Category Archives: odd poems

Odd poem: Samuel Johnson on wordplay

If I were to be punishèd
For every pun I shed
There would be no puny shed
For my punnish head.

Strictly speaking, of course, this isn’t a poem–it was merely an apparently spontaneous reply (but how many “spontaneous” remarks have been thought of and prepared in advance?)

The story was told in the following way:– “Sir,” said Johnson, “I hate a pun. A man who would perpetrate a pun would have little hesitation in picking a pocket.” Upon this Boswell hinted that his “illustrious” friend’s dislike to this species of small wit might arise from his inability to play upon words. “Sir,” roared Johnson, “if I were punishèd for every pun I shed, there would not be left a puny shed of my punnish head.”

The moral of the story was presumably for Boswell and others to guard their possessions when Doctor Johnson was around…

“statue of Samuel Johnson outside St Clement Danes Church” by ell brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Review: Max Gutmann, ‘Light and Comic Verse’

Quirkily-workily
Jorge Bergolio,
On a career path with
Quite a steep slope,

Unostentatiously
Worked as a janitor,
Then as a bouncer, and
Then as the Pope.

This elegant double dactyl on the life of Pope Francis is representative of ‘The Hearthside Treasury of Light and Comic Verse’: interesting, witty, technically perfect. The poems include limericks, clerihews, varieties of ballades, and are purported to be written by a variety of poets, several of whom are claimed to be the first-ever winner of the prestigious Blackfrier Prize for Poetry. The book’s veneer of being ‘edited by Max Gutmann’ is worn even thinner with the bio of his least likely poet, Ed Winters… “A devotee of Hemingway, Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath, Winters shot himself in the mouth while diving from a ship with his head in an oven.”

The book includes two pages of riddles in rhyme, of enjoyable difficulty: half were guessable for me, half not. There is also a full-length Poe parody (‘Quoth the Parrot: “Cracker. Now!”); scenes from The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and Titus Andronicus rewritten by W.S. Gilbert; outrage at the Trump presidency, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and the US Supreme Court’s appalling excuse for subverting the 2000 Presidential election; a poem appropriately written in the form of a dozen eggs; and various puns, off-colour jokes and random surprises. Many of the poems have previously appeared in Light poetry magazine, many others in a range from Asses of Parnassus to the Washington Post.

As for “The Hearthside Treasury” part of the book’s title… though there was (or is) a Hearthside Press, active from the mid-1950s to mid-70s; and an unrelated Hearthside Books, active from the mid-70s to the present, sort of; this “Hearthside Treasury” appears unconnected to anything. Indeed, it’s not even available on Amazon. It doesn’t have an ISBN. All this is a pity, as it is as enjoyable a book of light and comic verse as you can find anywhere. If you want a copy – and if you enjoy comic verse you really ought to have one – you’re going to have to contact the author directly through his website (which mostly focuses on his plays) at maxgutmann.com

Odd poem: Margaret Mead(?), ‘Hogamus Higamus’

Hogamus, higamus,
Man is polygamous;
Higamus, hogamus,
Woman’s monogamous.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is American anthropologist Margaret Mead‘s creation. I have a clear memory of reading the story many years ago, probably in ‘Male and Female’, of her waking up in the middle of the night with an understanding of the secret of the universe. She grabbed the pencil and paper she kept by her bedside and wrote it down, then went back to the sleep. And in the morning she found she had written the above verse.

I was so certain it was Margaret Mead that I began this blog post about her before trying to check which book the verse came from and if I had the wording correct. (I last read Mead decades ago, and I leave beyond the reach of bookstores and real libraries.) To my frustration, all I can find in Google is attribution to William James, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, Bertrand Russell, Alice Duer Miller… and Mrs. Amos Pinchot, who allegedly denied authorship. According to Quote Investigator, “The first known evidence of this unusual anecdote appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in November 1939. The article ‘Thanksgiving Nightmare’ by Claire MacMurray (…) presented a supposed episode in the mental life of a person named Mrs. Amos Pinchot”, and tells the tale as I remember it. Mead’s ‘Male and Female’ came out in 1949, so (if the poem was in that book) it may have been referring to the Pinchot story, or it may have been something that had happened more than ten years previously to Mead, and she had shared the story and it had spread by itself.

The poem itself is brief, witty, amusing. It is rhythmic, repetitive, well rhymed, very catchy. Those are all excellent qualities. As for the content, it seems very 20th century: it gives the impression of having broken out of the conventions of society and church, and to be saying that the two sexes have differing needs for propagating themselves successfully. It is also 20th century in being simplistic. Where does the concept of serial monogamy fall? How does the rhyme relate to the LGBTQ+ members of society? The verse is definitely not comprehensive enough for the 21st century. But Margaret Mead was a controversial opener of cans of worms in the early 20th century, and that is where this little poem came from. Her obsession with gender roles and her self-deprecating humour make her a good candidate for its author.

