Exactly 50 years ago, T.S. Eliot died. Exactly 100 years ago, “Prufrock” appeared. What better moment, then, to perform the long-overdue public service of identifying the single worst poem to have been published during the last century? To name and shame? To award the IgNobel Prize for (Nominally Versified) Literature? A dirty job, but someone has to do it. (Who ya gonna call? Tastebusters!)
So much emetic tripe to read; so little time at our disposal. Firm guidelines to restrict admissible evidence were required from the beginning.
First, the poems to be short-listed for the IgNobel Prize needed to have been released after 1915. Nothing from before that date, however magnificently bad, was considered good enough.
Second, they needed to be the work of persons who had already attained the age of 21. No products of elementary-school magazines, high-school magazines, or undergraduate magazines were permitted for assessment.
Third, any verse concocted with deliberately satirical motivation (shades of those 1940’s parodists who, ex nihilo, created “Ern Malley” for Adelaide’s avant-garde journal Angry Penguins) was disqualified. To be eligible for the contest, all verses needed to be not just obscenely inept, but unconsciously obscenely inept.
Fourth, the short-listed poems needed to have appeared in English even if they were not originally written in English. Any habitué of Google Translate knows the ease with which the noblest Petrarchan sonnet can be turned into twaddle when put through the conduit of a foreign tongue. “Traduttore, traditore,” as the Italians observe. In other words, to translate is, by definition, to misrepresent; and the best translator is the best exponent of the resulting damage control. So, only Anglophones need apply.
Fifth, the poems must have seen print via some notionally autonomous publishing enterprise. While we could fill this entire article with recent lyrics disseminated by North Korea’s regime (“July 27 Marching Song,” “Fireworks of War Victory,” “Ode to the Motherland”), those ravings are so obviously ventriloquistic that mocking them is no more difficult than stealing candy from subnormal children. All the short-listed poems derive from imprints that, if not totally independent of the Servile State, purported to be so.
On the pattern of Oscars Night—whereby the trophies for the First Assistant Gaffer, the Second Make-Up Artist, and the Third Key Grip are disgorged well before the world’s couch potatoes have tuned in to watch Patricia Arquette or Julianne Moore—the following list is offered in reverse order of excellence; so to find out Numero Uno, you will have to peruse it to the end. Nevertheless, let readers be assured of how tough the judging procedure was, and of (in the Grateful Dead’s immortal words) “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” Just as it is no disgrace to be the world’s fifth-best tennis star or the world’s third-most successful backgammon maestro, so merely to be included among these IgNobel Prize finalists is to have achieved in one’s “poetry” a level of tone-deafness, moral cretinism, and Khmer-Rouge-type ignorance after which Richard Dawkins and Hillary Clinton themselves strive to no avail.
Paul Fussell, in Bad: Or, the Dumbing of America, mentions the following prophetic work of versifying genius (no uppercase or punctuation marks):
it’s about time
someone ought to write
a poem about assholes
Unfortunately, the judges felt obligated to decree the above out of contention for the IgNobel Prize, given the impossibility of locating the creation outside Fussell’s own monograph, and also given the impossibility of detecting from that monograph whether this wonderful epigram was part of a longer schema, or stood in splendid isolation. But it seemed to the judges that the relevant aphorism, by its innate merits, deserved more than purely token appreciation. Hence its presence hereabouts, as an annex to the shortlist proper.
The first edition of the Daily Worker to appear in America after Stalin’s death included the following hallucinatory tribute to Uncle Joe. No author is credited in the source—perhaps the Daily Worker’s bosses appreciated, against the threat of another Moscow volte-face, the usefulness of “plausible deniability”—but then we don’t know who wrote “Greensleeves” or “’Twas on the Good Ship Venus,” either. Who would reproach those ballads for their anonymity alone? Here we go, then, with every last indent and non-punctuation mark of the original faithfully reproduced:
He was melted in the open hearth of feudal czarist oppression
He was forged in the fire of revolution
His chemistry was the chemistry of struggle
And left him as pure as the hope of liberation
of the working class
He was alloyed with large masses of the Soviet
peoples and heaping shovelfuls of inter-
national brotherhood with just the right
amount of love for humanity to finally make—
A man of steel . . .
That “inter- / national” enjambment is surely worth the price of admission in itself. But it would be wrong to suggest that the IgNobel Prize’s judges considered purely foreign subject matter as valid. For centuries English literature has famously been “a nest of singing birds,” “warbling [their] native wood-notes wild.” To an Englishman, therefore, we go for the . . .
