Style Conversational Week 1080: Can you be so bad you’re good?

The Empress of The Style Invitational blabs about the week’s new contest and results

July 10

It’s been a long time since I ran a contest asking for bad writing, or “bad” anything. My predecessor, The Czar, ran many of these, the most famous being the “bad analogies” contest of Week 120, which continues to circulate under such titles as “Analogies Found in Real High School Essays,” though his introduction to the results conceded that “there is a fine line between an analogy that is so bad it is good and an analogy that is so good it is bad.” Exactly — and that’s why I usually ask for “novel” or “humorous” or “creative” writing, and let the reader decide whether it’s badness or cleverness that makes the entry funny.

But the Czar persuaded me this month to give the Week 1080 contest a go. He’d been told about the delightfully terrible work of William Topaz McGonagall by our former Post colleague David Von Drehle, onetime editor of the Style section, now with Time Magazine, and one of the most elegant writers I’ve had the pleasure to edit; and the Czar quickly offered up a “tragedie” of his own to use as an example.

You definitely want to check out the website I linked to in this week’s contest; It’s an attractive British site called McGonagall Online, and it features biographical nuggets, “245 of his best (?) poems,” a featured “Gem of the Day” poem (such as the one I quote from in the this week’s lead), and a shorter “Quote of the Day”; today’s is “And for her bravery she got married to the miller’s eldest son/ And Hanchen on her marriage night cried Heaven’s will be done.”

The trick for the Invite, however, is that something can’t just be bad; it has to be funny bad: the images will have to be especially ridiculous; the rhymes will have to be laughable; the subject matter perhaps will be a funny idea or something comically inappropriate.

So when I argued with the Czar over his suggestion — I’m famously skeptical of contest ideas — and I said, “We’ve had contests for terrible poetry before. I don’t like them as much as for good poetry,” he assured me, “Oh, i would read these and parodies of these!” So let’s hope that the Invite’s readers have a similar interest.

More to the point than the “analogies” contest mentioned above, the Invitational has done quite a few contests over the years specifically asking for bad poetry. Here are some of them (links are to the results; scroll past the new contest on a given link):

Week 47: Bad Valentine’s Day poetry.

Week 107: Poems featuring homonyms; the direction was to “create poems so bad they thud.”

Week 203: Very Bad Poetry: “Your poem should contain banalities masquerading as profundities, overstretched metaphors, etc. Special attention should be paid to dreadful syntax and painful rhyme.”

Week 243: “Write a rhyming poem of two to eight lines as a tribute to someone famous who died in 1997, the more awful the better. We will particularly value rhymes that thud, and extremes of emotion and sentiment.” Here was one of the cases in which the Czar overruled his criterion of “bad” in favor of clever: “We were looking for overly maudlin poetry,” he notes in the intro to the results, “but the best entries were more witty than woebegone. So we exercised our unchecked dictatorial powers and revised the criteria. Those readers who feel cheated, please form a line to the left and someone will be with you shortly.”

Week 279: “Come up with a treacly and deeply moving piece of crap. It must somehow mine joy and goopy inspiration from the vicissitudes of life. It must also rhyme. “

And, in my own only previous contribution to the contest genre:

Week 627: Write a limerick or other short poem with comically awful rhyming.

So the angle this week is that the poem should focus on a “tragedy,” as well as be comically melodramatic and bad. I think there’s humor to be mined from choosing a comical “tragedy” — for one thing, that’s a lot better an idea than making jokes about a truly depressing or horrific event, especially a recent one. But I’m not ruling anything out beforehand. It might even work with actual sad events.

And, just as the Czar did, I might just end up being unable to resist some genuine wit.

For those who haven’t delved into the links above, here’s the winner of Week 203, “Very Bad Poetry.” The Czar says it is “one of my favorite entries of all time”:
The world’s great mathematicians assembled for a lecture
To hear a rising star prove the Taniyama Conjecture
And the young man astounded those who did hear him
By also casually proving Fermat’s Last Theorem!
And for this achievement, everlasting glory and acclaim
Will forever go to, y’know, whatsizname.
(Charlie Steinhice, Chattanooga, Tenn.)

Meanwhile, some very good poems (if you like double dactyls): The results of Week 1076

Only a few of which (the entries, not the results) might have qualified for Week 1080. In general, as both I and the Losercorps predicted, I received perhaps 1,000 double dactyls of which at least several dozen were inkworthy; I was able to fit 19 into the print Invite and share nine more in the online version.

I erred in requiring a rhyme within the first line — that’s never been a feature of double dactyls, from the start — but it didn’t really matter, since it’s a nonsense phrase anyway; rarely did it even factor into my choices. I did stick to the requirement that someone be mentioned in the poem, and that one line comprise a six-syllable term; this ruled out a few otherwise inkable entries (“Style Invitational,” though it has lots of personality and is so conveniently double-dactylic, isn’t a person).

