“Bad People” vs. Bad Poetry

Oscar Wilde said, “All bad poetry is sincere.” Now that’s not to say that all sincere poetry is bad, but the danger is there, especially within our daily domestic lives.

One of the hardest things for a writer to do is to write about being a dad in a way that’s compelling and original. It is only slightly easier than writing about our cats or dogs in an interesting way. If there was never another poem, for instance, about how someone’s cat is uber-aware and human-esque in its mannerisms, and how when it died they wrote a long elegy for it in ottava rima, the world would be a much better place.

Too often “dad-poems” come in the form of “behold the little miracles of life” or “how different it all is now and how inconsequential pre-parent life was and I am humbled by the sheer gravity of it all.” These sincere feelings, feelings we all have from time to time, aren’t necessarily compelling in a literary way (or in any other way for that matter).

The following poem, “Bad People” by Mark Halliday, one of my first teachers and quite simply a damn good writer, is an example of what I am NOT talking about above. It is instead a benchmark for originality in that it takes a familiar situation to parents—the dialogue of questions we field daily—and approaches it from a compelling angle.

I’ll include the poem here, though I’m not sure if that’s technically legal under the copywrite statutes. That’s okay, though, poets tend toward narcisscism and the unsought attention/publicity may be welcomed anyway—

Mark, if you ever come across this and want it pulled from the blog, just drop me a line and .  .  .

 

Bad People

The guys who drank quarts of Busch last night
here by the backstop of this baseball diamond
had names given then by their mothers and fathers—
“Jack” and “Kenny” let us say.

 

Jack might be
a skinny guy in a black fake-leather jacket,
he’s twenty-five, his gray pants are too loose on his hips,
his jaws always have these little black extra hairs,
his mother won’t talk to him on the phone,
she lives on french fries and ketchup,
he hasn’t been able to send her any cash
in the last two years, ever since he lost
his job unloading produce trucks at Pathmark;
Jack’s father disappeared when he was ten.
“No big deal,” Jack says, “he was a bastard anyway,
he used to flatten beer cans on the top of my head.”
Kenny offers a laugh-noise. He’s heard all that before.
Kenny is forty-eight, a flabby man with reddened skin,
he is employed at the Italian Market selling fish
just four hours a day but his shirts hold the smell;
his female companion Deena left him a note last month:
“You owe me $12 chocolate $31 wine $55 cable TV plus
donuts—I have had it—taking the lamp and mirror
they are mine.” Kenny hasn’t seen her since.
He hangs with Jack because Jack talks loud
as if the world of cops and people with full-time jobs
could be kept at bay by talking, talking loud . . .

 

(I’m talking gently and imaginatively here
as if the world of bums and jerks could be kept far off—)

 

Jack and Kenny. (Or two other guys dark to me with wounds
oozing in Philadelphia ways less ready to narrate.)
Last night at midnight they got cheesesteaks at Casseloni’s
and bought four quarts at the Fireside Tavern
and wandered into this park. After one quart of Busch
Jack said he was Lenny Dykstra
and found a stick for a bat. “Pitch to me asshole” he said
so Kenny went to the mound and pitched his bottle
for want of anything better and Jack swung in the dark and missed;
Kenny’s bottle smashed on home plate and Jack heard in the sound
the absurdity of all his desiring since seventh grade,
absurdity of a skinny guy who blew everything since seventh
when he hit home runs and chased Joan Rundle around the gym
so Jack took his own empty bottle and smashed it down
amid the brown shards of Kenny’s bottle.
Then they leaned on the backstop to drink the other two quarts
and they both grew glum and silent
and when they smashed these bottles it was like
what else would they do? Next morning

 

Nick and I come to the park with a rubber ball
and a miniature bat. Nick is not quite three
but he knows the names of all the Phillies starters
and he knows the area around home plate is not supposed to be
covered with jagged pieces of brown glass. Like a good dad
I warn him not to touch it and we decide to establish
a new home plate closer to the mound (there’s no trash can
handy). “Who put that glass there?” Nick wants to know
and to make a long story short I say “Bad People.”
Nick says “Bad? How come?”

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