The Vogon poetry problem

I think we all know the Dragonsinger problem of poetry in fiction (I will describe it in case someone doesn’t), and this week I found its opposite.

The Dragonsinger problem: all the other characters go on and on about how brilliant Our Protagonist’s poetry is. “You are the best poet of your generation!” they cry. “Possibly the best ever! Our country/language/planet has never seen such a wondrous poet as you!” Problem: very few authors are the best poet of their generation. Very few best poets of their generation decide to write speculative novels. So if you do show even a few lines of such a poem, rather than only the reactions to the poems, it jolts the reader right on out of there. Or immerses them in pity for the country/language/planet that is stuck with no better poetry than that. One of the worst examples is Menolly of Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. Everyone falls all over themselves to praise her. Her peers are sooooo jealous. And Anne McCaffrey shows quite a lot of Menolly’s lyrics in the books, and they are…not, shall we say, in stiff competition for the best of her generation. I first read them right before I turned twelve, and I am not convinced that they were better than I could have done at that age. I believe they rhymed die and cry, among other things. And I was reading T.H. White at around the same time, so I had the ants to help me make fun of them with the moon/June/soon, love/dove/above, and thanks to T.H. White whenever pop music is particularly annoying me I think of Al Jolson.


Yesterday I encountered the opposite. The author was quite aware that they were portraying bad poetry. It was supposed to be youthful and exuberant but not at all good. And it went on. And on. AND ON.

This is just what Douglas Adams did not do with the Vogon poetry. Vogon poetry, as Adams described it in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, was notoriously bad throughout the galaxy, weapons-grade bad poetry. But he described it. He had a line or two. Enough for people to chuckle at how bad.

And then he was done.

Because people believe you that your bad poetry is bad. Oh, they believe you. They just don’t need to sit through it. You only need to hear the clarinets honk once to believe that a grade school band concert is bad. Too much longer and people look away. There is a very narrow land between two swamps, and those two swamps are Embarrassment Squick and Boredom. Being bad at things is rarely interesting. Dart in. Move on. Even if you’re setting a baseline for later improvement, the reader will believe you: yep, they’re bad, they can get better. Golly, we hope they get better. Soon. Now, even. Time for the training montage. Or the cut-scene to exhausted-but-better. Or something else.

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