VERY BAD POETRY
Edited by Kathryn Petras and Ross Petras
Vintage. 126 pp. Paperback, $10
In the course of this exceedingly amusing little book, Kathryn Petras and Ross Petras tell of one James Grainger, a self-described "ruptured poet lost in holy trance," whose verse was so awful that it inspired much laughter in the circles frequented by Samuel Johnson. According to James Boswell, at one reading Grainger intoned the line, "Now, Muse, let's sing of rats," prompting further ridicule. "And what increased the ridicule," Boswell wrote, "was that one of the company who slyly overlooked the reader perceived that the word had been originally mice, and had been altered to rats, as more dignified."
So it goes in "Very Bad Poetry," every page of which makes its title seem, if anything, wicked understatement. "As with great art," the editors say, "we can't exactly define a very bad poem except to say we know one when we see one," and indeed they have seen many, but actually they do a rather good job of defining the indefinable:
"So what is a very bad poem? Usually it is testimony to a poet's well-honed sense of the anticlimactic. A poet must be immeasurably moved by some grandiose emotion or event -- say, a horrific catastrophe -- commit it to paper, then veer from the sublime to the pedestrian at precisely the right -- which is to say, the wrong -- moment. One minute the poet is describing the sinking of a ferry, the next mentioning how much the fare was."
Add to this the use of "inappropriate words" and "the weight of over-enthusiastic use of literary devices -- alliteration, footnotes, and most commonly, bad metaphors -- not to mention bizarre, if excited, imagery," and you are well on the way to a truly ghastly poem. It also helps -- though for some reason the authors make only passing mention of this -- if you, the poet, are alive and writing during the reign of Queen Victoria.
The Victorian Age was, for much of its duration, the Romantic era as well, and into the bargain the last period, at least in the English-speaking world, when poetry was written and read across the whole range of society. Wordsworth and Whitman were busily at it, but so too were Ella Wheeler Wilcox and James Whitcomb Riley and William McGonagall.
This last, for whose work the editors seem to have limitless appetite, was "what is politely termed a naive poet," i.e., "he had no ear for meter, a knack for choosing the most banal of subjects, and a tendency to stretch mightily for a rhyme." To wit, "The Clepington Catastrophe," which reads in part: "Accidents will happen by land and by sea,/ Therefore to save ourselves from accidents, we needn't try to flee,/ For whatsoever God ordained will come to pass/ For instance, ye may be killed by a stone or piece of glass."
Accidents and disasters are fruitful subjects for the worst of poets, who "eagerly and cheerfully share with their audience every lurid detail." Hence Julia A. Moore, who positively feasted on carnage, prompting one critic to call her "worse than a Gatling gun" and to count in her poesy casualties to the tune of 21 killed and nine wounded. Among these was "Little Libbie": "While eating dinner, this dear little child/ Was choked on a piece of beef./ Doctors came, tried their skill awhile,/ But none could give relief."
Mention certainly must be made as well of Solyman Brown of Connecticut, who was both poet and dentist, among whose poetic works is "The Dentologia -- A Poem on the Diseases of the Teeth," and of J. Gordon Coogler of South Carolina, whose print shop advertised "Poems Written While You Wait." A special prize goes to his classic "A Pretty Girl," to wit: "On her beautiful face there are smiles of grace/ That linger in beauty serene,/ And there are no pimples encircling her dimples,/ As ever, as yet, I have seen."
The competition obviously is stiff, but for the honor of "The Worst Poem Ever Written in the English Language" the editors choose "A Tragedy," by Theophile Marzials, which must be read in its entirety to be appreciated. For myself, though, the honor goes to "Song of the Sea Weed," by Eliza Cook. Written at much the same time as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," this evokes a similarly parched image:
Many a lip is gaping for drink,
And madly calling for rain;
And some hot brains are beginning to think
Of a messmate's opened vein.
That puts Coleridge in his place. Jonathan Yardley's Internet address is email@example.com.