Episode 54 - A Dirty Little Present From Your Crush (Poetry Week)
Updated: Apr 17
Sam's Episode notes: The Worst Poetry in the English Language (and a filthy bonus from Jonathan Swift, the author of Gullivers Travels)
An English poet, an Irish poet and a Scottish poet walk into a pub.
The Englishman says to the barman, Sir, give me some grub.
The Scottsman fills his tankard with lager from the tap.
Whilst the Irishman stares at the other two's arses, because he's just here for the craic.
Now, Tom. That's a bad poem, featuring an English poet, an Irish poet, and a Scottish poet. And funnily enough, that's exactly what I'm talking about today.
I was planning on going for terrible classical poetry today, although when you hinted at what you'd be doing, you had that all sewn up. So instead, I've just decided to do some of the worst poetry in the English language. Now, I was considering doing some of the worst poetry in other languages, but realised pretty quickly that bad poetry becomes rapidly worse when someone tries to translate it, and not always in a good way.
And as a result, I've got more fucking Victorians for you. Mostly Victorians. Because the three poets widely regarded as the worst in history are all from this time and period.
But first, an honourable mention... Jonathan Swift, the author of Gullivers Travels, wrote this wonderful ditty called the Ladies dressing room in 1732, about a man who sneaks into the object of his desire's boudoir when she's out, only to discover she's left him a little present in there:
To stinking smoke it turns the flame,
Poisoning the flesh from whence it came,
And up exhales a greasy stench
For which you cursed careless wench:
So, things which must not be expressed
When plumped into the reeking chest
Send up an excremental smell
To taint the parts from whence they fell:
The petticoats and gown perfume
And waft a stink around every room.
Thus, finishing his grand survey,
The swain, disgusted, slunk away,
Repeating, in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!
Note the first line, To stinking smoke it turns the flame. So at least she lit a match once she was done...
Anyway. Number one of the worst poems is a pretty clear cut winner according to popular opinion, though I actually think it's the best of the three worst. The author is William Topaz McGonagall – the man widely praised as having written two of the worst poems ever to grace the English tongue.
WT as we'll call him was an Irishman born in 1825 and living in Scotland, with a penchant for not giving a toss what anyone thought of his work. He considered himself quite the political poet, writing about current affairs, in particular train crashes.
Now, you could write quite a powerful poem about a train crash – the flash of a life taken away by a moment of carelessness, the insidious creep of cost cutting by the wealthy at the cost of the lives of working men. Or, in McGonagall's case, you could write about the architectural merits of proper buttressing. Whatever.
This is the Tay Bridge disaster, a poem written about an incident on Sunday 28th December 1879, where a cheaply built, badly designed bridge over the river Tay collapsed in high winds taking a train with it, and killing 75 people. It's quite a long poem, I'm not going to read the whole thing. It starts:
"Beautiful railway bridge of the silv'ry TayAlas!
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."
All fine so far apart from he got the number of deaths wrong, but ninety is just so much nicer to say isn't it. Anyway, it ends with a stern warning to the bridge builders of the world to always buttress your girders. Ooh er matron.
"Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv'ry Tay,
I now must 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."
So there we go. That is widely considered the worst serious poem in the English language.
He also wrote something equally bad about a whale which appeared in the Tay at some point, often considered the second worst poem ever. Here's an extract.
Oh! it was a most fearful and beautiful sight,
To see it lashing the water with its tail all its might,
And making the water ascend like a shower of hail,
With one lash of its ugly and mighty tail.
Then the water did descend on the men in the boats,
Which wet their trousers and also their coats;
But it only made them the more determined to catch the whale,
But the whale shook at them his tail.
I only mention this one because in the 50s this poem was actually set to music, scored for a full orchestra, a foghorn, and an espresso coffee machine.
Anyway, second worst poem in the English language. And this is hotly contested between the Englishman and the Irishman. So, we'll go with the Englishman. Or a Belgian living in London. Whatever.
Theophile Jules-Henri Marzials worked at the library and considered himself quite the poet, writing this particularly brooding and emotive piece on thoughts of suicide and lost love in 1873, as part of his collection called gallery of pigeons. And it says something about Victorian tastes that, at the time, they actually thought this poem was very good. It's called A Tragedy, and it's safe to say he's a little bit bitter at, presumably, his best mate hooking up with his crush:
The barges down in the river flop.
.From the slimy branches the grey drips drop...
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop...
And my head shrieks - "Stop"
And my heart shrieks - "Die."...
