Sunday, January 15, 2006
  Bad poetry
A while back I wrote that there is an awful lot of bad Islamic poetry written in English. (Heck, there's an awful lot of bad poetry written in English period, Islamic or not.) A friend wrote to me to ask what I meant by bad poetry. I thought what I came up with might be useful for other (beginning) writers, so I decided to post it here.

So, according to my definition, bad poetry includes one or more of the following flaws:

1) Rhymes that don't quite work. I know this is done by some of the great masters when they rhyme "again" with "rain," and so on, but it irks. (And maybe back then the pronounciation of those words was a lot closer than it is in today's English). I see this all the time. Things like:

You hate my hijab
but it makes me feel glad
You hate my jihad
but it isn't really bad

Unless you twist the pronunciation of "hijab" and "jihad" and ignore the b, the rhyme just doesn't cut it.

2) Rhymes that force the poem in directions it shouldn't really go. You know what I mean -- you're reading along, and after a few lines, things suddenly don't fit very well any more. Then you realize the poet got stuck after line 5, -- s/he couldn't quite figure out a good rhyme for line 6, and so came up with a phrase/image/sentence that sort of works to go with the available words, but not quite. The meaning doesn't quite fit with what came before, but the poet settles for it, rather than looking for a different way to phrase line 5, so line 6 can make sense.

So if we continue the above poem:

You hate my hijab
but it makes me feel glad
You hate my jihad
but it isn't really bad
Everything you hate
Is on my plate
Because it's God command
In the Holy Qur'an.

You see what I mean. The poem seems to be about how hijab and jihad aren't really the negative things that people think they are, but then it kind of swings away from that thought into how they are God's command, rather than continuing the thought about why they aren't bad. Not only that, but the line "Is on my plate" doesn't quite convey the meaning needed -- ie I practice this because... It feels like a stretch, like the poet was confined by the rhyme rather than the rhyme being a tool in the poet's hand to make the poem richer and deeper. This problem is perhaps even more common than the first one!

I suppose I ought to at this point confess that I don't much care for poetry that rhymes (at least not modern poetry, I'm a fool for Poe who was one of the few writers I can actually identify as having had an influence on me.). Perhaps that's because so much of the poetry that rhymes reminds me of Dr. Suess. Dr. Suess gets around points 1 and 2 by inventing words (you delightful old cheat!) and it works, but the rest of us are stuck with real English, and often enough it doesn't work. Or, it forces us into triteness, equally bad.

Which brings us to...

3) Poor word choice/Use of empty words. The above poem is bad not only because of the bad rhymes and stretched imagery, but because I've chosen a bunch of empty words:bad, glad, etc. These words don't convey anything concrete. They are vague almost to the point of being meaningless. Not good. Poetry is supposed to be a window into the poet's soul -- hopefully our souls are more complex than bad and glad. Even the word jihad has become nebulous -- is the poet talking about the jihad which means struggling against one's inner demons, or the jihad of the popular press which is holy war? Certainly that has a huge impact on the meaning of the poem. If it's the former, then it's saying you're misinterpreting Islam; if it's the latter then this is a defense of militarism. (!!) The poet needs to make a it perfectly clearer what she is talking about! (In this case that people are misunderstanding the concept of jihad.) Using empty/nebulous words is another problem I see all over the place.

4) Hand in hand with empty words are images that are stale. Sometimes completely cliched.

To go back to our example:

Everything you hate
Is on my plate
Because it's God command
In the Holy Qur'an.
When you think I'm mean
I want to scream
You cause me so much pain
my tears fall like rain.

That's bad prose, let alone bad poetry! Tears falling like rain, hearts bursting with (insert emotion), sunny smiles, cheeks as red as apples, eyes as black as night. Cliches make boring poetry. Again, this is ubiquitous. I repeat Poetry is supposed offer a glimpse into the heart of the writer -- that deep, secret inner part of us where we are each unique. Needless to say, cliches don't do that, unless the poet is using them very purposefully to demonstrate a point.