As I did in the example for this contest, I allowed such words as “nymphomanically” and “hyper-emphatically” to count as six syllables, even though the dictionary would break them into seven. I certainly pronounce them as six-syllable words. I didn’t run any (I don’t think) in which words were broken across two lines.

Frequent subjects in Week 1080 included Benedict Cumberbatch (of course!), the Kardashian, Eric Cantor, Hillary Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg and Edward Snowden. But as you can see from the results, they ranged from Jesus of Nazareth to — it’s becoming a running joke in the Invite — Your Mama. A number of verses referred to people who aren’t quite historic, but have been out of the news for a long time; perhaps they weren’t written specifically for this contest. (One person did venture that he was helpfully sending me one of his own, along with 24 favorites that he just stole.)

I counted more than 20 entrants in Week 1080 who were new to the Invite; I think many of them heard about us after I went up and plugged the Invite last month at the West Chester Poetry Conference, and organizer Kevin Durkin — who suggested this contest — spread the word. The Loser roster now includes a dittyload of respected poets who’ve learned of us over the years. Today it expands by at least two First Offenders: R.S. “Sam” Gwynn, editor of the anthology Contemporary American Poetry, whom I met at the conference when we appeared on a panel about song parodies (between us, I was not the one who put on a terrycloth-towel cape and did the Elvis impression); and Susan McLean,, also a poet and professor, whom I haven’t had the pleasure to meet, but probably doesn’t do the cape thing.

As usual, I didn’t know who wrote this week’s inking entries until after I’d judged them. (I had some hunches but was right only part of the time.) And it was great fun to discover that a First Offender had run off with first prize: I’ll be sending out the Inkin’ Memorial next week, along with his FirStink for his first ink, to Jeremy Horowitz, who zinged the failed gubernatorial campaign of UL-tra-con-SER-va-tive (he didn’t use that!) Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia, who as attorney general tried to require invasive ultrasound procedures to women seeking abortions. I hope to see lots more from Jeremy.

The other three bards “above the fold” this week are veterans of the Losers’ Circle: Rick Haynes now has 11 wins and runners-up (with 120 blots of ink in all); Beverley Sharp is hard upon the Hall of Fame with 461 inks, including a ridiculous 43 above the fold; and Brendan Beary, well, even crazier totals than Beverley — in fact, something like double what she has.

A number of people sent in entries about the Invitational, about the Empress, and about fellow Losers: I especially liked this ode to uber-wordsmith Chris Doyle, of the 1,578-ink Chris Doyle of Ponder, Tex.:
Pindar-y Ponder-y
Christopher Doyle is a
Master of poetry –
Limericks and such.

No doubt today Chris’s
Lexi-dexterity’ll
Earn lots of ink for him.
Me? Not so much.

I JUST NOW looked up who wrote this and was surprised — and delighted — to discover that it’s by not one of the typical poetry-ink winners, but by Tom Witte, another of the Invite’s greats, but mostly through neologisms and other short-form contests. (Tom was right; he gets robbed of ink this week and holds at a mere 1,297 blots.)

Ink of the Da-

The audience on Facebook for the Style Invitational Ink of the Day has just shrunk by a big chunk because I can no longer post it (at least this month) on the Washington Post Style page (95,000 Likes) on Facebook. If that’s where you’d been seeing it — or if you’d like to start seeing the daily little card with a classic Invite entry — go to bit.ly/inkofday and click Like, and you’ll get it on your Facebook news feed. (You do need to look at it on Facebook, but accounts are free and you don’t have to sign up with your own name.)

Clipped Fringe

Sad news from 57-time Loser Ward Kay: Ward, who’s produced a number of plays in various cities, had to cancel at the last minute his production of “The Livonians,” which was to have opened this weekend at D.C.’s Capital Fringe festival and to which a contingent of Losers had planned to attend. “The lead actor dropped out and we were already two actors short,” Ward explained last night in a Facebook post; “The show has been cursed. The director was hospitalized last month. We’ve have three different leads with scheduling issues. I finally had to admit defeat.”

“The Livonians” is one of three Fringe plays that were canceled. Theater-stuff happens; it’s very difficult to make theater work with a group of people who all have day jobs. Here’s an article that quotes Ward.

Some of the Losers and I will be going to other shows in the festival; we’re still going Saturday evening to see “W3,” a play on ecological themes featuring puppetry and, not least (okay, maybe least) the Royal Consort as the voice of a ghost whale); and Sunday at noon to see “Sage of Blackwell,” a drama about a labor union official, with the Empress’s daughter, Royal Scion 2, playing his longtime friend. If you’d like to join us for any of these, e-mail me at pat.myers@washpost.com or just show up.

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