Ugh! yet I knew - I knew
If a woman is false can a friend by true?
It was only a lie from beginning to end--
My Devil - My "friend."...
So what do I care,
And my head is empty as air -
I can do,
I can dare
The barges flop
I can dare, I can dare!
And let myself all run away with my head
Our third poet, Tom, is the Irish woman. Amanda McKittrick Ros was born in 1860, and wrote bad novels as well as two particularly shit collections of poetry, poems of puncture and poems of formation, each as bad as the other.
The hilarious thing is, she thought she was the best thing since sliced bread, writing that people would be celebrating her work for a thousand years, and that a million and one readers would clamour for aught that dropped from her pen. All of her works are self published, by the way. She never found an agent. She also claimed that her critics were simply too stupid and lacked the intellect to appreciate her work – apart from one who slammed her first novel as being mildly entertaining at first until you realise she's not joking, at which point you recoil in horror, instead, she wrote a lengthy forward in her next novel about how he was clearly jus tin love with her. So she was mad.
Amazingly, though, she did have some celebrity fans; Mark Twain called her novel Irene one of the greatest unintentionally humerous books of all time, and Aldous Huxley loved it too. and because there are so few originals of her work, being self-published, they are very valuable. So maybe she was on to something? Or maybe not, let's see: Here's an abridged version of 'on visiting Westminster Abby', about a trip down into the tombs.
Holy Moses! Have a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!
Some rare bits of brain lie here,
Mortal loads of beef and beer,
Some of whom are turned to dust,
Every one bids lost to lust;
Royal flesh so tinged with 'blue'
Undergoes the same as you....
Famous some were--yet they died;
Kings--Queens, all of them do rot,
What about them? Now--they're not!
And on that note, we'll end.
I think we should do a countdown this week and then begin this episode with all the razzamatazz of a super bowl half time show
· Shakira Shakira! Oo ‘eck she’s a Colombian lass, and crikey she’s got a lovely ass, it jiggles, as she wiggles, it makes me want to polish my brass.
· Don’t be fooled by the socks that I got, I’m still, I’m still Barry on the blocks, I used to earn a little now I earn a lot, because I own my own bricklaying company
· Trumpet solo, steady now lads!
· Gaius Vallerius Cattulus; slightly disappointing Roman name compared to warty Fabius of Punic War fame
· Poet from the late Roman Republic, a contemporary of Cicero and Caesar for example, both of whom are referenced in his poems
· He’s categorised as a Neoteric poet which in simple terms means that he chose to write poetry about untraditional subjects.
o More specifically, his poems explore more everyday topics, most commonly relationships
o Traditionally, poetry in the Ancient Greek and Roman world didn’t address these topics too much. Poetry was more about stories of mythology and great military events, and exciting journeys. Think Jason and the Argonauts and Homeric epic. Ancient Greek plays also dealt with less person subjects.
o That’s not to say that Cattullus’s poetry was completely ground breaking; he was influenced by other poets like Callimachus and Sappho
§ Sappho was a poet from as far back as the 7th century BC and, prepare yourselves, was female.
§ Incidentally, the words Lesbian and Sapphic both, etymologically, originate with Sappho.
§ She wrote about female to female relationships and she lived on the island of Lesbos.
· On the subject of Lesbians, the majority of Catullus’s existing poems are about his relationship with a lady he calls Lesbia (a clear reference to Sappho).
o Scholars fairly confidently associate Lesbia with a lady called Clodia Metelli
§ She was a notoriously sexually liberal and unfaithful lady who bonked her way around Roman high society
§ Just the type of lady that you don’t want to fall in love with, because she’s a biatch
§ But poor Catullus did, and in his poems we hear about his emotions of love, envy, betrayal and more at the hands, or should I say crotch, of Lesbia.
But alas, this is not why we are here Sam. You see, the information thus far given about Catullus is the sterilised version. Catullus wrote other types of poem (incidentally, we have around 110 poems from him). And know what our audience like. I know what you like Sam. Like the podcast whore that I am, I’m going to debase myself now.
Let’s read some:
· A version from 1871.
I'll traduce you, accuse you, and abuse you,
Soft Aurelius, e'en as easy Furius.
You that lightly a saucy verse resenting,
Misconceit me, sophisticate me wanton.
Know, pure chastity rules the godly poet,
Rules not poesy, needs not e'er to rule it;
Charms some verse with a witty grace delightful?
'Tis voluptuous, impudent, a wanton.
