Image result for model trains

A good poem needs 2 things.

Most have the first: an anecdote, theme, or story which supports the poem.

The second is why 99% of poems fail.

It is because the anecdote, the reason for the poem, is a thousand times better than the poem.

One attempt to fix this is to write a poem which is so brief, the anecdote is the poem.

The other is to make the poem so lengthy that it forgets, for many lines, its theme. Both of these attempts fail.

99% of poetry stinks.

One might counter this with a list of exemplary qualities which every poem requires to be successful. But the problem with this is that such lists can go on forever. We believe the simple “anecdote” warning above beats every list in the world.

And further, any lengthy list of what makes a poem good can actually do harm, as striving to satisfy many elements of expression may destroy the poem’s unity. Wit lessens options; it doesn’t expand them.

Pope’s phrase is exemplary: ” what oft’ was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” A poem needs but 2 things ever: ‘what people are thinking’ and the ‘better expression of it.’ The ‘better’ is the rub. And ‘what people are actually thinking’ helps, too.

Pope, the Augustan Wit, belongs to an era lost to our day—flying beyond the Romantics and the Moderns, so that Pope is hardly considered a poet at all to those who long ago bought into aesthetic statements such as the “Red Wheel Barrow.”

The fetish of the romantically tinged image of the early Modernists struck a blow against philosophical wit—to no effect, really.

Wit looking at objects is all poetry is, and has ever been.

The Romantics—who the Moderns and Post-Moderns have never quite escaped—countered the Augustan Wits with heart.

But as we examine the Romantics from our modern future, we see the Romantics were Wits, too.  Read Byron.

Today, most poetry has neither wit nor heart: no, that may not be quite true.  It often has heart, but no wit.  Or wit, but no heart.  The good poem tends to have both: a good theme sweetly expressed. But modern poetry has mostly left this combination behind, in the name of (what to call it?) a modernity which considers itself too modern for any broad sense of sweetness, virtue, or virtuosity.

Modernity has replaced the Muse. Today poets write as they are taught: to write against the past, instead of adding to its glories. One criterion exists in the Post-Modern, Creative Writing Program Era: Whatever you do, avoid the Iconic Past. Write in any manner you like, just as long as you don’t sound like Byron!

A good example of how this Modern Stupidity has replaced the Muse is the following poem which every modern loves.

In this poem, the ten year old who rhymes is secret code for Keats, Poe, Byron.

And the schoolteacher (cunningly dismissed, as well) in this poem is nothing more than tradition and poetry itself, replaced by the 20th-century, business model, vanity of the Creative Writing Program—which became a kind of solution during Bunting’s lifetime to the insulting woes described in the poem. Bunting’s clever poem seems to be a defense of poetry. It’s not. It’s a defense of modern poetry. And there’s a very important difference.


What the Chairman Told Tom by Basil Bunting (1900-1985)

Poetry? It’s a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr. Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It’s not work. You don’t sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that’s opera; or repertory—
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week—
married, aren’t you?—
you’ve got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it’s poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I’m an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company.
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it’s unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They’re Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr. Hines says so, and he’s a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.


We almost feel sorry for Tom, the sorry-ass modern poet who writes “rot,” but still wishes his “rot” to earn him a living. Is the speaker of the poem attractive? Not exactly, though his honest approach is the entire merit of the poem—take this away, and there’s no poem. Now, it is true: wrestling with how to make a poem better than “writing advertisements” or more significant than “a hobby” are valid questions, but Bunting’s poem isn’t interested in that; it only wants us to assume the poet is honorable—simply in the face of the “unkind” chairman’s remarks. Unfortunately, the “rot” the chairman mentions, as everyone who attempts to read most poetry knows, despite the poem’s self-pity, is depressingly real.

Bunting’s poem has heart—but no wit.

Bunting’s poem is good, raw anecdote—with a dubious agenda.










  1. Gina Hunt said,

    January 16, 2017 at 12:56 am

    This is a very interesting post, Thomas. But I don’t fully understand it. How does an anecdote differ say from a subject? When you say the development from that is by wit do you include the usual poetic attributes like metaphor, rhythm, rhyme etc?

