Definitions

criticaster

Poetaster

[poh-it-as-ter]
Poetaster, like rhymester or versifier, is a contemptuous name often applied to bad or inferior poets. Specifically, poetaster has implications of unwarranted pretentions to artistic value. The term was coined by Ben Jonson in his 1601 play The Poetaster; Jonson applied the term to John Marston and Thomas Dekker, his rivals in the Poetomachia or War of the Theatres.

While poetaster has always been a negative appraisal of a poet's skills, rhymester (or rhymer) and versifier have held ambiguous meanings depending on the commentator’s opinion of a writer's verse. Versifier is often used to refer to someone who produces work in verse with the implication that while technically able to make lines rhyme they have no real talent for poetry. Rhymer on the other hand is usually always impolite despite attempts to salvage the reputation of rhymers such as the Rhymers' Club and Rhymer being a common last name.

The faults of a poetaster frequently include errors or lapses in their work's meter, badly rhyming words which jar rather than flow, oversentimentality, too much use of the pathetic fallacy and unintentionally bathetic choice of subject matter. Although a mundane subject in the hands of some great poets can be raised to the level of art, such as On First Looking into Chapman's Homer by John Keats or Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes by Thomas Gray, others merely produce bizarre poems on bizarre subjects, a good/bad example being James McIntyre who wrote mainly of cheese.

Two other poets often regarded as poetasters are William Topaz McGonagall and Alfred Austin. The latter was actually the British poet laureate but is nevertheless regarded as greatly inferior to his predecessor Alfred Lord Tennyson, was regularly mocked during his career and is little read today.

Modern use

Musician Joanna Newsom on the album The Milk-Eyed Mender uses the term to refer to a struggling narrator wracked with ambition to create beautiful poetry in a verse from "Inflammatory Writ:"

And as for my inflammatory writ?
Well, I wrote it and I was not inflamed one bit.
Advice from the master derailed that disaster;
he said "Hand that pen over to ME, poetaster!"

Fellow poet Michael Kourkoulis, a poetaster of the 20th century, created this "quite frankly, terrible" (New York Times) poem, entitled "Rivers of Black":

I walk down a valley of shadows.
Each darker than the next.
I walk down a valley of shadows.
I squint, I squirm, I jext.

Variants

In the sense that a poetaster is a pretended poet, John Marston coined the term parasitaster, for one who pretends to be a parasite or sycophant, in his play Parasitaster, or The Fawn (1604). Later in the 17th century (the earliest cited use is from 1684) appeared the term criticaster for an inferior and pretentious critic.

See also

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