It shall kindle an icy thought to courage,10
Not boy-fancies alone, but every frozen
Flank immovable, all amort to pleasure.
You my kisses, a million happy kisses,
Musing, read me a silky thrall to softness?
I'll traduce you, accuse you, and abuse you.
· from Wikisource
I will sodomize you and face-fuck you,
cocksucker Aurelius and bottom bitch Furius,
who think, from my little verses,
because they're a little soft, that I have no shame.
For it is right for the devoted poet to be chaste
himself, but it's not necessary for his verses to be so.
[Verses] which then indeed have taste and charm,
If they are delicate and have no shame,
And because they can incite an itch,
And I don't mean in boys, but in
Those hairy men who can't move their loins.
You, because [about] my many thousands of kisses
You've read, you think me less of a man?
I will sodomize you and face-fuck you.
· Micaela Wakil Janan
· Fuck you, boys, up the butt and in the mouth, you queer Aurelius and you fag Furius! You size me up, on the basis of my poems, because they're a little sexy, as not really decent. A poet has to live clean – but not his poems. They only have spice and charm, if somewhat sexy and really not for children – if, in fact, they cause body talk (I'm not talking in teenagers, but in hairy old men who can barely move their stiff bums). But you, because you happen to read about "many thousands of kisses," you think I'm not a man? Fuck you, boys, up the butt and in the mouth!
Aurelius, father of hungers,
not only of these but of however many have ever been,
or are, or will be throughout the years:
you want to sleep with my boy.
Not secretly: for you're always with him, you joke around together,
attached to his side you try everything.
For although you plot against me,
I'll stick it to you first, my dick in your mouth.
Still, if that were enough, I would keep my peace;
I take offense now at this, that the boy will learn
from you (ah, me!) to hunger and thirst.
On account of which lay off, while you can do so chastely,
lest you should reach your end, but with a dick in your mouth
Sire and prince-patriarch of hungry starvelings,
Lean Aurelius, all that are, that have been,
That shall ever in after years be famish'd;
Wouldst thou lewdly my dainty love to folly5
Tempt, and visibly? thou be near, be joking
Cling and fondle, a hundred arts redouble?
O presume not: a wily wit defeated
Pays in scandalous incapacitation.
Yet didst folly to fulness add, 'twere all one;10
Now shall beauty to thirst be train'd or hunger's
Grim necessity; this is all my sorrow.
Then hold, wanton, upon the verge; to-morrow
Comes preposterous incapacitation.
Furius, you who haven't got a slave
no piggy bank, not a bug or spider or heat;
but you certainly have a father and stepmother
whose teeth can even chew sand.
It's delightful for you, with your father
and with your father's wooden wife -
no wonder, since you all do well with everything,
you endure nicely; you fear nothing
not flame, nor total ruin,
not evil deeds or slander's lies,
or other chance of dangers.
But really, are your bodies drier than bone,
or than anything (if there is anything)
made even drier, by sun, cold and starvation?
So why wouldn't everything be well and happy for you?
You are without sweat, spit, snot or runny nose.
To this neatness add an even greater neatness
because your asshole is cleaner than a salt dish
(not ten shits in a whole year
and they're harder than a bean or little pebbles)
and if you touched it and probed it with your hands
you could never slip a finger into it.
Furius, don't despise these lovely comforts,
or think them worthless;
And as for that grand you always beg?
Leave off with a hundred.
You're happy enough.
Cleverest of all thieves at the baths,
father Vibennius and you his profligate son,
for the father has a dirtier right-hand,
but the son has a more voracious anus:
off with you into banishment and the dismal regions,
since the father's plunderings are known
to all the world, and, son, you cannot sell
your hairy bottom for an As.
Do not wonder, o Rufus, why no woman
wants to place her dainty thigh under you,
not if you should undermine her with a gift of rare clothes
or with the pleasures of a transparent jewel.
A certain bad story hurts you, by which a wild billy-goat
is said to dwell under the valley of your upper arms.
All fear this; nor is it strange: for it is a very bad
beast, nor one with which a pretty girl would lie.
Therefore, either kill the cruel pest of the noses
or cease to wonder why they flee.
So it’s a mixed bag with Catullus! Regardless of what you think about his poetry, it has been incredibly influential and was exceptionally popular after it’s rediscovery during the renaissance by Petrarch. Catullus is seen by scholars as one of the most important poets of his generation who opened up the art-form of poetry and paved the way for the likes of Virgil, Ovid and Horace