From bad to verse

book cover reading from bad to verse

The 19th century is famed for some truly pathetic poetry, writes Kathy Hunt.

The vast treasures of the past remain undiscovered, unlooked for or simply forgotten, so sure are we of the nuggets of our time. The 19th century alone delivered a cargo, which remains mostly unloaded on the docks of our contemporary minds, but if anything spilled through its torn corners, it was the spirit of the age, that long reign chronicled by what must be some of the worst poetry ever written:

Smile a little, smile a little,
All along the road;
Every life must have it's burden,
Every heart it's load.
Why sit down in gloom and darkness
With your grief to sup?
As you drink Fate's bitter tonic,
Smile across the cup.

The creator of these lines, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, lies buried at the back of a collection of English essays, in her proper place after T.S. Eliot and Stephen Spender, and, most would say, lucky to be there at all. I discovered her one rainy afternoon as, dressed in a rather fetching tea gown of lavender organza and toying idly with the hymnal–sized book, I reclined upon my chaise longue. It was the servants' day off, with only the apostrophe hard at work polishing my pretensions. This is a dream sequence of course — the 19th century does that to me — but I am indebted to Naomi Lewis, herself unsung in Oxford lexicography, for bringing Ella Wheeler Wilcox, the 'Wisconsin Poetaster', to my attention in an essay which examines (as this one attempts to do) the nature and appeal of so–called bad poetry.

In his introduction to the Selected Poems of Banjo Paterson (Angus and Robertson, 1992), Les Murray remembers his father reciting 'A Bush Christening' and 'The Man from Ironbark'. At parties and dances, pubs, clubs and army camps, someone, he recalls, would usually launch into 'Mulga Bill's Bicycle' or 'How the Favourite Beat Us'. Another time, another place, it all depended on the mood.

Murray places his poet within the tradition of folksong, and minstrelsy, although he doesn't use the word. Such balladry had evolved, bridging what he calls 'the grimmest class barrier of all: that which divides educated Australia from everything rural or pastoral'. But in a young Australia, it was freed from the urban and the music hall and, with a friendly slap on the rump, sent bucking and kicking out into the scrub.

Reports of its exploits appeared first in newspapers, an easily disseminated medium, and it is here, across the second–best lace tablecloths, in the chill, beeswaxed parlours of the dying 19th century, that Clancy and The Man from Snowy River meet Mrs Wilcox. She was 'the poet of the universal middle sentiment', writes Lewis, 'with a sure place in homes and hearts but not the serious anthologies'. Says Murray of Paterson, after ranking him 'just behind Kipling': 'I don't claim him as a major poet, but he is a real one.' We must look to Mrs Wilcox to help us clarify this fuzzy distinction and she does not let us down: 'Though critics may bow to art, and I am its own true lover/It is not art but heart, which wins the wide world over.'

After her debut in 1872 with Drops of Water, a collection of temperance verse that reminded Lewis of drinking songs ('Don’t drink, boys, don't!'), the 16–year–old Ella Wheeler went on to write nearly 40 volumes of poetry described in the Oxford Companion to American Literature as 'romantic, unctuous and sentimental'. Across the Atlantic, the English were kinder, someone at The Times pointing out that at the time of her death, she was 'the most popular poet of either sex and of any age, read by thousands who never open Shakespeare'. This may have been because, in 1883, her collection, Poems of Passion, was rejected for 'immorality'. Lewis has done me another favour and found a newspaper headline of the day: 'Too loud for Chicago. The scarlet city by the lake shocked by a badger girl whose verses out–Swinburne Swinburne and out–Whitman Whitman'.

It used to be that problem poetry was more likely to be banned in Boston than shushed in Chicago, but either way it was money in the bank and instrumental in confusing good poetry with the bad, the mad and the morally dangerous. Mrs Wilcox was duly uninvited to one salon after writing a poem called 'The Birth of the Opal', which posited this gemstone as the child of the sunbeam and the moonbeam, and in doing so, accused one literary hostess, 'laid bare all the secrets of married life'.

In the tradition of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Helen Steiner Rice does not rate a mention in the Companion, but is seemingly, teemingly, everywhere else. She appears on the inside back cover of Somebody Loves You, resembling Debbie Reynolds and swathed in the pelt of a dead Arctic fox. Taken in about 1977, the portrait shows her upswept, sunkissed, chestnut hair tucked under a matching fur hat only slightly bigger than her head, with ornate and visibly expensive earrings balancing a charming smile. Author of such inspirational collections as Lovingly, A Gift of Love and Life is Forever, Steiner Rice trips along in Wheeler Wilcox's footsteps, her verses 'expressing familiar feelings and everyday concerns'. But where Mrs Wilcox's marriage was 'long and happy', Steiner Rice's was 'tinged with sorrow by the early death of her young husband', one possible inference being that her well of understanding is commensurably deeper: 'GOD makes what seemed unbearable/and painful and distressing/easily acceptable/when we view it as a BLESSING.'

'Painful and distressing' would seem to sum up Mrs Rice's cavalier treatment of the iambic pentameter, or indeed any meter, as she grinds rhythm to a pulp beneath her high heels and reaches to embrace her impeccable sentiments with gloved and fumbling hands. But in the glare of such goodness, only a suicidal freelancer would dare to call her poetry bad.

