THE CRAFTINESS OF POETRY: Seeking Truth in Scams, Hoaxes, and Other Literary Mischief

A talk given at the Ballard Public Library on 10 November 2009
for the
It's About Time Writers' Reading Series

When I was twelve, I received a letter in the mail. It came in a bright yellow envelope embossed with a big official-looking seal, and it read something like this:

* From the Desk of the Executive Managing Editor *

Dear Kim-An Lieberman,

Congratulations! Your poem “A LEAF SITS” has been certified by our panel of distinguished professional judges as a semi-finalist in the National American Poetry of Great Merit Contest. We are excited to feature “A LEAF SITS” by you, Kim-An Lieberman, in the National American Poetry of Great Merit Editor’s Choice Anthology. This handsome leather-bound, coffee-table edition is available for a limited time only. We are reserving an author’s copy for you, Kim-An Lieberman, for just three easy payments of $19.99 (plus shipping, handling, and sales tax). As a semi-finalist, you are also entitled to order up to 10 additional gift books at the specially discounted price of $49.99 each (plus shipping, handling, and sales tax). Once again, congratulations on the official publication of your semi-finalist poem “A LEAF SITS”! Imagine sharing this treasured keepsake of your poetic accomplishment with friends and family for generations to come!

Good thing that at age twelve, I had no financial agency and knew better than to ask my mother. She would have rolled her eyes and told me to go finish my homework. I never did get to see that treasured keepsake coffee-table edition. But I did hang the letter on the wall over my desk. After all, there was my name, and my poem, on someone’s very official-looking letterhead! Basking in the glow of words like “semi-finalist” and “publication,” I didn’t once question why an editor would ask a preteen poet to pay three months’ worth of allowances to see her work in print, or why the letter, complete with glossy full-color enclosures and handwriting-font signature, looked exactly like the junk-mail advertising that arrived every week from travel agencies and sweepstakes clearinghouses and collectible-coin-of-the-month clubs. I didn’t wonder whether they noticed that my poem “A Leaf Sits” was the product of a middle-school classroom assignment. All I knew was that someone had read my poem—and liked it.

Savvy a crowd as this is, you probably all recognize that I was being duped.
Vanity presses and low-standards poetry contests, like the one to which I unwittingly submitted “A Leaf Sits” as a starry-eyed twelve-year-old kid, continue to run a highly lucrative business. Organizations with imperious names like “The America Library of Poetry” and “The International Society of Poets” reach far beyond the mailbox: they advertise to classroom teachers in hopes of luring student writers, they host websites that feature thousands of “prize-winning” poems harvested through pay-per-entry online contests, and they throw annual conventions in enticing destinations like Las Vegas that are open to anyone willing and able to buy a ticket. Many writers, myself included, dismiss these sorts of organizations as money-hungry scams at worst, or suspicious businesses at best. We decry the profiteers behind the scenes who are taking advantage of the naïvete of first-time poets, not to mention the vulnerability of any aspiring poet downtrodden by too many rejections.

But while I don’t endorse these ethically shady poetry outfits, and I routinely warn my own students to very carefully vet any publisher who asks for a check with a submission, I’d like to suggest that even the scammiest of poetry scams represents something more than just a Better Business Bureau complaint. After all, a swindle is only successful if it puts a huge amount of effort toward appearing more authentic than the real thing, toward being truer than the actual truth. For the life of the hoax, you have to study and follow the rules so well that you can stay one step ahead of the truth. Tonight, I invite you to consider what we can learn about “the writer’s craft” from
craftiness—from the various hoaxes, scams, and acts of literary mischief that punctuate the writing world. Poetic craftiness is perpetrated by folks who have tried to pinpoint what makes a poetry-related thing believable, how to make something seem legitimately poetic even if it’s not. So I’m thinking that they might know a thing or two about what makes poetry work in the first place.