Britain’s entry into the 20th century’s first global conflict produced Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Britain’s entry into the 20th century’s second global conflict produced . . . the self-proclaimed “Apocalyptic School” magus George Barker, a frenzied apologist for Red Spain who in 1939 decided, Auden-style, that he could best serve in the struggle against Hitler through becoming what harsh-tempered newspaperman Westbrook Pegler called “an absentee war correspondent.” In 1943 Barker, by this time safely ensconced in Manhattan, inflicted on paper-starved Brits—via Cyril Connolly’s periodical Horizon—the following diatribe, aimed, the mid-sentence uppercase T’s would suggest, at the Deity:
Incubus. Anesthetist with glory in a bag,
Foreman with a sweatbox and a whip. Asphyxiator
Of the ecstatic. Sergeant with a grudge
Against the lost lovers in the park of creation,
Fiend behind the fiend behind the fiend behind the
Friend. Mastodon with mastery, monster with an ache
At the tooth of the ego, the dead drunk judge:
Wheresover Thou art our agony will find Thee
Enthroned on the darkest altar of our heartbreak
Perfect. Beast, brute, bastard. O dog my God!
When London drama critic James Agate had partially recovered from the awesome spiritual impact of reading this masterpiece, he asked Connolly whether the “Friend” at the sixth line’s start was—given the fifth line—a misprinted reiteration of “fiend.” Connolly’s bland response: “I don’t know. It is ‘friend’ in the typescript that reached me from America. Nine-tenths of the poem is beyond me, but it has beautiful lines which make me feel that Barker is a poet. I printed it for this reason, and also because I understand he is hard-up.” As the title of a once-famous novel by Barker’s mistress almost put it, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Spewed.
At least Barker seemed eventually to outgrow his baby-Marxism. No such dialectic typified the winner of the . . .
Bertolt Brecht went one better than Orwell’s famous definition of a Stalinist by being half-gramophone and all gangster. Here is a Brecht pearl beyond price, which in March 1941, thanks to Clement Greenberg, greeted Partisan Review subscribers:
The individual has two eyes:
The Party has a thousand eyes.
The Party sees seven states:
The individual sees one city.
The individual has his hour:
But the Party has many hours.
The individual can be destroyed:
But the Party cannot be destroyed.
For it is the vanguard of the masses and conducts its struggle with the methods of . . .
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Brecht’s contribution to “Mack the Knife” notwithstanding, even the late, famously diplomatic Dick Clark might have forborne from recommending the above harangue with the standard commendation, “It’s got a good beat, and it’s easy to dance to.”
Alas, with Brecht we have drifted away from Cool Britannia again. It behooves us to repair this oversight with our . . .
A round of applause for Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978, born C.M. Grieve), card-carrying commie; confectioner of such gastronomic delights as “Hymn to Lenin” and “Second Hymn to Lenin”; and active advocate, during the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, of U.K. membership in the Third Reich. Compared with the SS, MacDiarmid announced in mid-1940, “the British and French bourgeoisie . . . are a far greater enemy.” Tempting though it is to respond to this with a blunt Napoleonic “Shut your eyes and think of Poland,” a more fitting answer comes from MacDiarmid’s own lunatic phraseology in The Battle Continues. This bellyache MacDiarmid intended as a knockdown retort to Roy Campbell’s pro-Franco “Flowering Rifle”: an epic characterized by flawless iambic pentameter, unfailingly ingenious rhymes, and neo-Augustan wit. Since MacDiarmid possessed none of these assets, he might usefully have entitled his attack on Campbell The Battle Is Postponed Until Further Notice, or perhaps The Battle Called in Sick Requesting A Mental Health Day. Instead, he parturiated, inter alia, the following:
. . . Men like you in the world today, Campbell,
Are simply human phagocytes—
Wandering cells such as we find
Eating bacteria in the pus of an abscess
Or pullulating in a fissure of the anus mundi,
With Mosley’s Blackshirts, Joyce’s National Socialist League,
Arnold Leese’s Greyshirts, the Link, the German-American Bund,
The National Gentile League, McWilliam’s Destiny Party,
Pelley’s Silver Shirts, and all the rest.
And your poetry is the sort of stuff one expects
From a mouth living close to a sewer
And smelling like a legacy from Himmler . . .
