Poems Are Made by Fools Like Me
When first-place prizes go to second-rate writing.
By Cy Gilman
Resting on plastic foldable chairs, clutching paper cups of hot chocolate, the huddled crowd kept their eyes locked forward. It was a Thursday in early November, during that odd period of autumn in which some sport down coats and gloves and others cling to light flannels. It was a cold night and the latter group, myself among them, was shivering under an outdoor tent. All ears were on Professor Joseph Albernaz of the Department of English and Comparative Literature, his head resting on a voluminous plaid-red scarf. “I dedicated my life to studying English poetry,” Albernaz announced to those awaiting his judgment. “Never until tonight have I regretted that decision.” The crowd giggled nervously. A few people whooped. The professor’s comments were reasonable: A few seconds earlier, his colleague, Professor Nicholas Dames, had given out accolades to a poem titled “Boobies.”
“The poems were so delightfully bad … that they would have made Homer wish he were not only blind but also deaf, so that he could not hear them,” Albernaz continued, with a cheeky smile. “Poems that made me wish, instead of being trained, as I was at Berkeley, in aesthetic theory, that I was trained in anesthetics.” Albernaz then conferred a distinction, fittingly titled the “Nepotism Award,” upon a poem written by his colleague’s son, Stephen.
The poems that caused Professor Albernaz to rethink his career decisions were entries in the 35th Annual Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest—“Kilmer,” for short—for which he and Dames had been recruited as expert judges. The audience had just been subjected to two hours of hackneyed quotations, flimsy rhymes, and long pauses for theatrical swigs of coffee, all masquerading as a poetry reading. One contestant recited, “leaves leave / and change / like the days of the calendar / in fall,” then exhorted us to “respect, somehow / the male gaze.” Another pastiched Zoe Leonard’s “I want a dyke for president” in an exaltation of presidential twins. One poet simply screamed.
The Philolexian Society, which hosts Kilmer every year, spends the majority of its time as a parodic debate society. They convene to discuss pre-selected topics in rituals constrained by detailed bylaws that include moderated testimonies and conclude in a vote. The stately (and perhaps somewhat cultish) decorum of the club’s weekly protocol is undermined by Pythonesque topics of contention such as “R: More things should be cut in half.” It seemed during the competition that the best bad poems, so to speak, were the ones that most embodied this ethos. A veneer of self-seriousness not only defies but enhances the absurdity of the poems. Poet Laureate Dylan Temel, CC ’22, whose 2018 “A Story of Unrequited Love in 5 Haikus” was so successfully bad it was quoted in the New York Times, scowled grimly as he carefully enunciated each syllable of his poetry, even amidst roaring cackles from the audience. Aidan Speckhard, CC ’22, whose poem “Werner Herzog is my wife” took first prize, refused to break character even when I interviewed him days later. “What motivated me to write it? Just Werner, you know. Werner, Werner, Werner,” he said. “Like, the man is poetic himself.”
While Philo—as the club is informally known—burlesques literary pomp and circumstance, its members take seriously the long tradition the group sustains. According to Gregory Schare, CC ’24, the club’s Impresario, Philo’s members like to say that the society is “the oldest thing at the college, except for the college itself.” (This year, Schare won third place for an untitled meta-poem that, in Dames’s words, “pulled off the magical trick of rhyming ‘nerds’ with ‘words,’ thereby defining this very event.”) Schare sketched a club history that closely mirrors Columbia’s own: Philo was founded as a (very serious) debate society in 1802 to “teach oratory to the young men of Columbia College,” and spent the next century and a half engaging in various forms of (very serious) literary endeavors. It was Allen Ginsberg, CC ’48, awash in midcentury counterculture, who first shook the society’s stolid foundations: Under Ginsberg, the group became a jazz society, “a place where you can be a Beat poet, basically.” Shortly after the Beats left Columbia, the club’s activity fizzled. It was not until the ’80s that Thomas Vinciguerra, CC ’85, re-founded the group and endowed it with its current affinity for the postmodern pasquinade. Philo’s official motto—and the name of its magazine—is Surgam, which is Latin for “we rise”; its members refer to the club’s revival under Vinciguerra as the “Resurgam.” A fitting expression for the evening—being, as it was, the first in-person Kilmer since the onset of the pandemic.
After every award had been distributed, Philo’s leaders distributed paper copies of “Trees,” a tragically saccharine poem composed by the event’s namesake. The crowd rose and chanted its lines in unison, with particular emphasis on the words “God” and “breast”—the hilarious mixture of the boorishly sacred with the unwittingly profane. The event is indeed a send-up of Alfred Joyce Kilmer—who was, of course, himself a moderator of the Philolexian society around the turn of the 20th century—and the blinkered sentimentality he stood for. Yet there was a solemnity with which attendees recited Kilmer’s cloying bars—a fanatical dedication to the theater of poetic performance, one that was as mawkish and corny as the poem itself. Perhaps it’s this—that there is a sincerity behind the ironic detachment, a smile beneath the cackling—that makes the whole thing so beautiful.