Ilove bad poetry. What it lacks in aesthetic appeal it more than makes up for in amusement value. Until this month, the best places to find bad poetry were the New Yorker and poetry.com's real-time poetry contest entry feed. Now we have Allen Ginsberg's The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems, 1937–1952.
It's fitting that Ginsberg's juvenilia should serve as a beacon in the night of bad poetry—after all, his influence is responsible for roughly 60 percent of bad American poetry written today. The poems collected here anticipate the million adolescent wails that followed Howl—they consist of fruitless imitations of other poets, strident clichés, and forehead-slapping sentimentality. Ginsberg remained a bad poet until the end, but his later work isn't nearly as fun to read.
Nobody will accuse Ginsberg's early poems of being well wrought, and to say that they're "wrought" at all would be a stretch. The word I'm looking for is "wrung." Ginsberg advocated the use of improvisation in poetry, but he improvised with the benefit of a comprehensive poetic education. (The journals included in the present volume contain enviable reading lists.) His most vital work comes from before he trained his subconscious to spew passable writing. The early work is labored and ill conceived, but it's also an example of self-expression at its most hilarious.
Martyrdom and Artifice finds the unvarnished Ginsberg rhyming "doom" and "tomb" multiple times within a single work. There's some love poetry, some topical sallying, a bit of nerdy doggerel ("Jack on her left tit, I on her right, discussing/Spengler whom I haven't read"), and a great deal of Rimbaud-addled inner-spiritual-voyage stuff ("I will stay no longer pent!'/Cried my spirit, petulant"). And there is hyperbole: "You, patient/Weary of the hospital of life/Have known eternal illness." It's more than a bad metaphor—it's part of a poem entitled "To Kerouac in the Hospital."
If you like good poetry (or even Ginsberg's mature poetry), then this may not be the book for you. If you like Allen Ginsberg and want to know more about him, then this book is a wonderful resource. If you like bad poetry, welcome to heaven.