Editor’s Note: The Desert Island Bookworm is a semi-regular column in The Beachcomber. Happy reading during the Thanksgiving holidays!
This week, my subject is poetry, in particular the humorous verses (I will take serious poems in another column). God knows if you find yourself stranded on a desert island with only a few wild goats for company, you’ll need something to laugh about.
Humorous poetry abounds and often pleases. In this vein, I will admit a particular love of parody. There are some poems begging to be parodied: take Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”, which includes unbearably heavy lines from start to finish, not to mention a horribly paternalistic and colonial take on Native American culture. Look for George Strong’s wonderful parody of this famous poem.
One of the best volumes of parodies I have seen is “Poetry for Cats” by Henry Beard, which parodies famous poems as if they were written by a cat. Beard gives us brilliant feline humor while still managing to stay remarkably close to the original. For example, he takes the famous sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning which begins, How I love you? Let me count the paths. / I love you in depth, breadth and height / My soul can reach, feeling out of sight / For the purposes of Being and of ideal Grace … and transforms it into a poem called “To A Vase, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cat”.
How can I break you down? Let me count the paths.
I break you if you’re at any height
My paw can reach, when, stinging lightly,
I sulk, or I have one of my crazy days …
I break you out of sheer spite
The way I broke the mayonnaise jar.
The rest is just as good, and Beard beautifully parodies Browning’s ending – And, God willing, I will love you better after death – with:
And if someone, your fragments come together
I’ll break you one more time when you’re stuck.
A rare book dealer once pointed out to me that Samuel Coleridge’s poem “The Ancient Mariner” has the same rhyming pattern as Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, which makes the two works delightfully interchangeable. The Jabberwock, whose eye is shining, whose beard with age is hoarse … did you kill the sailor? Come into my arms, my radiant boy! You got the idea.
Much humorous poetry is written with children in mind, whether as an audience or as a subject. Hillaire Belloc (1870-1953) wrote a whole series of poems entitled “Warning Tales”.
The subjects of many of them are children who do things that annoy adults, and as a result lead to appalling ends. Examples include “Rebecca: who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably; “” George: who played with a dangerous toy and suffered a disaster of considerable dimensions; And “Henry King: Who chewed pieces of string and was cut early in terrible agonies.”
They are macabre but clever and a lot of fun to read. One of my favorites, titled “Jim: Who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion,” ends with this warning to children:
So always keep your hand on the nurse
For fear of finding anything worse.
(“Nurse”, by the way, was the Old English term for “nanny.”)
Of all the American poets, perhaps Ogden Nash is the one who manages to make us laugh with even very short poems like this little gem:
A primitive termite struck wood,
And tasted it, and found it good;
And that’s why your cousin May
Fallen through the living room floor today.
Or this wise advice, titled “A Reflection on Babies:”
a little talcum powder
Is still walcum.
And of course, there’s Nash’s famous pithy adage about alcohol:
Candy is a dandy
But alcohol is faster.
Finally, no discussion of humorous poetry would be complete without mentioning the famous Scotsman William Gonnagall, widely revered as the world’s worst poet (at least in English). With his terrible rhymes, ridiculously lofty subjects, and relentless attempts to cram as many words as possible into a tortured rhythmic pattern, McGonnagall is so spectacularly bad that it’s definitely worth reading.
An amused Scottish newspaper editor published one of his first poems as a joke; sadly, McGonnagall took this as an affirmation of her talents and unleashed a torrent of truly and memorably terrible worms upon the world. You’ll get a taste of his twisted genius in a poem mourning the catastrophe of the Tay Bridge, when in 1879 a railway bridge over the River Tay in Scotland collapsed in a gale, dragging a train to its destination with it. from Dundee. This long and singularly appalling poem begins as follows:
Magnificent Silv’ry Tay railway bridge!
Alas! I’m so sorry to say
That ninety lives were taken
On the last day of the Sabbath of 1879,
Which will be remembered for a very long time.
And ends with this suitably solemn summary:
I must now finish my layman
By telling the world without fear and without the slightest dismay,
That your central beams would not have given way,
At least a lot of sane men say,
If they had been supported on either side by buttresses,
At least a lot of sane men admit,
For the strongest we build our houses,
The less chance you have of being killed.
Well, it’s hard to argue with that.
What books would you take to a desert island, and why? Email me at [email protected]
Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist and writer who lives on Maury Island. His new novel “Jack,” a romantic comedy narrated by a dog who lives with a professional dominatrix, is available on Amazon under his pseudonym, Phillip Boleyn.