5) Rhythm that doesn't work. I'm not talking iambic pentameter that missess a beat, but when the line doesn't flow well -- the rhythm of the words is choppy or uneven, or one line is too long for the others, the poet has a three syllable word when a two syllable word would work better. It doesn't have to have a repetitive rhythm like poetry of long ago, but it should have a musical quality to it, a flow to the words. Not:

When you think I'm mean
I want to scream
You cause me so much pain
my tears fall like rain.
Stop stereotyping me
I'm more than what you see

Can you hear it? Stereotyping brings the poem to a screeching halt. Labeling might be a better choice.

5) Poetry which is really just a bunch of sentences strung together. Poetry shouldn't be grammatically challenged prose. That is, it should have density of language/image/ideas, uniqueness of word/grammar usage, phrasing and juxtaposition of images that go beyond prose. The example I've been spinning out is really an essay chopped up into bits. There's nothing particularly that makes it a poem, except the layout. In fact, it would be better as an essay, because the poet could fuly explore the ideas she's trying to put forth.

I'm sure there are other things that make for bad poetry, but these are things that I'm seeing all the time in Muslim poetry in English. Alhamdulillah, more and more people are working on their craft and striving towards quality.

If you've put up with my pontificating this long, I'll try and give you a hijab poem I think is decent (sorry if it's not great -- I'm writing this one on the wing, and you're getting the first draft.)

By Pamela K. Taylor

A slip of pink chiffon
It might as well be concrete
A Berlin wall of fabric
between you and me
Thank God
If we try to cross
This textile no man's land
No guns will fire
No dogs will leap
To tear out throats
No Fletchers here
We stand to lose
Only our own conceits
Let us be the Wetzels
The Strlzycks of hijab
Let us soar
On scraps of nylon
On discarded bits
Of misperception
Soar over the covered hairs
The covered minds
Into uncharted
lands of amity
Look at me what do you see
hijab hijab hijab poem.

Remember the "vogan" (sp???) poetry from Star Trek? I think a couple of the poems you quoted fit right in.
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Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.

What I'm reading now

Cane River
An interesting exploration of the gradual whiting of a family through slavery to modern days.

To see an archive of all the books I've read (well the ones I've read and review since I started the blog) with comments, please click here

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This is just a short list -- a few of my favorites.

English Language Islamic Fiction. We need more of it. Lots more.
Pay a Teacher's Salary in Afghanistan. The Hunger site actually has a lot of worthwhile programs. You can find them all here .
Muslims for Progressive Values. My organization. We can always use donations, of time or money!
Human Rights Campaign for the glbt community
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
The ACLU I'm a card carrying member. Hope you'll become one too. The organization that has done the most, as far as I can tell, to pull the countries progressive side together.
Network of Spiritual Progressives. Working to reclaim religion and morality for the religious left.

Blogs Worth Reading

Wanda Campbell also known as Nochipa A very gifted poet and a gentle, compassionate soul. Nochipa and I are on the same page on sooooo many things
Writeous Sister Aminah Hernandez, she's got some excellent latino pieces and always has good writing info on her blog.
Sister Scorpion aka Leila Montour - Leila is a fount of energy, quirky humor, and bad attitude. She's also a talented poet.
Muhajabah Very interesting commentary here. I don't always agree with her, but her pieces are always thought-provoking.
Georgie Dowdell Georgie is a great writer and a good friend.
Louise Marley Another great writer. I think Louise is one of the best sf writers exploring faith themes.
Ink in My Coffee Devon Ellington (who has numerous aliases) who is also the editor of Circadian Poems. A truly inspiring woman with a seemingly endless supply of energy.
Ethnically Incorrect With a name like that, isn't a given I'm going to enjoy this writer?
Freedom from the Mundane Colin Galbraith, another excellent writer, from Scotland.
The Scruffy Dog Review This is a new e-zine with an ecclectic mix of fiction, poetry, and non-fic, some really enjoyable pieces here.
Ramblings of a Suburban Soccer Mom Lara, another gentle soul, very thoughtful.
Circadian Poems A journal of poetry, new stuff up all the time.
Ye Olde Inkwell Michelle writes romance and is one of my writing buddies.
Muhammad Michael Knight The original punk Muslim writer. Like him or love him, Mike is always coming up with the unexpected.

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