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Jewish World Review Dec. 21, 2001 / 6 Teves, 5762

Lenore Skenazy

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Nothing's Worse/Than Bad Verse -- HE may be evil. He may be nuts. He may even be dead. But one thing Osama Bin Laden is not is a poet.

Try telling him that. His friends won't. That sheik on the "smoking gun" tape just sits there, a study in stooge-iness, as Osama recites a poem he apparently wrote himself:

When darkness comes upon us/And we are bit by a sharp tooth/I say, 'Our homes are flooded with blood and the tyrant/Is freely wandering in our homes.'

You'll notice the tyrant is not freely wandering in with a book contract.

But of course that doesn't matter. Someone will always print the poems of another someone who happens to command an army. Publish or perish. So the true stumper is this: Why do so many power-mad despots (and Leonard Nimoy) insist they are poets at heart?

Roses are red/Violets are blue/I'm evil made flesh/And I write sonnets, too!

From King Henry VIII (who was actually the best of the bunch, bard-wise) through Gen. George Patton, Mao Zedong, ethnic cleanser Radovan Karadzic and good ol' Richard Nixon, there's just no stopping them. And no reading them either:

When meal time comes/Thy friendly face/Is everywhere about/The place.

Thus begins Patton's ode — to a fly.

Our ears and mouths/You then explore/And leave there/Pus from some old sore.

And that's before he gets to the teeming maggot stanza.

Let's turn to something by Mao.

North country scene:/A hundred leagues locked in ice,/A thousand leagues of whirling snow./Both sides of the Great Wall/One single immensity.

Nothing like a single immensity to stir the soul, is there? And to think this little book sold only a billion copies.

Nixon's poems didn't sell as well (possibly because nobody was forcing us to buy them on pain of reeducation), but an author named Jack Margolis collected some of Tricky Dick's ramblings and turned them into poems that boast a certain poignancy: Whatever legacy/We have,/Hell,/It isn't going to be/In getting/A Cesspool/For Winnetka.

Not bad. Unfortunately, when world leaders actually try to wax poetic, the results usually sound like a stump speech crossed with a greeting card — the long, flowery kind you send your grandma.

Why is there just so much awful writing around?

"Amateur poetry is one of the world's diseases," sighs Yale professor and cultural critic, Harold Bloom. "It's like the common cold. There's no cure."

"From a very early age, you identify poetry with profound emotion," says Alice Quinn, poetry editor at The New Yorker. That's why so many people, when moved by love or sorrow, feel so much better once they write verse.

Alas, merely spilling one's guts does not a great work guarantee.

In fact, Oscar Wilde noted, "All bad poetry is sincere."

Leonard Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham University, blames Walt Whitman even more than passion for all the putrid poetry in the world.

"He didn't invent free [unrhyming] verse, but he made it legitimate," Cassuto says. "'Leaves of Grass' was published in 1855 and immediately made a splash. So you could say bad poetry starts then, because Whitman made it look so easy."

The fact that writing great poetry actually takes as much discipline as fighting a great battle is naturally lost on megalomaniacs, who remain convinced that their poems, just like their vision, holiness, power and personal charm, cannot be matched.

"They want to be remembered for every possible thing, and [poetry] is another way to do it," shrugs Deborah Garrison, a New York poet.

But somehow I doubt Osama will be remembered for his ditties.

JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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