And where the poem came from, apparently, was a communication from the unconscious, a gift to the dreamer. Always respect and preserve what the Muse offers you – who knows, a couple of lines of verse may be treasured and quoted for a hundred years!

“Sex and Temperament in three primitive societies” by your neighborhood librarian is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Review: ‘¡OHO!’ by Rex Whistler, words by Laurence Whistler

This is one of the most unusual volumes of poetry, because the poems are far less engaging and memorable than the illustrations for which they were made. The witty and whimsical British artist, Rex Whistler, produced a series of drawings of people which, when turned upside down, show a different but related person; his brother Laurence produced poems to describe the relationships. The front and back covers are identical–except that there is no front and back; the book can be opened and read from either end. There are two poems facing each illustration, the lower one describing the face you see, the upper one appearing upside down… until you turn the book around and find it describes the other face.

The nurse and the patient; the old man and the young one; the panicked householder calling the Fire Department and the fireman delighted to have work; the glum Mayor of Standon Ceremony and the gleeful Madam the Mayor of Stanster Reason… as for the cover illustration, the young and old women, Laurence Whistler begins the former’s poem:

The sisters truly thought she looked like that,
Cinderella, with her brush and pan,
Slip-slopping down-at-heel around the flat,
Ash-coloured where she sat,
Deep in some fatuous daydream of a Man.

The reverse poem is the Fairy Godmother’s, beginning:

Be home by twelve!
The one condition
For beauty tremulous
With ambition.

The drawings were inspired by this illustration in the 1682 book ‘The Church of Rome Evidently Proved Heretick’ by Peter Berault:

The ‘¡OHO!’ illustrations were done in the 1930s; Rex Whistler was killed in the Second World War, and the book with Laurence’s poems came out in 1946. A subsequent edition, ‘AHA’, was published in 1978 to include seven more of the double portraits, four very engaging, two less so, while one is an unprepossessing Henry VIII with Anne of Cleves; though without verses for any of them. But the poetry is clearly incidental, anyway… here is the sour Patient and upbeat Nurse:

It’s a wonderful book. As the publishers wrote: “However you put this book down it will lie face up, which is to say face down. And upside down is how it can never be slipped into a bookshelf.”

Odd poem: ‘Motor Bus’, macaronic poem by A. D. Godley

What is this that roareth thus?
Can it be a Motor Bus?
Yes, the smell and hideous hum
Indicat Motorem Bum!
Implet in the Corn and High
Terror me Motoris Bi:
Bo Motori clamitabo
Ne Motore caedar a Bo—
Dative be or Ablative
So thou only let us live:
Whither shall thy victims flee?
Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!
Thus I sang; and still anigh
Came in hordes Motores Bi,
Et complebat omne forum
Copia Motorum Borum.
How shall wretches live like us
Cincti Bis Motoribus?
Domine, defende nos
Contra hos Motores Bos!

This elegant piece of nonsense was written in January 1914 to celebrate the introduction of a motorised omnibus service in the city of Oxford–hence the reference to two of its main streets, the Corn(market) and High Street. Noticing that both ‘motor’ and ‘bus’ could be the nominative singular of Latin nouns, Professor Godley wrote this series of couplets, declining and rhyming the nouns through all their presumed cases, singular and plural. (The poem presumes the old-fashioned English pronunciation of Latin with many hard vowels needed for the rhymes.) And why not? ‘Motor’ is Late Latin for ‘mover’, and ‘bus’ is a casual modern abbreviation of ‘omnibus’, Latin for ‘for everyone’. The entire piece is written in a mixture of English and Latin, and translates roughly as:

What is this that roars so,
Can it be a motor bus?
Yes, the smell and hideous hum
Indicates a motor bus!
In the Cornmarket and the High Street
Terror of the motor bus fills me:
To the motor bus I will call out
Lest I be killed by the motor bus–
You can be Dative or Ablative
So long as you let us live:
Where shall your victims flee?
Spare us, spare us, O Motor Bus!
So I sang; while still
Motor buses came in hordes
And the whole market place was filled
With a mass of motor buses.
How shall wretches like us live
Surrounded by motor buses?
O Lord, defend us
From these motor buses!

Macaronic, or mixed languages, literature has ancient roots, showing up wherever two languages overlap in one population for a while, frequently in verse, frequently for humorous effect: alternating Persian and Arabic verses or hemistichs of Saadi and Hafez; Rumi’s occasional mix of Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Greek; Indian poetry written in alternating indigenous Hindi and the Persian of the Mughal rulers; and Latin and vernacular languages throughout Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. Modern examples include the Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ and José Feliciano’s ‘Feliz Navidad’.