You will scrabble and plunge into the tank
And drown there in the world’s collected faeces . . .
There’s more yet, but as Victor Borge used to say, “It’s downhill from here on.” MacDiarmid may have had his shortcomings as a craftsman (shortcomings which—particularly in view of the above extract’s ending—call to mind Johnny Mercer’s unrefined verdict on a rival songwriter: “I could eat alphabet soup and shit better lyrics”); that said, MacDiarmid yielded to no one, even among his fellow Scots, as a smooth political operator. He released The Battle Continues not during the Spanish Civil War, which would have afforded Campbell the opportunity to answer back, but in 1958—a year after Campbell had suffered his fatal Portuguese car accident. What does that chronological juxtaposition tell you about MacDiarmid’s intellectual ethics?
You will have noticed that, Barker partially excepted, all the prize winners to date have openly worshiped Marxist-Leninism. But before we begin to suspect that Khrushchev’s “We will bury you” boast might have been correct in the poetical field, freedom lovers should take patriotic heart. America the Beautiful proved, in the lachrymose orgy prompted by JFK’s assassination—and didn’t that particular sobfest confirm the disenchanted expertise of the British comedian who noted that “The problem with going to an orgy is that one is never quite sure who to thank”?—that a democracy’s versifiers could be every bit as gloriously untalented as the Evil Empire’s.
“The Loved One,” Malcolm Muggeridge’s survey of Kennedyana (to be found in 1966’s Tread Softly For You Tread on My Jokes), cited the print version—subsequently there appeared an audio version—of the post-Camelot chrestomathy Of Poetry and Power (“Printed Foreword by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.”). In particular, Muggeridge cited a deranged, lolloping panegyric on JFK on which the judges bestowed their . . .
the air he sort
of embodied the
air where democracy
stood tall, Jefferson
and Robert Frost were
his advisers, he sort
of clearly gave evidence
of wit and
democracy . . .
There may, for all I know, be some hidden . . . profundity in [this]. If so, it eludes me. It is only fair to add that obituary verse on public figures rarely attains excellence. Perhaps Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” is about the best that can be done, and even then the poet, unlike Mr. Schlesinger’s songsters, enjoyed the advantage that Wellington as a politician had been cordially detested, so that he was under no necessity to dwell unduly on his public or private virtues.
By now, doubtless, the cry will have gone up: Unfair, unfair! Are not these awards a mere signal of the judges’ capricious determination that entries shall be limited to free verse? Do they not all embody the feature of which Clive James complained in Queensland’s Thomas Shapcott—that he “can’t, I think, be said to write poetry in any way that distinguishes it from prose chopped up”?
What about a candidate who, by contrast, can manage on occasion to rhyme, to scan, and to make sense, but who still bears the same sub-Neanderthal relation to Milton and Wordsworth that Jackson Pollock bears to Raphael and Vermeer, or which Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” bears to Verdi’s Masked Ball? Happily, that problem has been solved, as most world problems are, sooner or later, by an Aussie. Once this candidate emerged from the ruck, justice demanded that he be awarded the . . .
And the winner is—the envelope, please—Hal G.P. Colebatch, the Western Australian from outer space, whose bibliography includes such science-fiction tours de force as Man-Kzin Wars X. (“How the Wunderlanders,” Man-Kzin Wars X’s blurb-writer hyperventilates, “first learned of the Kzin attacks on Earth by slower-than-light communications, barely in time to prepare to fight back—how valiant human defenders turned to guerilla warfare in the Wunderland jungles and caves after the feline warrior race had destroyed . . . ” The suspense is killing you, right?)
There could be no denying Colebatch the cordon bleu once the judges discovered his “Reactionary Observations at the Pistol Club” (Quadrant, June 2008), and in particular the sheer astuteness of its first couplet, as opposed to its first quatrain. Quickly, the judges realized that whatever connotations of self-respect, discretion, or skill his title’s adjective reactionary might imply, Colebatch’s actual poem shows his aesthetic kinship with the decorum levels of interchangeable Kardashians. Who needs the deep understanding of the human heart that is obtainable from Jane Austen or Scott Fitzgerald, who needs the billets-doux of John Donne or Andrew Marvell, when we have Colebatch’s laser-like insight into emotional relations between the sexes?
Watching women pull the trigger,
It’s funny how their nipples get bigger.
Take it away, Hal. Or, as Will Ferrell counseled in Anchorman, “Stay classy.” Poetasting illiterates of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your brains.