In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys some good bad poetry courtesy of The Joy of Bad Verse
I’ve long been a fan of Nicholas Parsons. No, not that one – although who could fail to appreciate the sharp wit of the Just a Minute host? – but Nicholas T. Parsons, the author of one of the best books of literary trivia out there (The Book of Literary Lists), an enjoyable history of the guidebook (Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook), and what I’d consider his Magnificent Octopus, The Joy of Bad Verse. This book was published in 1988, so you can consider this ‘review’ a sort of 30-year retrospective. It’s well worth tracking down.
Parsons’ The Joy of Bad Verse is a scholarly and readable study of the history of ‘bad verse’ down the age. What makes a bad poet? Patriotism, religion, and sexual desire appear to be among the worst culprits for serving as muse to the wellspring of the worst and the most wearisome of versifiers. But what Parsons’ book does, as well as offering some rigorous analysis of what makes a bad poem, is to offer up some of the best – which is to say some of the worst – examples of doggerel ever to have inflicted upon an unsuspecting reading public. They’re all here: William McGonagall (but of course), Julia A. Moore, the UK Poet Laureate Alfred Austin (who had the unenviable job of succeeding Tennyson to the post), and Amanda McKittrick Ros, who also put out some appallingly bad novels. When they weren’t subjecting excerpts from their own works-in-progress to each other’s harsh scrutiny, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis used to take it in turns reading Ros’ work aloud, holding contests to see which of them could last the longer without laughing. There is, as Parsons’ title has it, a joy in bad verse.
Nicholas T. Parsons divides The Joy of Bad Verse into two sections. The first half examines ‘varieties of badness’ – what makes a good poet have an ‘off’ day, or what subjects enable a bad poet to achieve their full potential? The remainder of the book – and the most entertaining – is given over to ‘the best of the worst’, and constitutes fifteen shortish chapters which take the form of short author studies, in which we are treated to the choicest morsels from each bad poet’s corpus, gleanings from their fertile but misguided imaginations and sterling examples of their prosodic cack-handedness.
As well as the great pantheon of bad literature’s big names such as McGonagall, Parsons introduces us to some less appreciated howlers. It was glorious to be introduced to the Spasmodic School, a Victorian coterie of poets led by Philip James Bailey (1816-1902), whose magnum opus, at 40,000 lines, was almost as long as his life; the Spasmodics took themselves far too seriously, but what is surprising is that great poets took them seriously as well. Tennyson, for instance, admired Bailey’s work. Parsons’ book shines a light on how literary tastes have changed over the centuries.
But all of this is no good without some examples of some of the finest stinkers to be found in the book. So, for your delectation, here are some of the highlights or lowlights from Parsons’ book. Let’s start with the Bard of Awfulness himself, William Topaz McGonagall:
You can use it with great pleasure and ease
Without wasting any elbow grease:
And when washing the most dirty clothes
The sweat won’t be dripping from your nose.
And that, a piece of verse for Sunlight Soap, was the only one of his poems McGonagall was ever paid for, earning 2 guineas for that feeble quatrain. Next up, the American McGonagall, Julia A. Moore:
“Lord Byron” was an Englishman
A poet I believe,
His first works in old England
Was poorly received.
Perhaps it was “Lord Byron’s” fault
And perhaps it was not.
His life was full of misfortunes,
Ah, strange was his lot.
Not all of the bad verse in The Joy of Bad Verse is deliberately toe-curling. Some classics, like the following anonymous epitaph, was probably intended to raise a smile:
Here lies John Bun,
He was killed by a gun,
His name was not Bun, but Wood,
But Wood would not rhyme with gun,
But Bun would.
What makes The Joy of Bad Verse so very joyful is Parsons’ writing style, which is witty and scathing throughout. It’s easy to mock bad poetry, and Parsons doesn’t shy away from ridiculing the worst, but one can also sense his enjoyment, the sheer relish of discovering an especially bad poem.
Nicholas T. Parsons’ The Joy of Bad Verse is not an anthology of bad verse, although he does quote generously from the worst offenders. The best anthology of bad verse remains The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (New York Review Books (Paperback)), first published in 1930 and edited by Wyndham Lewis (not that one) and Charles Lee. So, if you’re after some poetry that’s so bad it’s good, Parsons and Lewis/Lee make the best starter-pack. Or should that be the worst?
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.