with critiques by Jendi Reiter
TThis month's critique corner analyzes three of the near-miss entries from our 2004 Wergle Flomp Poetry Contest, which rewards poetry that is deliberately, hilariously bad.
UNTITLED ("I got this bag of oats..."
by B.F. Texino
I got this bag of oats for the goats
but it is not the sort of food for them, the goats.
So I make the list for all the animal to see
who it is that are wanting them, the oats
Here is the list now read it. The Chicken
The Dog The Monkey
The Donkey The Hog The Horse Rats and Mice in pit.
Now we will take some names away
because some animals says no way
no oats The Chicken? Sorry he must die for food
are not oats food says Jesus.
Sorry Jesus, We love Chicken! not oats.
The Dog? Good Dog! No Oats.
Monkey? Monkey-Devil Monkey-Devil
Guess who? Shut up Jesus!Sorry Monkey no oats.
The Donkey? Will Jesus ride the donkey to
Bethlehem? Yes? Thank you Jesus!
Yes oats! Bye Bye Jesus! Jesus Waves.
Copyright 2005 by B.F. Texino
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Nonsense poems are much harder to craft than is commonly supposed. Our standards are high. When we read gibberish, we want to be moved to shout, "Behold the miraculous workings of the human mind!"
As with the formal-verse parodies, incongruity is often a key ingredient of the humor of a nonsense poem. Craftsmanship, while harder to measure, is also a consideration. Gibberish that displays some emotional range, and that uses a variety of sentence structures, stands out from the heap. Again, contrast creates humor. The trick is to mimic the form of a poetic argument or narrative that moves from point A to point B, without actually saying anything that makes sense.
Texino's poem has a storyline that is both original and absurd: the speaker bought some oats, and is asking a motley collection of creatures whether they want any. It's a very strange barnyard that contains a chicken, a monkey and Jesus. This poem runs the gamut of emotions from affection ("Good Dog! No Oats.") to demented rage ("Monkey-Devil Monkey-Devil/ Monkey-Devil!"), from triumph ("Will Jesus ride the Donkey to/Bethlehem? Yes? Thank you Jesus!") to tragedy ("The Chicken? Sorry he must die for food"). All the ingredients of great literature...and it makes absolutely no sense.
Tone of voice can make all the difference in a nonsense poem. Many of our less successful entries are along the lines of "Deedle deedle deedle/doodle doodle doodle," which is not funny because there is no tension between the speaker's perception of his own seriousness and our awareness that it's nonsense. The poem has nothing to say but "look at how stupid I am." When the butt of the joke is in on the joke, the joke dies.
By contrast, in "I got this bag of oats...", the speaker clearly thinks he's saying something important. Capitalizing the names of the animals strengthens this impression. His words have the portentous slowness of someone who isn't very bright. "So I make the list for all the animal to see/who it is that are wanting them, the oats." Part yokel, part lunatic, he unselfconsciously skips from macabre incantation ("Monkey-Devil!") to sweet baby-talk ("Yes oats! Bye Bye Jesus! Jesus Waves."). The poem's blend of childlike naiveté and twisted thinking gives it a sinister, carnivalesque atmosphere that is quite disturbing.
This poem was also a close contender in the 2004 contest, though it ultimately gave way to poems that had more laugh-out-loud images and virtuoso use of poetic forms. Nonetheless, it is a fine example of inspired nonsense.
UNTITLED SONNET ("Shall I compare thee...")
by Rebecca Sutton
Shall I compare thee to my Great Aunt May?
Thou art more hairy and more flatulent:
Rough winds do balloon her underpants by day,
And night's calm doth not ease her repellence:
Sometime the heat doth cause her brow to shine,
And often doth the sweat stain 'bout her limbs,
And every orifice spurts forth the whine,
Denied her mouth in which cream cakes are brimmed:
But thee to nursing home be not chained,
Nor lost to thee be the baked beans thou ow'st,
Nor from public transport be thou restrained,
Where thou clear the seats about which thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long we gag while seated next to thee.
Copyright 2005 by Rebecca Sutton
Critique by Jendi Reiter
One type of successful Wergle entry is the parody of a classic poem. We like this category because it requires the author to display poetic skill and originality. Many of the unsuccessful entries achieve one objective of the contest - proving that vanity contests will publish drivel - but don't put in the extra effort to write a poem whose badness is truly inspired.
Here, Rebecca Sutton takes off on the well-known Shakespeare sonnet, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" The painfully sincere effusions of a love poem are a perfect target for the parodist. The original author's demand to be taken seriously sets up the contrast between expectation and reality that generates humor. The oh-so-sweet "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May" becomes "Rough winds do balloon her underpants by day."
