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Doggerel Day Afternoon

I Know Why the Bird of Freedom Sings: Walt Whitman exhorts our national symbol.

Verse doesn't get much worse than this

By Richard von Busack

That kid on the playground who first declaimed "Gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts" assured his place in the pantheon forever--and with a minimal amount of effort. There must be more bad poetry around than any other art form--probably because the poem is the easiest form of writing, especially if you really don't know what you're doing.

The new Very Bad Poetry, edited by Kathryn and Ross Petras (Vintage, $10, 126 pages), does indeed preserve some pretty terrible verse. Many of these writers had great popularity; a few of the poetasters included here were very amply rewarded for their poems in their day. There's ancient pleasure to be had in disinterring a successful but long-forgotten bad poet for mockery; it must be the same satisfaction the Roman crowds used to derive from digging up the bones of a bad pope and throwing them into the Tiber.

Here is work by Cornelius Whur, Solyman Brown, Slocum Slugs Esq. and J. Gordon Coogler; here is poetry that rattles like tin cans in a temblor, that descends, in Ambrose Bierce's phrase, like the ripple of a suite of furniture cascading down the stair; here is meter broken on the wheel and rhyme forced until it howls for mercy. As was once said about Time magazine, "Backward run the sentences until reels the mind." Here also is that trio of subjects that fascinated poets of 70­150 years ago: dead pets, dead babies and the importance of temperance. (Though when the muse hit them like a two-by-four, poets could apostrophize anything around; consider the occasional verse of James McIntyre [1827­1906] on the virtues of the wooden leg.)

A crippled child is necessarily a better subject than a healthy child, because the winsomeness of youth is contrasted with an example of optimism in the face of hardship. The hugely popular and wealthy Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849­1916) addresses the subject of "The Happy Little Cripple":

    I never had no Mother nen [then]--fer my Pa runned away
    An' dassn't come back here no more--'cause he was drunk one day
    An' stobbed a man in thish-here town, an' couldn't pay his fine!
    An' nen my Ma she died--an' I got "Curv'ture of the Spine"!

The poet Ros (1860­1939), also much published in her era, figured that a murdered baby would have more pathos than a merely crippled one. From her "A Little Belgian Orphan":

    Just then they raised the little lad and threw him on the fire,
    and wreathed in smiles they watched him burn until he did expire
    My poor wee sisters screamed and cried
    and clutched dead Mammy's hands
    When, lo! They cut off baby's head and also her wee hands.

Lo! The above work is my own selection for low-water mark in the Petras' book, since the poem eddies far below even Georgia Bailey Parrington's "An Elegy to a Dissected Puppy." ("Sweet dog! ... Did toothsome crust of juicy bone/Allure to stretch on thy bier?") Note in this snippet Ros' refusal to find a rhyme for "hands"; her use of "wee" twice in two sentences when "cute," "tiny," "bitty" or "dainty" would have served (meter being no consideration to her).

The distressing scene Ros is describing is a group of the Kaiser's soldiers amusing themselves with helpless Belgians. This is no everyday massacre of toddlers, then, but a specific (and imaginary) atrocity designed to inflame the reader and make him join up and go fight in World War I. It is a very bad poem with a propagandistic purpose, which makes it something worse than anything else in the book. Ros' poem has a kinship, then, with a favorite blank-verse contemporary bad poem that I keep encountering. It's supposed to be the diary of a fetus, a fetus with a good deal of cognitive ability. Anonymously written, the poem is presented under varying titles but is usually called "Today Mommy Killed Me."

Ros missed the obvious gaffe: The German soldiers should have been drunk. Temperance poetry is all over the Petras' book, as thick as raisins in raisin bran.

Resounding warnings against drunkenness toll through the collection: Drunks fall asleep on railroad tracks to get splattered, or else just stay put waiting for Satan to take them, as recorded in William Tappans' couplet: "Open, foul pit, and take the last/the last doomed Slave of Rum."

Here is a warning from the, I think, good bad poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850­1919), a poet still much quoted by second-grade teachers back when I was a boy:

    He drank up his health, and he drank up his wealth
    and his youth, and strength and grace
    and now bereft, he has nothing left
    but a bloated, hideous face.

Plainly, this one isn't so bad. Wilcox, like Kipling before her, had a facility for the obvious, a way of making her point without too much ornamentation or overreaching herself. There isn't enough lace on Wilcox for her to get tangled in.

This is the fault of Very Bad Poetry--many of the poems ain't nearly bad enough. Laughing at many of them gives you the shameful feeling that you're laughing at folk art. The commemorative verses quoted here, odes to disasters, railway bridges and giant cheeses at expositions, are more charming than truly bad. It's hard for us jaded moderns to imagine a giant cheese commensurate with our sense of wonder; and thus what we're guffawing at isn't the poem but the era. And the naive touch that makes modern poets from Stevie Smith to singers like Jonathan Richman such a pleasure is often considered by the Petras to be lack of tone.

Interestingly, the Petrases have a literary offense of their own going here--they somehow fail to mention the original and still superior collection of failed poetry, The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, edited by D.B. Wyndham-Lewis and Charles Lee, first published in 1930 but in print up until the mid-'60s. Fourteen of the poets from The Stuffed Owl turn up in Very Bad Poetry, sometimes excerpted from the originals exactly as published in The Stuffed Owl. Coincidence? A used copy of the Wyndham-Lewis and Lee anthology can be found for half as much as Very Bad Poetry, and you get so much more: troops and troops of powdered, periwigged poet laureates, hard-up Augustans, scribbling divines, the minorest of minor poets--and plenty of first-rate versifiers who just tripped over their dicks, as they say in Brooklyn. As Wyndham-Lewis and Lee write, "A fall off a cliff is more interesting than a fall off a cushion." This is the essence of The Stuffed Owl--which takes its title from an unfortunate line of Wordsworth's:

    Yes, helped by Genius--untired Comforter
    The presence of even a stuffed Owl for her
    Can cheat time

The authors collect unfortunate moments by Addison:

    Oh, the pleasing, pleasing anguish
    When we love, and when we languish.

And Byron's verse to his horse:

    In the stall he will not stiffen
    but be winged as a griffin.

All these are bad in a way that McIntyre's "Ode to the Mammoth Cheese, weighing over 7,000 pounds," excerpted by the Petras, isn't:

    We have seen thee, queen of cheese
    lying quietly at your ease
    gently fanned by evening breeze
    thy fair form no flies dare seize.

This is folk-poetry, and you wish there was more of it today. The populace can pick up advertising jingles the way a dog picks up ticks, but it has no place in its heart for, say, "Ceremonial Ode to the Opening of the Colma BART Station" or "Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Creation of the Turkey Frank."

George Orwell's essay on Kipling is as true today as it was in 1942: "In general ours is a civilization in which the very word 'poetry' evokes a hostile snigger, or at best, the sort of frozen disgust that most people feel when they hear the word 'God.' If you are good at playing the concertina, you could probably go into the nearest public bar and get yourself an appreciative audience within five minutes. But what would be the attitude of the same audience if you suggested reading them Shakespeare's sonnets, for example?" While enjoying the derisive quality of Very Bad Poetry and grateful for the exposure to that number about the Huns killing the babies, I find the Petras volume like another blow against a vanishing art. Just imagine how hard it would be to get an anthology today published titled Really Good Poetry.

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From the July 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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