Tear Him For His Bad Verses


Max Beerbohm, “The Poet’s Corner” via

My dissertation began in my fascination with the richly inventive language with which Tudor and Stuart writers discussed poetry’s shortcomings and failures. Ranging from apologetic prefaces to inept stage poets, I unfold a history of poetry represented negatively: as rude or greasy, bombastic or rank, lurking panther or ill-handled cheese.

What excites me about poetic ‘badness’ is that it does not merely negate familiar rhetorical, continental, or allegorical approaches to poetic good. Rather, it cuts across such interpretive traditions, becoming in the hands of poets and playwrights a rich critical vocabulary for articulating the relationship between poetry’s formal properties and its actions in the world. Tudor literary theory, I propose, takes shape in the negative.

Each chapter of Tear Him For His Bad Verses considers a particular role of the bad poet: as author, lyric speaker, stage character, and rival, to prove how bad poets shape our critical vocabulary.

“Desire is Pattern”

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I’m excited enough about this project that I’m putting it up here, even though I’m still working through the shape of my argument.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets have long aroused and eluded our desire for pattern. Since John Benson rearranged the quarto’s order in his edition of 1640, editors, critics, and readers have struggled to make sense of the sequence: debating whether the 1609 order is authorial, how best to theorize the relation between poems, and what to make of its tantalizing hints at narrative. If we are less amenable than past scholars to the notion that hitting upon the proper order for the sonnets might unlock their secrets, we retain their sense that the Sonnets invite us to confront our own methodologies, to reflect on which connections we are justified in making. Indeed, always at stake in readings of the Sonnets is the status of literary argument itself: how do the patterns observed by the critic come to mean?

I now imagine this project as exploring digital approaches to thinking of meaning alongside a long history of rearranging, distorting, and otherwise manipulating this sonnet. More on this to come!




“The Rude Poet Presents Himself: Breton, Spenser, and Bad Poetry”

breton title page

Title page of Breton’s “A Murmurer,” via

This essay explores how Elizabethan poets transform conventional gestures of self-deprecation to negotiate the competing demands of rhetoric, the classics, social status, and ethics. To concede (or at least defer) the question of evaluation opens up space for experiment, for what Breton and Spenser both refer to as newness. Because the terms of such self-criticism blur distinctions between shortcomings of style and of substance, they become a vocabulary for close-reading poetry’s action in the world. Thus Spenser uses terms like “rude,” “baseness,” “rough,” and “dischorde” to wrestle with style but also poetic identity and purpose: tracing relationships among his archaic diction and colloquial forms, his interpretive difficulty, his plainspoken didacticism, and his sense of the value of poetry.

Spenser Studies 29 (2014).


“The Very Unbridled Use Of Words: the Equine Poetics of Sir Philip Sidney”


A study in a particular metaphor, this study tracks how Sidney’s horse metaphors change over his career. They grow richer and more complex, more attuned to an imagined equine psychology, in ways that reflect both new practices in sixteenth-century horsemanship and Sidney’s interest in consent and domination.

My thanks to the National Sporting Library for a John Daniels fellowship that supported some of the research on this project.

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