Tonight my wife asked me to stop by Half-Priced Books to pick up a better dictionary on my way home. She's doing one of the things she does--contract editing--and felt our home tomes failed to meet the need.
I stopped at "the flagship" of the Half-Priced Books chain, on Northwest Highway in Dallas. "The flagship" and its corporate parent come under fire from time to time by a certain sort of well-meaning but misdirected soul who'd prefer bankrupt independent used bookstores to politely expire into bankruptcy rather than have this workable, small-corporation chain bookstore which manages to stay in business and consistently delight.I find that some folks equate "business" with "sinful". My own lexicon of sin works a bit differently.
I found a suitably heavy and detailed dictionary, replete with worlds of trivia about British and American pronunciations and the like. I could not resist looking at my favorite section in the flagship, "nostalgia books between 1 dollar and 5 dollars". I found there a book entitled "The Gem of the School Room--Poems and Prose of Alice D. Estes". I had never heard of Alice D. Estes, but I could not imagine anything more invigorating than reading 1904 poetry by a stranger. I purchased the book, paying the full five dollar price.
I often write that I am a practitioner and devotee of bad poetry. By this I mean, of course, a liberation from the traditional judgments imposed by a poetry establishment I find both banal and bewildering. I do not mean that I consider all poetry "equivalent" or that "anything goes".
In recent years, a kind of celebration of truly awful poetry has arisen, centered on a few dozen truly predictable and
obvious poets. The poet McGonigle became virtually an international legend, long after he no longer could personally delight people with his assiduous efforts.
In general, I do not revel in the search for the technically awful poet. I find that I and many others like me are entirely awful enough without seeking solace in the awfulness of others. I see poetry as more about dipping bread into Welch's grape juice serving as a stand-in for wine than I do about one more way to use a dodge ball to hurl at one more poor soul on the scattered playground of life. Tonight I have encountered a true grandmaster of bad poetry, though, and I feel impelled to share her with the world.
I must admit that Ms. Alice D. Estes caught my eye with verse laden with rhymes whose sheer audacity glitters like a jewel. It's not just that she begins poems with lines like "Oh! Be thou not a tippler" (from the poem "Heed Thou the Voice of Duty") and "Oh, thou mystic bridge of love" (from "The Bridge of Love"). It's instead the way in which all her verses have a sincerity that shines through the dross, the way that good silver only needs the polish of an understanding attendant to shine through.
Consider the poem "A Mountain", which I render here for you:
"A mountain is a lofty peak,
When I look up, my neck does creak;
Yes, 'tis the kind of ancient hill,
The mind with sublime thoughts to fill".
You see, my neck, too, creaks when I look at a tall mountain. My mind, too, feels full of sublime thoughts when
I look at a really hip-looking green mountain, rather like listening to "Another Green World" with my binoculars trained on the verdant Verdugo Hills. For all the low quality of the poetry, isn't it possible that Alice D. Estes and I share a common outlook?
She has a way with disaster, too. Ms. Estes obviously lived much of her life in Texas, as she writes of many Texas events and folks, as well as a few scattered folks from Missouri and parts beyond. But her poem entitled "Galveston's Sorrow and Her Lamentation" deals with the flood that many years ago swept the island town of Galveston, Texas away. It begins as follows:
"The flood came;
there was a rent,
The flood came,
and proceeds on for some additional 24 lines, concluding with the immortal lines "The flood ceased, and all grew bright".
I have many thoughts about bad poets of times past, the use of the words "thou", "doth" and "thee" by a Texan at the turn of the 20th Century, and the way in which all our vain pursuits may look some 100 years from now. I'll leave most of them for another day, noting instead that this work of genius was one of at least two that Ms. Estes got published.
As with all volumes of poetry, there are interesting things even if the poems do not uniformly enchant. The muted plea for womens' suffrage is refreshing for its time and place.
There are disquieting things as well--Ms. Estes manages to imbue her otherwise banal and predictable verse with rare but nonetheless present banal and all too topical racial stereotypes.
But poetry, as with all things, has its fashions and its failings, its successes and its failures. I will quote another of Ms. Estes' poems, slightly out of context, in this vein:
"What is vain Fashion coming to, I wonder?
She's only a sedate goddess of a blunder".
I must admit that the fun of reading this hardbound volume (complete with staged photos based on the poems) gives me a zeal for writing poetry that a thousand graduate seminars could never do. I'll freely admit that I'm laughing at her a bit, but it's a "funny thing". I'm also smiling at her. Not quite a flirtation, mind you, but a solid, coy smile. Who can resist smiling at anyone who names the section with the sad poems "Pathetic"? She writes poems about doing good and breathing deeply at the sight of passing woodland. Who could object? I'm not sure she'd even mind a little laugh. She entreats in the introduction to her book that we all take her with "hearty good cheer". For, as Ms. Estes observes:
"Though of one, dark tales are told
in a grim and dismal mold
Think of the shadows on the blind, and
Be thou, ever, ever kind".
For all her faults of verse and idea, I'm nonetheless glad I met Mary D. Estes.