The truth about the leather-bound coffee-table keepsake anthology is that everyone who sends in a poem gets a semi-finalist letter. The only real bar to publication is your checkbook. But another truth is that the leather-bound coffee-table keepsake anthology persists because we who write poems want so very much for it to be real. These scams are fueled by an essential poetic impulse. When we write a poem, whatever our chosen topic or style, we just hope that someone will be there on the other end to receive it. We want to have readers. Even more, we want those readers to like us. It’s human nature, our need to express and communicate, to be heard and understood.

So perhaps one way to combat the poetry scam is for us to become a better and more attentive audience for one another. Pursue your own poetry-writing passions, sure, but be an even more passionate and compassionate reader of poetry. Listen to poets, especially those less experienced than you are, and give them honest feedback so that they can be encouraged to improve. I suppose I’m preaching to the choir by saying this in front of an audience gathered expressly to listen to poetry readings. Yet we’re all complicit in a culture where the number of poets clamoring for publication, and even those being published, far outpaces the number of willing readers. The rejection scene is rough, in part, because the supply hugely outstrips the demand. Very few poetry volumes make it to the bestseller list, the book-review section, or even the pages of a classroom syllabus. To the extent that we care about writing poetry, we should be actively working to improve its readership, starting with our own selves in the audience.

But craftiness isn’t always a matter of scamming the literary underdog, or of the underdog finding a path from rejection to acceptance. Say you’re somebody famous. Say you’re super-famous. Say you’re
Billy Collins, 44th Poet Laureate of the United States, dubbed “the most popular poet in the America” by The New York Times—loved by many, disparaged by some, but nevertheless very well known. You’re Billy Collins, and you can make a lot of crafty mischief. Here’s an example.

In his 1998 book
Picnic, Lightning, Collins introduced his readers to a heretofore obscure poetic form called the paradelle. He did so by offering a poem called “Paradelle for Susan,” followed by this long-winded footnote:

The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d’oc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only those words.

Basically, the paradelle is a virtuosic act of recycling words, very tricky to pull off with any semblance of logic. And in Collins’ poem, the paradelle form proves so very tricky that the poet flubs it, ending up with some extra words that he has no idea where to place. I’ll read you the first stanza of his poem as example:

I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Thinnest love, remember the quick branch.
Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the.

The rule is that the last two lines have to reuse all the words from the first four, but in doing this, Collins finds himself stuck with an extra article (“the”), so he just stashes it haphazardly at the end of the stanza (“I perched on your highest bird the”). Things get even worse when he reaches the final stanza, where the rule is that he has to reuse all of the words from the previous three stanzas. Here’s the grand closing, where you’ll hear all of the words from the portion I just read, plus all of the words from the poem’s midsection, culminating in a massive pileup of extra prepositions in the very last line:

I always cross the highest letter, the thinnest bird.
Below the waters of my warm familiar pain,
Another hand to remember your handwriting.
The weather perched for me on the shore.
Quick, your nervous branch flew from love.
Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.

Again, after using up the good words, he is left with a bunch of extras that he just has to stash at the end (“was my into it was with to to”). The rigorous restrictions of this form prove too much for the poet to pull off gracefully. And
as Collins himself later admitted, “What I set out to do was write an intentionally bad formal poem. Auden said there was nothing funnier than bad poetry, and I thought a horribly mangled attempt at a formal poem might have humorous results.”

