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The Irony in Richard Howey’s Essay "How to Write a Rotten Poem with Almost No Effort"

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Writing has never been considered an enjoyable task for many people, not to mention writing a poem. Even James Dickey – a famous poet and novelist, claims that writing poems is demanding. He says “I need about one hundred fifty drafts of a poem to get it right, and fifty more to make it sound spontaneous.” (Dickey, as cited in Nash, 2019) However, readers find Richard Howey’s essay “How to Write a Rotten Poem with Almost No Effort” written in 1987 breaks that stereotype. Howey’s work, as clearly reviewed by its comic title, teaches people how to write a “rotten poem” in an extremely interesting and humorous way. Therefore, this paper aims at examining such humour in Howey’s work. Also, it will try to explain Howey’s success in drawing thousands of readers to follow a fruitless instruction that eventually leads them to write worthless verse.

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Initially, it is noticeable that “How to Write a Rotten Poem with Almost No Effort” is extracted from chapter 3 of the book 75 Reading: An anthology that aims to provide students an insight into a host of varied traditional and modern essays. (75 Readings: An anthology, 1987, p. xv) Like other works in the collection, Howey’s essay focuses on depicting the process of writing. However, he decided to take it differently from others by adopting an informal diction, a conversational style of writing and his sense of humor to present his ideas. By demonstrating consistent control over complex and varied syntactic structures, such as “So you want to write a poem. You’ve had a rotten day or an astounding thought or a car accident or a squalid love affair…” (Howey, 2017, p. 131) as if he was having an intimate conversation with his readers, Howey gradually draws readers’ attention. This helps achieving his main purpose, which is to teach everyone to compose poems themselves. Also, he expresses his belief in the possibility that this method can induce armatures to set their first step in poetry and create a prolific environment for poet-citizens to grow. Accordingly, the theme of the essay is the attempt to simplify and popularize the poem-writing process. Yet it needs a host of efforts put into the realization of this attempt since there is no room left for spiritual life and poetry in this material life.

Secondly, this essay has a clear structure, which helps readers grasp the author’s ideas and follow his instructions without any difficulty. Howey starts by presenting the available problems available poetry and his solution, which is to encourage people to write poems. Next, the author spent 5 paragraphs to guide readers how to write a “rotten poem”. Eventually, there is a twist in the conclusion, in which the author admits that poems written mechanically are not presentable.

Another reason for “How to write a rotten poem with almost no effort” being an engaging comic essay is Richard Howey’s success in adopting a half-mocking tone, verbal and situational ironies, which add the taste to the seem-to-be-boring poem-writing process. Verbal irony seems to be one one of his most favorite literary devices, as a variety of litotes, hyperbole, and synesthesia is adopted in the essay. To be more specific, using litotes to underestimate the result of his process, Howey depicts his poems as “rotten” in the title and throughout the essay, which gives a funny suggestion that his recommendation is not going to help readers make a good poem. Hyperbole and simile also play a vital role in Howey’s verbal irony, as he compares the quality of a “rotten poem” to “one of Rod McKuen’s best efforts”. (Howey, 2017, p. 132) Furthermore, he gives an instruction related to synesthesia, using two senses in a conflicting manner, such as “listen to the warm”, “see the noise” and “I cuddled your sight in the aroma of the night”, etc. (Howey, 2017, p. 132) These are significant for Howey’s effort in simplifying the process of writing poems.

Notwithstanding, there is a set of clever sarcasm in this essay. For instance, by claiming that readers should choose uncommon nouns to put in the poem’s first line (Howey, 2017, p. 132), Howey sarcastically implies that present poets tend to abuse imagery tools without paying attention to the poem’s sense. This is contradictory to the true nature of the poem, as mentioned in Howey essay’s first paragraph, is to record human experiences and their complex emotions. Another example, he remarks “As a result, serious poets either starve or work as account executives. There is no middle ground.” (Howey, 2017, p. 131) to show his regret that people are abandoning poetry and their spiritual life while purchasing materials. 

Also, it demonstrates bitterly that poets have no choice to give up writing and do other unsuitable jobs. In the fourth paragraph, Howey continues this sarcasm by being “grossly optimistic” about the future. “Ideally, there would evolve a veritable society of poet-citizens, which would elevate the quality of life worldwide. Not only that, good poets could make a living for a change.” (Howey, 2017, p. 131)This sentence is ironic because following the author’s tutor to compose a “rotten poem” does not necessarily revolutionize a whole society into an elite system of high-profile literates who adore poetry from the bottom of their heart.

However, it shows his wish for a society filled with people who appreciate the beauty of poems and life. This might be the reason for his attempt to help foreigners to poetry manage to produce a poem. His formula, presented in four paragraphs, each of which teaches readers how to write a line in his four-line poem, is specifically clear and detailed. It is also enclosed with a witty example in paragraph 9 – a nonsense poem but still sounds “poetic”. 

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