The Doggerel Manifesto

by John MacBeath Watkins

As those of you who follow us on facebook already know, Twice Sold Tales in Ballard is considering starting a Doggerel Night at Twice Sold Tales.

The only trouble is, several people to whom I've broached the idea have not known what doggerel is.

From the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary:


: poetry that is poorly written and that often is not meant to be taken seriously.
 In short, doggerel is a disparaging term for unpretentious poetry that aims to entertain, and has no pretension of being high art. I do not think it has to be written poorly; after all, Ogden Nash once said he'd decided to be a good bad poet rather than a bad good poet, and I think that captures the distinction between "poetry" and doggerel.

Consider an example of folk poetry that is not intended to be taken seriously:

What the Blind Man Saw

One fine day in the middle of the night
two dead boys got up to fight
Back to back they faced each other
drew their swords and shot each other.

If you don't believe what I say is true,
ask the blind man, he saw it too.
Iambic verse with four feet to the line, in rhyming heroic couplets. Nothing wrong with that, although the first line isn't Iambic all the way through, when voiced it scans well enough. Continuity errors aside, it's well written.

The idea of doggerel is different from what we now call poetry. It is a means to tell a story and often a means to tell a joke. At one time, poetry and jokes were our oral traditions, the poetry often put to music.

But we've elevated poetry to the status of high art. I've been to a reading where someone was throwing out random numbers and calling them a poem, sort of equivalent to Robert Rauschenberg's White Painting, a 1951 three-canvas work that the artists said represented nothing (more on the flight from meaning here.)

White Painting
There was a time when poetry could be art, but this was not the essence of poetry. Its essence was that it was a way to tell a story. The tale could be told well or badly, and its popularity depended on the taste of the public, not on any arbiters of taste. Because it was a means of storytelling, most of it didn't have to be terribly good, it just had to tell a tale people wanted to hear. Casey at the Bat, that most American of poems, ran in a daily newspaper.

In some cases, popular poetry disparaged as doggerel produced parodies more famous than the original. When I was a lad, I learned this comic poem:
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.
It wasn't until a few years ago that I found Casabianca, the poem the one above parodied. It was first published in 1826, based on events that had occurred in 1798 at the Battle of the Nile. The dreadful thing came to be taught in American and British schools from about 1850 to 1950, mercifully disappearing from the syllabus about the time I was born, though I take no credit for that. It was thought the poem taught children to be virtuous:
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.
The boy in Casabianca stands on the deck where his father told him to, unaware that his father is dead and can't countermand the order, until the powder magazine blows up and kills him.


Generations of school children rebelled against this and produced several versions of parodies that had greater comic and artistic merit than the original.

And that's the beauty of doggerel. It can be awful, but if it is awful and pretentious, there's always someone willing to come along and burst the bubble.

The problem is, the entire institutional organism that supports poetry has become pretentious. It's time to burst the bubble, and write poetry that is intended to amuse, to tell a story or to tell a joke, that has no pretense of being written for the ages.

I say it is ominous that so little poetry written in the last century is worthy of parody. Our poetry has become so irrelevant that little of it is iconic enough to have people know what you're doing when you parody it. The only one that comes readily to mind is Robert Frost's The Road not Taken. And that was a parody that fit on a button -- "I took the road less traveled by -- what was I thinking!"

I say we need poetry worth repeating, the way a dirty joke is worth repeating, a return to the oral tradition that spread anonymous poems like What the Blind Man Saw without the backing of foundations or grants or small, incestuous poetry journals.

It doesn't have to be funny. In fact, without sincere, and popular, poems like Casabianca, we can't have brilliant parodies. Without Against Idleness and Mischief, by Isaac Watts:
How doth the little busy Bee
   Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
   From every opening Flower!
 ...we would not have Lewis Carroll's parody:
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
 I call both of these doggerel. I class the whole of Edgar Guest's oeuvre as doggerel, and so is Dorothy Parker's review of his work:
I'd rather flunk my Wasserman test
 Than read the poetry of Edgar Guest.
But a Reader's Digest poet like Guest had his place in a healthy ecology of poetry. His poetry was maudlin, his language hackneyed, but if a thing is worth doing, there's a market for people who do it badly as well as for those who do it perfectly.  Just as the romance and the mystery novel have a market for the less auspicious practitioners as well as for Jane Austen and P.D. James, a healthy market for poetry would have room for Casabianca as well as the works of W.S. Merwin.

We've come some way because of slam poetry, but too often, it relies on the performance of the artist. Going back to rhythm and rhyme would help us return poetry to being an oral tradition, passed along for amusement, not reliant on the talent of the performer.

I suggest we cease to regard poetry as an art form and return to viewing it as a storytelling technique. A poem may have artistic merit, but it need not have such merit to be a poem that gets passed around and enjoyed.

So let's tell stories with this technique we call poetry, either reading our favorites or writing our own. We won't aim to produce high art. We will aspire to amuse our friends.