In 1958, a poet and teacher called John Ciardi examined 'one of the master lyrics of the English language and almost certainly the best–known poem by an American poet'. The poem was Robert Frost's 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' (1923), which begins: 'Whose woods these are I think I know.' The deceptive simplicity of the language cloaks the depth and complexity of the poem, allowing Ciardi to observe and define the great dividing range of all poetry, the fact that 'Many readers are forever unable to accept the poet's essential duplicity'. This is a crucial point, which reclassifies the reader who cannot understand into one who cannot 'accept'. Would these people be the ones Naomi Lewis refers to, settled by their millions in the clear aspic of a 'middle–class community, not quite illiterate, of few and small ambitions, many and small anxieties and a modest standard of behaviour to maintain'?

Rising like Paterson's and Lawson's readers on the steam of 19th century industry, it is as easy to patronise them as to say that Mrs Wilcox's audience, having imbibed such honest and unequivocal poetry, and bewitched by 'the magical powers of the cliche', achieved a level of consolation unknown to contemporary consumers of say, the ridiculous Rimbaud, famous for his clumsy observation: 'Je est un autre' ('I is someone else').

Somewhere between Mrs Wilcox, Mrs Rice and what Alister Kershaw called 'the billabongists', an exception to most poetic equations exists in the person of Joyce Kilmer, whose gender and work has been described by Phillip Adams as both feminine and 'mawkish', mawk being an obsolete word for maggot and 'ish' referring to verse corrupted by sickly sentimentalism.

In 1978, and for the same reason I am writing this, an American poet, teacher and critic called Guy Davenport went in to bat for a poem called 'Trees', published in 1913. 'Almost immediately,' says Davenport, 'it became one of the most famous poems in English...the one poem known by practically everybody.' Five years later, he tells us, 'in the wasteland of Picardy', the Cincinnati poet Eloise Robinson found herself dispensing poetry, chocolate and comfort to the American Expeditionary Forces. Surrounded by exhausted soldiers and halfway through 'Trees', her memory failed her, whereupon a young sergeant offered to recite it. 'How wonderful,' said Eloise Robinson, 'that he should know it.' 'Well, ma'am,' said the sergeant, 'I guess I wrote it. I'm Joyce Kilmer.' It was June 1918. A month later, reports Davenport, 'Sgt Alfred Joyce Kilmer was killed by German gunfire on the heights above Seringes. The French gave him the Croix de Guerre for his gallantry. He was 32'.

Is 'Trees' mawkish? Is it duplicitous? Is it bad? Is it any good?

'Trees', adjudicates Davenport, echoing Lewis and, faintly, George Bernard Shaw, 'symbolises the sentimentality and weakmindedness that characterises middle–class muddle. It is Rotarian', and, intellectually, 'you are supposed to outgrow it'. On the other hand, 'Its six couplets have an inexplicable integrity and a pleasant, old–fashioned music. It soothes, and seems to speak of verities'. As for poetic duplicity, it is there in the last couplet, influenced by the English teaching pioneer Margaret McMillan who preferred open–air classrooms as an antidote to child labour and called pencils and desks 'apparatus': 'Apparatus can be made by fools,' she wrote in 1907, 'but only God can make a tree.'

In 1918, in the 'ravaged orchards and strafed woods of the valley of the Ourcq', Kilmer's last lines would have read: 'Poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree.'

Shouldered aside by popular song, today's popular poetry still waves gaily from the insides of greeting cards and ABC compilations. With sea shanties embedded in the national DNA, and because they just can't help themselves, hundreds of Australians continue to contribute to collections such as True Blue Witty Ditties, which places itself within 'that great Aussie tradition' of humorous verse and promises 'a laugh on every page'.

In June 1997, Tasmanian Philip R. Rush published his Australian Poems that would Boggle a Bull! and had sold 8000 copies by December. Rupert McCall, a neo–Banjovian, left his solicitor's office in 1995 to write rhyming verse, subsequently published by Mandarin, with a surprisingly well–written foreword by John Eales. Here is the poet at the doctor's with the collection's title poem, 'Green and Gold Malaria', a condition brought on by 'good old Aussie pride' and noted by medicos: 'From the beaches here in Queensland to the sweeping shores of Broome/On the Harbour banks of Sydney where the waratah's in bloom' etc. The poem is a hymn to 'billy-boiling' while on the opposite page McCall celebrates a Japanese car company whose sponsorship is immortalised in the lines: 'I guess this all just proves/What generous folks we are/We hope that you remember this/Next time you buy a car.' McCall's reach, as Naomi Lewis put it, is all too equal to his grasp, the hallmark, along with a benign, almost endearing arrogance, of popular poetry.

Only once did Mrs Wilcox stop to doubt her gift, but the moment passed, says Lewis, 'and never came again'. She went on, 'unhaunted by the sad anxieties of taste', encountering her peers rarely, and disastrously, in the case of James Whitcombe Riley, author of When the Frost is on the Punkin, who, on their first and last meeting, voiced his disapproval of her hairdo. Professional jealousy, perhaps, of her youth, her 'terrifying verve', her 'enormous vitality' embodied in a magnum opus where real poetry happened 'too often for accident' and, like Emily Dickinson's poems, explored the 'tiny ecstasies' of life, but in a way that was ultimately, completely and mysteriously devoid of paradox.

'Yet I shall be forgotten,' she wrote in her one and only loss of nerve, 'while more careful and conscientious artists live in the memory of the world.' But in a happy ending worthy of the woman and her seductive, reductive oeuvre, her most famous lines continue to grace the history of American literature: 'Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.'

Kathy Hunt is a freelance writer