National Poetry is the Cruelest Month

First published in April, 2009. A few more jokes added since.

As you may have heard, April is National Poetry Month, and as T. S. Eliot pointed out, it’s also the cruelest month. (Really? Well, April does have Tax Day, April Fool’s Day, chronic rainstorms… so, arguably yes, but on the other hand it’s not February.) Browning laments, “Oh to be in England now that April’s there,” while the resilient and versatile A. Nonymous informs us, “April showers / bring May flowers.” So there you are.

Now, I love poetry just as much as the next pathologically literate guy. And I’ve been happy to see a few blogs on my subscription list featuring favorite poets and poems this month—Coleridge, Tennyson, Yeats, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, X. J. Kennedy, Ogden Nashin short, the works.

But one thing’s been missing. Everyone seems to be discussing good poets, which is fine, but that’s only part of the picture. If we are to consider poetry as a total art form, what about the bad ones? Discussing poets without mentioning bad ones is like discussing history without mentioning war, or discussing theology without mentioning heresy, or discussing gourmet cooking without mentioning e. coli… Hmm. I may have a point there.

Nevertheless. By “bad poets,” I don’t mean we should pick on beginners whose work may need improving. Let the writer whose wastebasket is without embarrassing early efforts cast the first copybook. (Ow! Watch it, Coleridge.) Nor do I mean good poets who weren’t always successful, although the classic anthology The Stuffed Owl is full of fantastic howlers from many top-notch poets who really should have known better. (“Spade! With which Wilkinson hath till’d his lands…”—Wordsworth. “Will you oftly / murmur softly?”—Elizabeth Browning. And Tupper, but nobody counts him anymore.)

No, no. By “bad poets,” I mean people who put their work before the world as serious, respectable art, yet for the entire length of their careers, they managed to uniformly produce nothing but the quality of poetry that, when you read it, your jaw drops down and you say “Ubagobba—magubba—gug gug phoo gib—” and you still just made a better poem than what you read.

The authorities on such matters—yes, I checked, there are authorities—tend to mutter darkly about Vogons. But when you finally get them around to Earthlings, they mention three names as the most monumental and enduring examples of this art. Before we go on, I should provide a disclaimer:

Warning: The Poet Laureate has determined that the following poems are not for the faint of heart or the faint of stomach, though they may suit the faint of brain. If you have a history of literary criticism, copy editing, or other forms of psychiatric illness, please consult with your mental health care professional before beginning this or any other course of bad poetry. If you should find yourself screaming, bleeding from your eyes, or banging your head repeatedly on your desk, discontinue use of bad poetry immediately and seek medical assistance. These bad poems may contain rhyme schemes and scansion known in the state of California to be totally far out, dude.

Still with me? Here are our three contenders, with representative samples of their *ahem* “work”…

1. Julia A. Moore (1847-1920)

Julia A. Moore wrote and published best-selling volumes of sentimental poetry on heartwarming topics such as the natural disasters, the deaths of children, and Temperance Reform, earning her the nickname “The Sweet Singer of Michigan” from someone who was clearly tone-deaf. She is said to have inspired the character of dismal young poetess Emmeline Grangerford from Huckleberry Finn, who wrote so many funereal odes that she eventually died of a broken heart. (But I reckon, with her disposition, she was having a better time in the graveyard,” Huck observes.) Here is Moore’s reflection on a typically cheery subject, “The Great Chicago Fire”:


“The Great Chicago Fire” by Julia A. Moore

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.

In the year of 1871,
In October on the 8th,
The people in that City, then
Was full of life, and great.
Less than four days it lay in ruins,
That garden City, so great
Lay smouldering in ashes,
In a sad and pitiful state.

It was a sad, sad scene indeed,
To see the fire arise,
And hear the crackling of the flames
As it almost reached the skies,
And sadder still, to hear the moans,
Of people in the flames
Cry for help, and none could get,
Ah, die where they remained.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

Neighboring Cities sent comfort,
To the poor lone helpless ones,
And God will not forget them
In all the years to come.
Now the City of Chicago
Is built up anew once more,
And may it never be visited
With such a great fire no more.