  2. thomasbrady said,

    January 16, 2017 at 4:29 pm


    Don’t over-think the duality. It’s quite simple. There’s always two, no matter what you call the first: agenda, theme, idea, anecdote, subject and then, secondly, the final product—the poem.

    The good idea is necessary for a good poem. But if the idea, simply expressed, unpoetically, is better than the poem written up about it, that poem fails. And the poem gets no credit because it ‘belongs’ to the idea; if the idea is conveyed sufficiently by the idea, the poem is superfluous and unnecessary—a failure.

    I was speaking to an actress in a play the two of us happen to be in—and only theater, it seems, brings out comfortable and innocent conversations of difficult topics between strangers—and she remarked how silly and boring fetish and dominatrix sex seemed to her (she plays a comedic dominatrix briefly in the play). My response to her relates to the Bad Poem issue. I agreed it seemed silly to me, too.

    I said the objective look of dominatrix play-acting is not the point—only the subjective feelings of the one dominated really matter. The whole business of any fetish sex, I said, was merely to prolong and extend and elaborate the bare facts of the pleasure of the sex act which can be, if love is absent, a rather mundane excercise of animals breeding, and which will sadly result, in almost all cases, in humans, to a male having a few seconds of orgasm.

    Art can be seen as the same thing. You have the reason. And then the elaboration or fleshing-out of the reason. The anecdote, the agenda, the rationale, the idea, the trigger, for the poem—and then the poem.

    Here is the great puzzle, the great task. The relationship between this thing and its poem. To contemplate the relationship, the mutual back and forth life of these two, should elevate the poetic enterprise.

    One of the tricks I use as a poet is when ‘my idea’ morphs quickly into the title or the line of the poem, which is then elaborated, so that the idea arrives as ‘part of a poem,’ the idea of this idea being ‘bring spark of poem and poem into the same existence as quickly and seamlessly as possible.’

  3. thomasbrady said,

    January 16, 2017 at 4:48 pm

    To answer your second question re: rhyme, metaphor. Yes, these things are what I mean by wit.

    And I believe true wit narrows the possibilities in any poem of rhyme and metaphor; this is the force of the wit—at the same time it expands those same possibilities—this is the elaboration of the wit. Too much of the former, the poem seems simplistic and dense; too much of the latter, the poem seems too random and chaotic.

    Rhythm belongs to heart. The way a poem says what it says in the most primitive aural manner it is possible to elaborate.

  4. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 18, 2017 at 10:22 am


    sometimes I feel we are only speaking in slogans
    and then I see the different coloured slogans
    speaking to each other across the fences of the world

    disarranging the lilacs and
    looking a little folkloric, at least at the beginning

    then leaving us out of the conversation entirely.
    and the slogans have grown legs and arms and heads and hands
    and are walking among us crisp in their new suits,

    their dotted swiss dresses they are waving us on

    while we start feeling slippery, losing our labels
    so that our mothers don’t recognize us
    a dish of jello here, a pot of watery jam

    a shadow, a creek bed dried
    and the slogans have taken over, side by side and
    linking arms

    they are running everything
    the slogans run the bank
    the shoe store

    the bar and grill
    the gas station
    the monoply board

    the seventh ward
    the silo and the grain
    and there are slogans now for rain

    for windy weather for the trains when they come on time
    for snowfall and the picturesque antics of the children, codified
    and they are always on tv! See.

    and oh God I am tired of slogans.
    I am so tired of slogans.

    mary angela douglas 18 january 2017

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      January 19, 2017 at 8:33 am


      they made words do tricks and jump through hoops
      as though they were wild animals
      words served the circuses of those

      who knew how to trap them
      but I find
      more and more distance from these.

      and in a dream I saw a golden door
      and the door was open and then not.
      and dark angels barred the way

      spears shooting from their eyes
      at anyone who tried
      to pass that way

      so that no man dared look on them.
      and I saw the golden door

      that it was weeping as Before
      so that it dissolved
      and we passed through

      my words and I
      my cherry bright words
      that longed to sing

      we passed through
      and were free.

      mary angela douglas 18 january 2017

      • Mr. Bones said,

        January 19, 2017 at 7:52 pm

        Just beautiful Mary. I really enjoyed “Slogans”, but I love “The Circus and The Golden Door”.

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