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Poetry Guide: Poetaster

Poetaster, rhymester or versifier are contemptuous names often applied to bad or inferior poets.

The original poetasters were John Marston and Thomas Dekker as this was the name given to a 1601 play by Ben Jonson—the first to use the word in print—lampooning these two writers.

While poetaster has always been a negative appraisal of a poet's skills, rhymester (or rhymer) and versifier have held an 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, over sentimentality, 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.