Twelve minutes in praise of bad poetry.
Why is bad funny?
I don’t know why but it just is.
Bum notes make me giggle, god-awful B movie dialogue has me rolling in the aisles and bad poetry will always send me into hysterics.
Actually, let me qualify that – I like unintentionally bad things. It’s only funny if it was intended to be competent but turned out to be anything but. Maybe I’m laughing at hubris.
All I know is that Ed D Wood believed he was creating art. But if you’ve ever seen any of his films – especially the classic sci-fi movie Plan 9 from Outer Space – you’ll see that he didn’t. Wood’s films are so bad that they’re hilarious. Hell, Tim Burton even made a film about the guy starring Johnny Depp.
I am an avid collector of bad films, bad poetry, bad music and bad everything else. My office is crammed with horrible pottery and ornaments found in charity shops. My iTunes directory is stuffed full of people like Mrs Miller, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, William Hung and Florence Foster Jenkins.
I even managed recently to source the music that used to play behind ceefax on the BBC.
I watch awful films like The Navy versus the Night Monsters, Sharktopus, Galaxy of Terror, Nude Nuns with Big Guns and the deliciously named Sex Mission. Maybe we’ll look at some of them in a future podcast … but for today I’m going to concentrate on poetry.
Who was or is the worst poet? And what is the worst poem ever written?
There are many serious contenders for the title. Even the big guns occasionally dropped a bollock. Can you believe that William Wordsworth could produce lines like:
'I've measured it from side to side;
'Tis three feet long and two feet wide...'
(describing a pond in The Thorn)
But the real stars produce poetry of an altogether different class. Take Julia A Moore, the so-called ‘Sweet Singer of Michigan’, as an example. She produced poetry that barely rhymed and in which the English language was mangled and crumpled into a ball so that it would scan or fit the metre. Let me introduce you to her with this delightful stanza from ‘The Great Chicago Fire’:
'The great Chicago Fire, friends,
Will never be forgot;
In the history of Chicago
It will remain a darken spot.
It was a dreadful horrid sight
To see that City in flames;
But no human aid could save it,
For all skill was tried in vain.'
As she hereself acknowledged: ‘Literary is a work very difficult to do’. She was particularly attracted to tales of death and tragedy and some of her poems have casualty lists stretching into the hundreds, something that caused Edgar Wilson Nye to remark that she was ‘worse than a Gatling gun’. Her ‘Ashtabula Bridge Disaster’ begins like this:
'Have you heard of the dreadful fate
Of Mr. P. P. Bliss and wife?
Of their death I will relate,
And also others lost their life;
Ashtabula Bridge disaster,
Where so many people died
Without a thought that destruction
Would plunge them 'neath the wheel of tide.'
Let’s skip forward to the final heart-rending climax:
'Destruction lay on every side,
Confusion, fire and despair;
No help, no hope, so they died,
Two hundred people over there.
Many ties was there broken,
Many a heart was filled with pain,
Each one left a little token,
For above they live again.'
But Moore has a serious rival on this side of the Atlantic in the form of William Topaz McGonagall, a Scottish poet whose work really is unique. But not in a good way.
'Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.'
But is McGonagall the worst? Overall, he may be because he produced a wealth of crappyness. However, when it comes to deciding the worst poem, I find myself over-burdened with choice.
For a while, I considering nailing my colours to ‘The Stuttering Lover’ by Fred Emerson Brooks. It's astoundingly bad. And hugely insensitive. Listen:
'I luh-love you very well,
Much mu-more than I can tell.
With a lu-lu-lu-lu-lu-love I cannot utter;
I kn-know just what to say
But my tongue gets in the way,
And af-fe-fe-fe-fe-fection’s bound to stutter!
When a wooer wu-wu-woos,
And a cooer cu-cu-coos,
Till his face is re-re-red as a tomato,
Take his heart in bi-bi-bits,
Every portion fi-fi-fits,
Though his love song su-su-seem, somewhat staccato!
I'll wu-worship you, of course,
And nuh-never get divorce,
Though you stu-stu-stu-stu-storm in angry weather;
For whu-when you're in a pique,
So muh-mad you cannot speak,
We'll be du-du-du-du-dumb then both together.'
However, this looks like the finest prose when compared to the outlandish poesy of Theophilus Marzials. His greatest work (in my humble opinion) is 'A Tragedy', first published in 1874 in an anthology of his work called The Gallery of Pigeons (I've often thought that would be a great name for a band).
The poem inflamed people's passions - although maybe not in the way Marzials would have liked. Dante Gabriel Rossetti hated it, saying that, 'I could scarcely believe it wasn't a spoof, so I checked the first edition, and sure enough, this text is accurate and the book clearly had pretensions to be taken seriously.'
So here it is in all of its bizarre onomatopoeic glory ... A Tragedy:
The barges down in the river flop.
From the slimy branches the grey drips drop,
As they scraggle black on the thin grey sky,
Where the black cloud rack-hackles drizzle and fly
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop
On the black scrag piles, where the loose cords plop,
As the raw wind whines in the thin tree-top.
And scudding by
The boatmen call out hoy! and hey!
ll is running water and sky,
And my head shrieks -- "Stop,"
And my heart shrieks -- "Die."
My thought is running out of my head;
My love is running out of my heart,
My soul runs after, and leaves me as dead,
For my life runs after to catch them -- and fled
They all are every one!
-- and I stand, and start,
At the water that oozes up, plop and plop,
On the barges that flop
And dizzy me dead.
I might reel and drop.
And the shrill wind whines in the thin tree-top
A curse on him.
Ugh! yet I knew --
I knew --
If a woman is false can a friend be true?
It was only a lie from beginning to end --
My Devil --
I had trusted the whole of my living to!
Ugh; and I knew!
So what do I care,
And my head is empty as air --
I can do,
I can dare,
The barges flop
I can dare! I can dare!
And let myself all run away with my head
'And let myself all run away with my head'. Genius.
So why is crappy good? I reckon Stephen Pile got it right when he wrote:
'Success is overrated. Everyone craves it despite daily proof that Man's real genius lies in quite the opposite direction. Incompetence is what we are good at: it is the quality that marks us off from animals and we should learn to revere it.'
Pile even started a club called The Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain to celebrate cruddiness but was then sacked from the President's post because his Book of Heroic Failures was such a big success.
Want to read more bad poetry? I can recommend three books - The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse by D B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, Very Bad Poetry by Kathryn and Ross Petras, and Pegasus Descending: A Treasury of the Best Bad Poems in English by James Camp, X J Kennedy and Keith Waldrop.
All three are crammed full of delicious dross and doeful waffle.