Bad Guys
January 27, 2005 10:20 AM   Subscribe

"Can a bad man be a good poet?" Some well-written thoughts on morality, matters of taste, and art by David Orr.
posted by lilboo (30 comments total)
posted by j.p. Hung at 10:28 AM on January 27, 2005

Maybe honesty is immoral.
posted by orange clock at 10:44 AM on January 27, 2005

It's practically a prerequisite: look at Yeats, for example. And yes, orange_clock, honesty has been immoral since the conversion of Constantine.
posted by davy at 11:07 AM on January 27, 2005

bukowski was a good poet trying real hard to be a bad man.
posted by three blind mice at 11:12 AM on January 27, 2005

I knew this essay would be about Philip Larkin when I saw the title. He's the quintessential good poet/terrible man.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, is another. Great poet, but he hired a bunch of guys to beat up John Dryden.
posted by painquale at 11:15 AM on January 27, 2005

Poetry is about experience, and bad men often have lots of that to draw upon. Also, one can see and describe a truth that one chooses not to partake of himself.
posted by rushmc at 11:15 AM on January 27, 2005

(the presumption being that proximity to truth defines goodness)
posted by rushmc at 11:16 AM on January 27, 2005

We like to talk about “bad men” and “good poetry,” but we’re the ones handing out the gold stars and demerits, and we may be “good” or “bad” ourselves in ways that affect our views of others.

That quote from the link is also important to take into account.
posted by rushmc at 11:22 AM on January 27, 2005

bukowski was a good man who had some low-paying jobs but ultimately worked for the post office for twenty years until he became a full time writer.

and he was the best poet of the 20th century.

to me a bad man is someone who molests, robs, or invades countries for wmd and never finds any.
posted by tsarfan at 11:24 AM on January 27, 2005

Depending upon your belief system, you can enjoy their work and take solace in the knowledge that they are burning in hell.

Kinda like having your cake and eating it too.
posted by sourwookie at 11:34 AM on January 27, 2005

tsarfan...fair enough on that point although that Bush guy is no poet.
posted by j.p. Hung at 11:35 AM on January 27, 2005

I have anti-semites like Wagner in mind with regard to my previous statement.
posted by sourwookie at 11:36 AM on January 27, 2005

Having crossed paths for several months with Bukowski, I would have to weigh in that while *bad* is not a word I feel I have license to use with another human being, my life did not benefit from these encounters with him. Quite the opposite.

Trying to read his stuff now, having seen the source, I am just no longer interested.
posted by Danf at 11:47 AM on January 27, 2005

Not only can they be good poets, they can be good Poet Laureates.
posted by damnthesehumanhands at 12:08 PM on January 27, 2005

See also here for discussion of Adam Kirsch's article that is subtitled, "Could Larkin the beloved poet have existed without Larkin the racist cad of a man?"
posted by onlyconnect at 12:23 PM on January 27, 2005

Next week: can a bad poet be a good man?
posted by walrus at 12:34 PM on January 27, 2005

Certainly a lot of good men (and women) can be (really) bad poets, so why not the opposite? I think of Bukowski (a great poet, not a good one, one of the few poets I can stand) as an extremely honest man, not a bad one. His drinking and gambling and the rest of his disgusting habits hurt him more than they did others; it wasn't like he was a slumlord, designing shoddy appliances, screwing stockholders out of their pensions, running unsafe polluting power plants, or invading foreign countries on little prevarication. (True, he did often go to lecture somewhere and take money for performing abominably, but I think that's what his audiences wanted.)

I say all this, of course, having never met the guy except through his work. If I'd had unpleasant personal experiences like Danf, maybe I would think differently.

