Sturgeon's Law stipulates that 90 percent of everything is crud. The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon said specifically, "Sure, 90 percent of science fiction is crud. That's because 90 percent of everything is crud." One might be tempted to extrapolate from this statement that 90% of poetry is therefore crud. Would that this were so.
When it comes to poetry, as opposed to bridge construction, vascular surgery, operatic composition or even sci-fi writing, far more than 90 percent is crud. You see with poetry as with scant few other human endeavors the barriers to participation are so fundamentally low that basically anyone can get in the game.
Not even I can write a bad song, since I lack the knowledge to construct music, and even a bad novel represents a significant investment of labor, but poems can be short. As a result everyone from prepubescent, pony-loving moppets to wild-eyed, pierced bohemians and corporate droids leading lives of quiet desperation will take up the quill.
Combine this with the explosion of the free vanity press that is the World Wide Web, and you can see where this leads. Yep, to a virtually limitless flow of god-awful poetry. Perhaps an infinite number of monkeys can churn out "Hamlet." If so, those simian scribes have it all over their online human counterparts.
A poem and a threat
A simple Web search will turn up numerous Net editions of literary journals. It will also generate links to a variety of poetry-specific sites. Accepting Sturgeon's math, these sites increase our odds of sticking to the tolerable tenth.
At poetry.com (www.poetry.com) one is greeted with a threat: "This site features over 3.1 million poets!" Soldiering bravely past such a warning is not easy. The most prominent item on the front of this site is the Poem of the Day. Since 3.1 million poets is a poet a day for 8,493 years, it'll be a heck of a long time before poetry.com can justify a bad poem of the day.
Consider this $500 Poetry.com winner from March of 2001, titled "The Six Stages of Woman." Yuck...
"First the arm-held infant
Car sick on her mother's fur collared coat,
Lies still as the warm vomit
Trickles from her baby throat.
Next stands curiosity, six years old
Nose to tree branch in the grove
Eyeing a fresh, wet cicada
Inching out of a used cocoon.
Then appears a pimple-pocked woman-bud
Titillated by a superior Senior.
When she sees him nearing
Retreats into the girl's cloak room.
Mature, she responds to electric touches
That switch on nerve endings
As she reclines beside love,
Close to her husband.
She can never erase those first 10 minutes
Her baby sleeps in her arms
After they were painfully torn apart.
Now forever joined at the heart.
Followed, those many cancerous moments
When each declared to the other
Though they had lived to fulfill themselves,
They had, unwittingly, ignited each other.
In this diary of her best pages,
Moments of freedom surpass scabs of pain
Life's last stop is an open road
She limps to infinity, alone."
If bad poetry isn't your pleasure, one of the more provocative links on the site is to a section called 100 Greatest Poems Ever Written. The editors were arrogant enough to construct such a list but lacked the courage to rank them, choosing instead to list them alphabetically. Still, it's hard to argue with selections such as "Chicago" by Carl Sandburg and "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas.
Poetry.com's section for poems dedicated to the tragedies of Sept. 11 contains 22,523 reader posted inclusions. At poets.org, the Web site for the Academy of American Poets (www.poets.org), their Post-9/11 Poetry Resources page offers more editorial consideration for readers looking for solid recommendations such as online poetry exhibits and off-line anthologies. The site also offers such features as a searchable database of major poet's biographies and bibliographies, discussion forums and tools for poets to maintain their personal on-line notebooks.
The Poetry Society of America site (www.poetrysociety.org) is primarily a resource for its membership, though there is good reading to be found in its "Poetry in Motion" section. There's also a searchable collection of hundreds of contributions from 10 cities participating in the program and a postcards area where visitors can send an electronic postcard from the society.
Poem Online (www.poem.org) is an ambitious community of wordsmiths. The site is built around the excellent YaBB bulletin board software. This technology provides forums for posting poetry, virtual classrooms, discussion forums, teen areas and critique forums. The members there are serious about their poetry and pull no punches in their critiques.
None of these sites are very good at or necessarily particularly interested in sparing people from the preponderance of crud. What anyone gets out of these sites is proportionate to the effort one is willing to put into them. The sheer volume of poetry these places can lead a reader to can be staggering. Sure, you can avoid lousy poetry by sticking to the printed page and accepting recommendations to read Browning, Coleridge, Dickinson or cummings, but the flipside to Sturgeon's law is that 10 percent of everything is not crud, including the millions of Web published poems that are out there.
It takes a little digging, but it can be worthwhile when one comes across something good, like this excerpt from a recent annual $20,000 grand prize winner from poetry.com's monthly contest:
"The black smoke rises from the pan,
you smile and whisper that I will make a good wife.
Scrambled eggs with thousand island dressing
and oven-baken tortillas from the grocery.
You wince and eat the food all the same.
I don't mind you not liking breakfast
but that's all I have. Please leave soon
your fiance may wonder at
the sudden sweetness of your smile."