Bad Poet, by Brian Alan Ellis. House of Vlad Press, June 2020. 140 pages. $12.00, paper.
Spread out over two pages at the start of Bad Poet is the sentence, “I write bad poetry and I don’t care.” So if you believe Brian Alan Ellis, you might as well put down the book right then, because it’s bad and you don’t have time for that. But the poems aren’t bad. They’re well-formed and incisive. Ellis knows exactly the right number of words he needs to make you feel something you didn’t feel before you read them. So when he says, “I write bad poetry,” he’s lying. Maybe he’s been subject to so much self doubt that he actually believes he is a bad poet (in which case he’s more self-deceiving than he is lying), or maybe—and this is the interpretation I prefer—someone once told him he was a bad poet, and now he’s dedicated two pages opening this book to spiting that jerk without mentioning their name, a denial without any explicit recognition. Or maybe the statement is meant to express his awareness of a contradiction—because while Ellis might believe on occasion that he is a bad poet, if he really thought he were such a bad poet, he probably wouldn’t publish so many poetry books.
Ellis’ style is to put the gist of the poem in the title and then add some comments, explanation, or contextual remarks that constitute the actual poem part of the poem. His depression is hilarious, while his anxiety brings joy. You might think that these poems are enjoyable because of the schadenfreude that comes with reading about someone else’s failed social interactions, but I think it runs deeper than that. Of course we want to read about Ellis’ life, in which it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether it was he or the cat who wet the bed, but it’s not because we want to see him suffer. There’s something tricksier going on.
At first I thought it might be because we share similar philosophies—his poems express a relatable mindset that also happens to be timely. I’ve read of Ellis’ nihilism, for instance, in the blurbs preceding the text of this book. I think there’s an element of stoicism in there too. Death comes up at every opportunity, following the stoic recommendation that should you ever feel too much, just think about death to make those feelings go away. (Because every one of your concerns is petty, small, and mean, when compared to your own and everyone else’s inevitable and perhaps imminent death.)
Ellis takes it one step further. Don’t just think about death. Think about how goth it is that everyone currently exists in a state close to death, surrounded by reminders of death (like the dead squirrel from the poem, “Dying is pretty goth, meaning we’re all kind of goth in the end”). And in the end, Ellis’ poems are escapist. Because when you start to think about thinking about death, you stop thinking about death. When you’re thinking about how funny death is, you’re not thinking about death. Like in “Find what you love and let it gaslight you,” when Ellis says, “Statistically, our longest and most successful relationship will be with death. *winks*,” you laugh. I laughed. I saw Ellis do a reading recently at AWP, where he expressed some of the same dark and existential concerns about the fragility of human existence, and we all laughed.
You’d think that with Ellis’ descriptions of his self and life throughout the book, you wouldn’t come away from it thinking that he’s cool and so is his cat. But that’s what you get reading this book. So the question is why. And the answer is, because he’s juxtaposing the superficial and the profound in such a way that he seems to be constantly working on two levels. There’s the façade of existence that requires that him be polite to random strangers in order to maintain a basic income and avoid starvation, and then there’s his awareness of the shady underbelly of existence, where the shadows of death make their appearances in and amongst angry restaurant customers. It’s like he’s got this double consciousness that seamlessly shifts between the mundane, the profound and the profane. And so you kinda want to poke him, like, do the thing where you slip into a dark depression and relate some fundamental absurdity of existence.
When I read Bad Poet, it brought to mind Aristotle’s example of the “good cobbler” from his book On Interpretation. Aristotle is talking about how when you have a two word description, sometimes you can separate it into two, so that the person has two qualities—“good” and “a cobbler”, and sometimes you can’t, because they’re a “good cobbler”—all judgments of their person aside, all you can say about them is that they’re good at cobbling. Brian Alan Ellis is a bad poet, but not because he’s bad at poetry. It’s because he’s defying the preconception of the poet as someone whose lofty concerns aren’t subject to the demands of survival. It’s because we don’t conceive of the poet as someone who wakes up in a pool of urine of indeterminate origin, rolls over and pulls at your heartstrings with their beautiful words. He’s a reconciliation of two metaphysical realms that we have thought of as separate since Plato—the dirty sensible realm and the pure, intellectual realm of thought. Nietzsche claims that to separate these two realms is a symptom of our hatred of reality—because no one who likes their reality makes up a new one, a nicer one, where everyone writes poetry about lovely music and probably flowers. Ellis’ poems about his cat and how he has failed at table ownership insist on the reunification of these realms, and I’m into it.
Charlene Elsby is a philosophy professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne. Her first novel, HEXIS, was published by CLASH Books in February 2020. Her second novel, Affect, is forthcoming with The Porcupine’s Quill in October 2020.