The Oxford Book of Scatological Poems is yet to be compiled; how much of a market there’d be for it, in any case, remains a matter of doubt. Nevertheless, it’s true that poems aren’t always about roses and beauty; sometimes they’re about poo. Below we’ve gathered together ten of the best poems about going to the toilet, answering a call of nature, performing a bodily function … poems on the topic of excrement … well, you get the picture. Enjoy.
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ‘By All Love’s Soft, Yet Mighty Powers’. Not a poem for the faint-hearted, like many by the scurrilous poet at the court of King Charles II. Here, Rochester (1647-80) takes in as many taboos as he can about sex, from engaging in carnal activity when the woman is on her period to doing it when her clothes are covered in poo. We’re paraphrasing: we warn you the poem itself uses somewhat stronger language!
Jonathan Swift, ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that the author of Gulliver’s Travels wrote a poem about excremental matters: after all, the human-like creatures in that novel, the Yahoos, are often described in scatological terms. In ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, Swift overturns the pastoral mode, with Strephon sneaking into his lover Celia’s dressing room while she’s out, and being taken aback by how smelly it is.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘The Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to Write a Poem call’d the Lady’s Dressing Room’. Swift didn’t exactly get away with writing his poem about the fact that even women go to the lavatory: some people called him out as obsessed, and he was accused of having ‘the excremental vision’. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote this poem, a direct response to Swift, to challenge his debased vision of womanhood (and arguably, all of humanity). Worth reading for the last couplet alone: ‘She answer’d short, I’m glad you’ll write, / You’ll furnish paper when I’ … well, you can perhaps guess the last word. Let’s just say it isn’t ‘smite’.
W. B. Yeats, ‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’. One of a series of seven poems Yeats wrote featuring the straight-talking ‘Crazy Jane’, as a way of discussing philosophical matters in a light-hearted way, this poem earns its place on this list of great scatological poems thanks to the final stanza: ‘A woman can be proud and stiff / When on love intent; / But Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement; / For nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.’
Robert W. Service, ‘Toilet Seats’. Contrasting his own vocation of poetry with his brother’s (making toilet seats), Service ends up concluding that he envies his brother somewhat: everyone, even mighty kings, needs a toilet seat, whereas the same cannot be said of a poet ‘emulating Keats’.
Ezra Pound, ‘The Beautiful Toilet’. Although it’s not scatological like the other poems on this list, we couldn’t compile a list of the greatest toilet-themed poems and not include this, given its title. The poem, a translation of an old Chinese poem, is about a former courtesan who has married a drunk who leaves her on her own – and who will one day find his wife has found another man to warm her bed …
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land. Where’s the excrement in this landmark poem of the twentieth century? Surely the greatest modernist poem isn’t about poo? Well, yes and no. Eliot was the man who likened the writing of poetry to defecation, to something he had to get rid of; and the early drafts of this long poem contain a woman on a lavatory reading an eighteenth-century novel and a man urinating as he leaves his typist girlfriend. These elements were cut from the eventual poem (probably for the best), but you can read some of them here. Meanwhile, the finished poem’s suggestive use of the word ‘throne’, borrowed from Antony and Cleopatra, given the excised passages featuring Fresca on the lavatory, glimmers with its newer slang meaning of ‘lavatory’. And this is a poem about the waste land, after all…
Maxine Kumin, ‘The Excrement Poem’. Well, the title says it all: this poem is a genuinely poetic take on ‘what drops from us’, something ‘done by us all’. What does it all mean: each morning movement seems to declare, for Kumin, the indomitability of the human spirit: ‘We go on.’ A fine poem from this underrated American poet (1925-2014).
John Updike, ‘The Beautiful Bowel Movement’. This sonnet by the American writer best-known for his novels (and ‘best-known’ in more than one sense, we suspect) is all about creating – going to the lavatory as a kind of art, even. Updike appears to be drawing a link between writing and going for a poo: note his use of the word ‘squibs’ (applicable to both activities), the suggestive word ‘texture’, and the self-referential note at the end.
Hugo Williams, ‘Toilet’. Let’s end this pick of the best poems about bodily functions with a slightly less disgusting toilet poem. Voted one of Britain’s 100 best-loved poems in the late 1990s, ‘Toilet’ is spoken by a man on a train spotting a woman he likes, and then fantasising about her ‘peeing all over [his] face’ when she goes into the train toilet.