In fact, Collins adds, the paradelle form didn’t even exist. He made it up himself. This unworkable form, with its intricate rules, was a poetic hoax—and the pedantic footnote was an extra flourish to make it all seem legitimate, to sound truer than true. For the shrewd reader, the title was meant to serve as a suggestive clue: “paradelle,” as in “parody of a villanelle.” But whatever Collins anticipated when he first jokingly penned it, the paradelle became far more. Some took it as an example of Collins’ own amateurishness, lambasting his poetic skills, not realizing that he was intentionally aiming for an amateur result. Some heralded the discovery, praising Collins for rescuing this form from medieval French obscurity, not realizing that the whole thing was a nerdy practical joke. Most of all, even as the hoax was publicly debunked by Collins himself, a number of folks embraced the form as new kind of poetic challenge. Here was something fully meant to be impossible and ridiculous—something quite untrue. Why not try to transform that convincing falsehood into an actual truth? Poetry teachers assigned the form to students, and college professors lectured about it. Established writers like
Dana Gioa, Denise Duhamel, and Kim Addonizio tried their own hands at the paradelle, finding it a handy vehicle to express innately jumbled concepts such as confusion, movement, memory, and love. There’s even a whole anthology of paradelles now, published in 2005 by Red Hen Press. Annie Finch writes that “I would venture that the paradelle may, ironically and appropriately in view of Collins' terminally ironic relationship with the traditions of his art, turn out to be his most lasting contribution to poetry. And it will be no small contribution.”

So what does this teach us? Perhaps it’s a good reminder that poetry shouldn’t take itself too seriously—that there’s always some room for humor and play, even in the chambers of the U.S. Poet Laureate. But humor and play don’t lack serious dimensions, either. Collins wrote his paradelle as a kind of intentional nonsense, a joke of a poem, and yet people made serious sense of it all the same. And isn’t that very transformation—from nonsense to sense—one of poetry’s fundamental gifts? Poetry opens a particular space where language has the capacity to be both illogical and meaningful at the same time, where a writer can playfully experiment with the outer surface of a word, maybe going for rhyme and alliteration and onomatopoeia all at once, while still inserting a powerful message within.

To put it another way,
Alexander Pope famously wrote that “The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” I take this to mean that it’s neither sound nor sense but the interplay that counts most, that poetry is the spark dancing between what we say and what we mean. Being poetic isn’t a simple matter of aligning word and meaning, but of playing the two against each other. It’s not what you do, but how you do it. It’s not the scam or the hoax or even the real truth itself, but the reason why we’re so eager to believe. Or, if you will, back to my theme: it’s not the craft, but the craftiness.

If you dig deeper, you’ll find that poetry has a long checkered past of scams and hoaxes and other literary tricks. There are 18th-century fellows like
James MacPherson and Thomas Chatterton whose writing lives revolved around the forging of medieval poetry, or 19th-century gals like the Brontë sisters who published under male pseudonyms to escape the cultural bias against female writers. Or the early 20th-century pair of Australian soldiers who used every cliché in the book to fabricate a tragic Modernist poet named Ern Malley, whose work is still discussed in a scholarly context even though it’s been firmly established as fraudulent. Or the recent case of Araki Yasusada, the Hiroshima survivor whose poems were featured in a 1996 special pullout section of American Poetry Review and whose acclaim lasted several months before his appreciative readers were alerted that the poems were fakes—that neither he nor any of his translators ever existed. In each of these cases, even if the poems or the poets were just an elaborate act of craftiness, I think we can still discover some valuable lessons about writers and readers and literary expression. We can harness these falsehoods to help illuminate what is actually true.

As one final tribute to poetic craftiness, I’ll leave you with a poem that I found online, on a website called that bills itself as “the best in modern amateur poetry.” For a small fee, they let you join and post your poems, as well as take part in a handful of poetry contests—so I suppose you could see it as a pay-to-publish poetry scheme, though I think they view themselves as more of a “membership club.” Anyway, I stumbled across this site by accident as I was searching for examples of successful paradelles. And this particular poem, by a fellow named Bruce W Niedt, seemed to fit perfectly here because its very subject is the slippery craft of poetry—specifically, how darn difficult it is to write a good poem, especially in paradelle form. It cleverly tweaks the paradelle's repetitive structure to resemble a blues song, to riff on the idea that the writer is deeply and musically troubled by these dastardly poetic rules.

So congratulations, Bruce, wherever you are. I can’t offer you semi-finalist status or a leather-bound coffee-table keepsake—but for better or worse, your poem is about to arrive in the lap of a real live audience. Here goes:

Paradelle Blues (by Bruce W Niedt)