Photo: “Brandesburton, with NER motor buses 1915 (archive ref PO-1-18-1)” by East Riding Archives is marked with CC0 1.0

Odd poem: William Faulkner, ‘After Fifty Years’

Her house is empty and her heart is old,
And filled with shades and echoes that deceive
No one save her, for still she tries to weave
With blind bent fingers, nets that cannot hold.
Once all men’s arms rose up to her, ‘tis told,
And hovered like white birds for her caress:
A crown she could have had to bind each tress
Of hair, and her sweet arms the Witches’ Gold.

Her mirrors know her witnesses, for there
She rose in dreams from other dreams that lent
Her softness as she stood, crowned with soft hair.
And with his bound heart and his young eyes bent
And blind, he feels her presence like shed scent,
Holding him body and life within its snare.

William Faulkner began writing poetry at an early age; and in his late 20s he published his first book, a collection of poems titled ‘The Marble Faun’. Though much of the fiction for which he won the 1949 Nobel Prize carries a heavy southern accent or is written in stream of consciousness, it is engaging to see that he could be meditative in the iambic pentameter of a regular sonnet if he chose.

Photo: “William Faulkner’s Typewriter 2” by visitmississippi is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Opposing poems: Ronald Knox on Berkeleyism

There once was a man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.”

This limerick by the English priest and Sherlock Holmes fanatic Ronald Knox plays with the belief of Bishop George Berkeley that matter doesn’t exist – in the 18th century he wrote and preached that matter is only the product of mind and ideas, and needs to be observed in order to exist. Einstein, quantum physics and Schrodinger’s cat may lead us in that direction these days, but at the time it was radically new in the West. (In the East, ideas about the illusory nature of matter have been around for millennia.) It picked up the derisive name of “immaterialism“. And in his ‘Life of Samuel Johnson’, James Boswell recounts their hearing Berkeley preach:

“After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — ‘I refute it thus‘.”

Philosophically, Johnson’s response is considered a logical fallacy, now called the “appeal to the stone“.

Ronald Knox, the 20th century priest, limerick author and Sherlockian, is probably also the author of this limerick that opposes the first one:

Dear Sir,
Your astonishment’s odd.
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
God

Perhaps we can think of the whole issue like this: if you play a strategy game like Civilization on the computer, you can only see part of the world at any one time. You move the cursor up, down or sideways, and you bring other parts of the world to the screen. What’s on the screen exists visually for you because that’s the part of the game world you can see; but the rest of the game world doesn’t exist visually – it exists as pure data in a program, and only materialises when you move the cursor to look at it. Berkeley suggests the physical world behaves similarly and, despite Samuel Johnson, this can’t be disproved. In that case, God would not cause the unobserved world to materialise – God would be the program, the organising principle for the data which would remain immaterial until observed…

Colour me Agnostic.

Photo: “Bishop Berkeley” by Infidelic is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Opposing poems: Alexander Pope and J. C. Squire

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

Pope’s “Epigram on Sir Isaac Newton” stood as a definitive statement until the 20th century, when J.C. Squire produced his “Answer to Pope’s Epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton”

It did not last: the Devil howling “Ho!
Let Einstein be!
” restored the status quo.

There is something very charming about an epigrammatic poem being answered by a poet with an opposite view. Some weeks ago I posted such a pair about 17th century Oxbridge rivalry, with Joseph Trapp referencing events of 1714 in six lines of verse to demonstrate Oxford’s superiority, answered by William Browne taking four lines to use the same events to argue for Cambridge. There are other such pairs… this obviously needs more research…

Illustration: “Alexander Pope” by immugmania is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Odd poem: ‘The Siege of Belgrade’, alliterative abecedarian poem by Alaric Alexander Watts

An Austrian army, awfully arrayed,
Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade.
Cossack commanders cannonading come,
Dealing destruction’s devastating doom.
Every endeavour engineers essay,
For fame, for fortune fighting – furious fray!
Generals ‘gainst generals grapple – gracious God!
How honours Heaven heroic hardihood!
Infuriate, indiscriminate in ill,
Just Jesus, instant innocence instill!
Kindred kill kinsmen, kinsmen kindred kill.
Labour low levels longest, loftiest lines;
Men march ‘mid mounds, ‘mid moles, ‘mid murderous mines;
Now noxious, noisy numbers nothing, naught
Of outward obstacles, opposing ought;
Poor patriots, partly purchased, partly pressed,
Quite quaking, quickly “Quarter! Quarter!” quest.
Reason returns, religious right redounds,
Suwarrow stops such sanguinary sounds.
Truce to thee, Turkey! Triumph to thy train,
Unwise, unjust, unmerciful Ukraine!
Vanish vain victory! vanish, victory vain!
Why wish we warfare? Wherefore welcome were
Xerxes, Ximenes, Xanthus, Xavier?
Yield, yield, ye youths! ye yeomen, yield your yell!
Zeus’, Zarpater’s, Zoroaster’s zeal,
Attracting all, arms against acts appeal!

