or ideological favoritism.
3) The poetry contest itself is just an economic attempt to expand America's reader base by purchasing cultural cachet.
4) Any "poets" who read America are so bad that we need a superlative form of the superlative "most talentless."
In all honesty, I think my juvenalia was better written than this poem. Lots of it was on "poetic" things, too, like sleep, aging, and death. Considering the competition, perhaps I should shake the dust from my quill. Auberon Waugh, I believe, established the bad sex writing contest. Perhaps a bad poetry contest would do wonders towards the improvement of modern poetics.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, pray for us!
Not that it is terribly difficult to do, but I have found a mouse poem that easily bests Tryfon's attempt.
by Rose Fyleman
I think mice are rather nice;
Their tails are long, their faces small;
They haven't any chins at all.
Their ears are pink, their teeth are white,
They run about the house at night;
They nibble things they shouldn't touch,
and, no one seems to like them much,
but, I think mice are rather nice.
All it needs is another stanza beginning "I think war is quite a bore," and it'll even capture the award-winning poet's botched efforts at contrasting the differences between mice and men.
I should mention that I heard the better poem while enjoying the commercial-free radio provided by my ISP. What station? The children's channel, of course.
This is actually the second piece of evidence in a month that America is intellectually sub-par. One of their columnists copied part of his speech from the Rainbow Sash Coalition, without attribution.
William Luse is having a poetry contest inspired by our hapless prize-winner: make a better mouse poem!