If you are actually interested in finding out more about Moore, you can click here at your own risk.


2. William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902)

Every country needs a poet of great skill and art, who can create epic works that stir the national spirit to new heights and inspire a civilization to greatness. In 19th-century Scotland, William Topaz McGonagall was not that man. But he sure thought he was: “A flame, as Lord Byron has said,” he recalled, “seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry.” After his first bout of “divine inspiration” (his phrase), he produced many volumes of poems and even aspired to the laureateship. One friend, on hearing McGonagall’s poetic tribute to him, expressed what everyone was thinking with admirable diplomacy: “Shakespeare never wrote anything like that.”

[from] “The Tay Bridge Disaster” by William McGonnagall

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

‘Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
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.

McGonagall is actually quite popular in some circlesastute readers will have noticed homages to his name in characters from the likes of Terry Pratchett and J. K. Rowlingso I’ve provided a link to his fan site here. You’re welcome.


3. Theophile Marzials (1850-1920)

Many an unknown poet dreams of being a neglected genius, someone whose art is rediscovered years after their death and lauded as the masterpieces they know they surely are. That can happen, especially if you’re Emily Dickinson. On the other hand, if you’re British pre-Raphaelite wunderkind Theophile Marzials, your art will be published but overlooked in your lifetime, rediscovered years after your death, and immediately labeled the worst poem ever in the English language. Though opinions remain divided (McGonagall still has a strong following), I’d say he’s given us a pretty solid contender in…


“A Tragedy” by Theophile Marzials

Death! Plop.
The barges down in the river flop.
Flop, plop.
Above, beneath.
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.
Plop, plop.
And scudding by
The boatmen call out hoy! and hey!
All 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
Flop, plop.

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 — My “Friend”
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,
(Plop, plop
The barges flop
Drip drop.)
I can dare! I can dare!
And let myself all run away with my head
And stop.
Plop, flop.

The newspaper that broke the story of this tragedy appears here.

So, there you have it. If you’re still capable of coherent speech—come to think of it, most things sound coherent after that—you can weigh in below as to which of these three monumentally bad poets gets your vote as the worst of all, or make nominations of your own. Who do you think is the worst poet?

Perhaps it’s best to let the bad poets themselves have the last word. Here is the conclusion of another stanza by Julia A. Moore:

And now, kind friends, what I have wrote,
I hope you will pass o’er,
And not criticise as some have done
Hitherto herebefore.

And my head shrieks – “Stop,”
And my heart shrieks – “Die.”

AuthorEric Pazdziora

Composer, Author, Pianist

7 replies to National Poetry is the Cruelest Month

  1. Have to give the ‘prize’ to Marzials — the other 2 are nightmares of grammar and scansion, but at least I have a clue what they’re talking about! What does ‘dizzy me dead” even mean? 

  2. Thanks for highlighting an interesting genre of poetry, Eric.  Theophile Marzials’ “flop plop” refrain sounded like a melancholy predecessor to a poet with a similar name, Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Suess.)  🙂

    • I hadn’t though about it, but I can totally see that if Dr. Seuss had ever gotten very depressed and really drunk.

  3. Oh my. I was already dangerously close to a coronary by “The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown”… but that last poem? My head too is shrieking “Stop!” 

  4. William Topaz McGonagall sounds like he is trying way too hard.  I mean, come on!  
    “And the wind it blew with all its might,
    And the rain came pouring down,
    And the dark clouds seem’d to frown”

    Seriously? He gets my vote for least creative.

    • All his other poems are exactly like that, so he at least gets points for consistency. 

  5. Felicia Dorothea Hemans and the immortal *Casabianca* should at least get a mention, with these cheerful and vivid lines:

    There came a burst of thunder sound–

    The boy–oh! where was he?

    Ask of the winds that far around

    With fragments strewed the sea!–

    However, I don’t really think she ranks above honorable mention in this company.

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