Many humorous poems depend on a mismatch between style and subject matter. The high craftsmanship and ornamentation of a sonnet is appropriate for a paean to Shakespeare's beloved; it's ridiculously inappropriate for a description of a gluttonous, smelly old lady.
Bodily functions are a rich source of humor, but a mere recitation of gross words and images lacks the originality that we crave. Low comedy is about contrast, the intrusion of our body's vulgar common denominator into an aristocratic space. "And every orifice spurts forth the whine,/Denied her mouth in which cream cakes are brimmed." That's just funnier than saying "She stuffs her face." I particularly liked the line, "Nor lost to thee be the baked beans thou ow'st," which elevates the musical fruit to the heights of Elizabethan diction.
In a year where we had many fine formal-verse parodies, Sutton's clever poem was a close contender but only made it to the penultimate judging round, mostly because its scansion was too irregular. The lines of a sonnet should generally obey iambic pentameter, with occasional extra beats or varied stresses to prevent the poem from falling into a sing-song rhythm. Lines like "And night's calm doth not ease her repellence" and "But thee to nursing home be not chained" are eloquent and funny, but don't fit the meter. Too many such lines weaken the impact of the parody, whose humor partly depends on its resemblance to the original.
The poem's argument also could have been clearer. Who is being addressed, and why is he/she being compared to Great-Aunt May? In the original, Shakespeare indirectly praises his beloved by listing the things to which she cannot be compared, because she is even lovelier than they are. Here the goal seems to be the reverse: the addressee is more "hairy and...flatulent" than even Great-Aunt May - harsh! Yet the last six lines undermine this comparison; unlike Great-Aunt May, the addressee is not banned from public transport or forbidden to eat baked beans.
The lesson: even funny poems can benefit from more logic. In fact, an airtight progression of logical inferences that reaches an absurd conclusion is one of the funniest things there is.
MY SPECIAL DREAM
by "Chick L Scott" (Sue Scott)
If I was a bird I'd be flyin high
And stare down at the ant-sized world
Through one side of my head then the other
Cause birds eyes ain't up front like humans
And I'd cheep a melodius song
Floating on a wing and a breeze
Doing whatever I want
And not pay no more bills
Or get the car transmission fixed
And drain the septic system
Nothing like that, or anything else too
The only bad part would be in the winter
Cause I get real, real cold and might freeze with no heat
If I didn't fly south
Except that I'd be the lazy kind of bird, like ostriches
Who hates flying long distances
So I'd probably want to change back into human form
I think that's called molten
Around October 15th.
Copyright 2005 by Sue Scott
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Like Texino's poem, Sue Scott's "My Special Dream" generates humor from a narrator who is unaware of her own stupidity. I read this as a parody of the sentimental free-verse poems often written by adolescents and other beginning writers, who are painfully unaware of the blandness of their ideas or the inconsistencies in their tone.
Here, the speaker launches into an oh-so-poetical (if not particularly grammatical) declaration of her special dream: "If I was a bird I'd be flyin high". We're abruptly brought back to earth by this profundity: "And stare down at the ant-size world/Through one side of my head then the other/Cause birds eyes ain't up front like humans." Over-explained and literalized, the image of the bird loses whatever glamour it originally possessed.
She tries again for romantic effect with "And I'd cheep a melodius song/Floating on a wing and a breeze," but is quickly sidetracked by problems little noted by Lord Byron: "And not pay no more bills/Or get the car transmission fixed/And drain the septic system". The speaker goes on to utter one platitude after another, totally convinced that she's making fascinating new observations. Like a child, she can't focus her attention long enough to sustain the original idealized mood, so earnestly does she want to show off her garbled scientific knowledge: "So I'd probably want to change back into human form/I think that's called molten/Around October 15th."
I've seen too many serious poems brought down by clunkers like these. In addition to its entertainment value, deliberately bad verse can hold up an uncomfortable but useful mirror to our own artistic shortcomings. Whether your verse is light or heavy, be conscious of the poetic voice you've chosen, and avoid abrupt changes of tone without a reason.
Instead of our usual "where could this poem be submitted" suggestions, we'd like to recommend some publications and contests that accept humorous verse:
Brief, clean poems seem to be preferred.
Accepts both serious and humorous poems; seeks poets who have "something to say in clear and understandable English" (read style manifesto on website before sending).
Washington Poets Association Annual Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: February 15
Four prize categories include the Charlie Proctor Award for humorous verse.
Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest
Online Submission Deadline: April 1
Sponsored by Winning Writers. Free to enter.
Willard R. Espy Award
Postmark Deadline: May 15
$1,000 prize for light verse
These poems and critiques appeared in the February 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter. If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.