As for really bad guy/poets, you-know-who from Nazi Germany apparently wrote love poetry to a young blond named Stephanie.
posted by LeLiLo at 1:16 PM on January 27, 2005

Can good [persons] be poets? Philip Larkin, the aforementioned Yeats, Eliot, and I doubt a night on the town with Byron and Shelly was all wine and roses. Gerard Manley Hopkins' stuff is really neat, but oh to have the stuff before he converted...
posted by ontic at 1:27 PM on January 27, 2005

Most people care more about other people than they do about art, thus the commonplace shift in attention from whether the poem (or painting or music) is satisfying to whether the author might be someone we'd like to befriend.
posted by Julie at 1:56 PM on January 27, 2005

But should not art be judged upon merit alone?
posted by walrus at 2:03 PM on January 27, 2005

I agree that Bukowski was a good man. I'm sure he could be a bastard, and I pity some of the poor women associated with him, but he had a good heart.
posted by apis mellifera at 2:17 PM on January 27, 2005

An odd piece that overly concerns itself with Larkin, and then finishes with some nonsense about women (mostly all write lyrical poetry and that usually avoids the sort of topics that might be deemed "bad" or not politically correct.).

Much that was bad in the past was simply a reflection of culture at that time, and perhaps we ought not bring our much greater developed views to bear on the past but accept it for what it was at that time.
Pound: traitor, anti-semite and gifted writer; Eliot: same thing but not a traitor.
There are some "bad guys" I like to read and some good guys I dismiss as tripe. But Bukowski? not all that bad a person and for me not that good a fact, boring.
posted by Postroad at 3:27 PM on January 27, 2005

Baudelaire: "I always been impressed that women are allowed in churches. What conversations can they have with God ?"
posted by seanyboy at 3:45 PM on January 27, 2005

And I'm not even going to start up that whole Sylvia / Ted thing.
posted by seanyboy at 3:47 PM on January 27, 2005

and he was the best poet of the 20th century.

What a bold and preposterous claim!
posted by rushmc at 3:51 PM on January 27, 2005

It seems to be stretching it to call Larkin a terrible man. He never did anything bad as far as I know, and his beliefs were pretty commonplace for his day. He said dumb racist things, like probably half the whites in the Britain and America of his day. He was a cranky old bachelor librarian who kept skin magazines under the bed. He was a Thatcher conservative. He was the kind of guy you might not have liked, but not so "terrible." (And in any case, he wrote great poetry.)

In moral terms, a better example, though from fiction rather than poetry, is Forrest Carter, the author of The Education of Little Tree. Salon:
Forrest Carter was the bestselling author of "The Education of Little Tree: A True Story," a literary phenomenon that was published 25 years ago this fall and is credited by many as the book that touched off the boom in what is still referred to in publishing as "Native American Lit." Carter also wrote another famous book, "The Rebel Outlaw Josey Wales," whose eponymous ex-Confederate superhero was played by Clint Eastwood in the most influential western since "The Searchers."

But "Forrest Carter's" most memorable creation was himself. "Forrest Carter," revered author of the beloved "Little Tree," was actually Asa Carter -- virulent segregationist, former Klansman, speechwriter for George Wallace and professional racist.
Now that's a pretty terrible guy. He didn't just throw around a few racial slurs between friends. He was a Klansman and an activist for racial segregation. Not a Thatcher supporter, but a Wallace supporter. Nevertheless, he wrote the "beloved" story of a little Cherokee boy. Good multiculties loved it. And it's still the same damned book, regardless of who wrote it. But the guy who wrote it was a shit.
posted by pracowity at 4:36 PM on January 27, 2005

That is a very good article. More than reading poetry, it makes me want to read more stuff by David Orr.
posted by bingo at 5:11 PM on January 27, 2005

can a bad man be a good actor? ... inquiring minds want to know!!

ps - bukowski was not the greatest poet of the 20th century, ok? ... greatest is a silly concept anyway ... he's good, just leave it at that, but there are better
posted by pyramid termite at 7:02 PM on January 27, 2005

Ginsberg had his NAMBLA affiliation - that's as vile as I can get for a poet.

Bingo, that was my first thought as well - this David Orr feller can write. Good link, lilboo!
posted by TomSophieIvy at 7:44 PM on January 27, 2005

If a bad man can be a God, why not a poet? Love All, Serve All!
posted by missbossy at 1:40 AM on January 28, 2005

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