Doggerel Award?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Since I've broached to topic of poetry, let me add that one of the things we've lost with the death of bad, schmaltzy poetry is the opportunities it presented for satire.  Here's a verse I learned from my father as a child:

The boy stood on the burning deck
His feet were full of blisters
He could not find his own shoes
So he had to wear his sister's.

The ocean was deserted
Not a streetcar was in sight
The forest fires were burning
For it rained all day that night.

Fans of bad poetry will recognize this as a satire of Casabianca, a poem by Felicia Dorothea Hemans.  The original starts like this:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.

The flames roll'd on...he would not go
Without his father's word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard. 

The entire dreadful thing is here: 

Much of Lewis Carrol's best poetry was satires of Victorian childrens' verse.  There are excellent examples in The Annotated Alice, like this one:

Speak gently! It is better far
To rule by love than fear;
Speak Gently! let no harsh words mar
The good we might do here!

Which, in Alice in Wonderland, becomes:

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

Isaac Watts, an English theologian, wrote the following in Divine Songs for Children:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour
And gather honey all the day,
For every opening flower!

Moralistic Victorian poets were fond of exclamation points!  Carrol's parody:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

Surely we could tolerate some bad poetry for such fine parody.  One of the more pernicious notions that has come from having poetry become a plaything of the arts community is that people think it must be good, in the sense of being artful.  There were plenty of people who enjoyed Casabianca for its sentiment and the story it told, without asking that it be an example of eternal beauty.  They thought it was good, in the sense that it appealed to their morality, and because sentimental people like sentimental poems.

Let's call it what it is: Doggerel.

G.K. Chesterton said that "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."  He was arguing for the amateur in areas such as writing one's own love letters.  "These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly," he said in Orthodoxy.

I would go further.  If there is demand for a good or a service, there should be demand for the ordinary example, not just the work of genius.  If there is really a demand for poetry, there should be a demand for doggerel, that is, verse that has the form of poetry without being especially good.  When there was demand for poetry like Casabianca, poetry was a healthy medium.  Having a market only for the best poetry has not, in fact, improved poetry's place in our culture, because it has made the form less playful.  It will continue to have this flaw as long as it is a prisoner of the intelligencia.  Poetry once was a plaything for everyone, but an effort to professionalize poetry has alienated it from its audience.

In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Gary Cooper's character is not taken seriously because he writes poetry for greeting cards.  Must we give awards for greeting card poetry to rescue the form?  At least, perhaps, a Doggerel Award for popular poetry.


  1. Long live doggerel! (I speak as a practitioner.)

  2. Perhaps we should invent such an award. It might be a nice bit of performance art, at least. With the awesome power of a couple of bookstores behind it, how could it fail?


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