Belgrade was besieged nine times between 1440 and 1806. It is right on the edge of the area the Ottoman Turks were able to wrest from the Christians, and control went back and forth. This poem is about the 1789 Siege of Belgrade, when the Austrians showed up in mid September with 120,000 troops and 200 siege guns to try to take control of the Belgrade fortress that was held by 9,000 Ottoman troops with 456 cannon. On 6th October the Austrians began a devastating bombardment. Two days later, in exchange for the surrender of Belgrade, the Ottoman garrison was given a free passage with their personal and private possessions to Orșova; a prisoner exchange was also arranged between the combatants.

The poem was written by British journalist and poet Alaric Alexander Watts (1797-1864) and published in 1828. There are a couple of versions floating about on the internet, with various spellings and typos, and with and without the ‘Just Jesus’ line which deteriorates from J’s to I’s. The rhyme pairing isn’t perfect, the metre is imperfect, the syntax is stretched in places, and meanings and references are sometimes obscure. (‘Suwarrow’ for instance is the brilliant Russian general Alexander Suvorov who, though instrumental in winning battles with Turkey and others in the late 18th century, was not present at the 1789 Siege of Belgrade. He was defeating the Turks elsewhere at the time, but how can you ignore a general credited with winning 63 major battles, and never losing one?)

My initial impression is that the metre is an easy-to-read, easy-to-recite ‘four beats to the bar’, but the number of syllables varies with the needs of the alliteration:

An AUStrian ARmy, AWfully arRAYED, × / × × / × / × × × /
BOLDly by BATTery beSIEGED BelGRADE / × × / × × × / × /

But then it dawns on me that the poem is actually in iambic pentameter, with five beats… but the first line is so technically weak that it’s misleading: it has eleven syllables instead of ten unless you pronounce the second word ‘Austrin’, and also requires the ‘-ly’ of ‘awfully’ to be a stressed syllable. But once you reinterpret the rhythm of that line, the poem settles down properly. (There is a good lesson in poetics here: the technical purity of your opening line is super important!)

Anyway, I think we can cut Watts some slack: I don’t know of any other alliterative abecedarian poem at all, though surely there must be some. Wikipedia quotes this fragment from the Harper Handbook to Literature:

An abecedarius always alliterates
Blindly blunders, but blooms:
Comes crawling craftily, cantering crazily,
Daring, doubtless, dark dooms.

but I’m still looking for something more…

Photo: “Cossack Mannequin” by sarmoung is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Odd poem: ‘Changsha’ by Mao Zedong

Alone I stand in the autumn cold
On the tip of Orange Island,
The Xiang flowing northward;
I see a thousand hills crimsoned through
By their serried woods deep-dyed,
And a hundred barges vying
Over crystal blue waters.
Eagles cleave the air,
Fish glide under the shallow water;
Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.
Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this bondless land
Who rules over man’s destiny?
I was here with a throng of companions,
Vivid yet those crowded months and years.
Young we were, schoolmates,
At life’s full flowering;
Filled with student enthusiasm
Boldly we cast all restraints aside.
Pointing to our mountains and rivers,
Setting people afire with our words,
We counted the mighty no more than muck.
Remember still
How, venturing midstream, we struck the waters
And the waves stayed the speeding boats?

Mao Zedong wrote this poem in 1925, when he was 31. He had previously spent five years in Changsha at university, young, bold and enthusiastic. Now he returned, reflected, remembering his student days, pondering the land’s immensity and the nature of destiny, and he wrote his poem. And today the young Mao gazes again at the river from Orange Island… or would, if it wasn’t just a stone statue of his head.

Despite his revolutionary tendencies in other areas, Mao wrote in Classical Chinese verse. ‘Changsha’ is annotated “to the tune of Chin Yuan Chun”, marking it as belonging to the type of verse called tzu. The tzu originated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) as lines sung to certain tunes. Each tune prescribes a strict tonal pattern and rhyme scheme, with a fixed number of lines of a standardised varying length. Obviously, a translation into a European language is going to lose the structural form inherent in the original. Mao may not be one of the best Chinese poets, but his poems are generally considered to have literary quality. Arthur Waley, the eminent British translator of Chinese literature, however, described Mao’s poetry as “not as bad as Hitler’s paintings, but not as good as Churchill’s.”

Photo: “A young Chairman Mao” by timzachernuk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0