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poetry circle

One Page Poetry Circle Archive


The One Page Poetry Circle meeting of February 17, 2009

This was our first meeting of 2009. AnnaLee Wilson (my co-moderator) and I looked forward to the topic, Comic Poetry, as it promised a light evening filled with laughter. Yet as I searched for a poem to bring to the meeting I ran into difficulties:

A section from Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning was extraordinarily clever and ironic, but took some explanation to understand. I will share it with my Victorian Literature class.

A poem I used to love reading to my children by Shel Silverstein was funny, but meant nothing.

Nonsense verse seemed clever as well, but somehow left me feeling unsatisfied.

I came to the evening with a question of whether comic poetry was less important or meaningful somehow than other poetry. Is poetry somehow like opera, bound to dramatic topics like love and death?

The evening began with AnnaLee reading "An Overworked Elocutionist" by Carolyn Wells (1862-1942):

There was once a little boy whose name was Robert Reese;
And every Friday afternoon he had to speak a piece.
So many poems thus he learned, that soon he had a store
Of recitations in his head... and still kept learning more.

And now this is what happened: He was called upon one week
And totally forgot the piece he was about to speak.
He brain he cudgeled. Not a word remained within his head!
And so he spoke at random, and this is what he said:

"My beautiful, my beautiful, who standest proudly by,
It was the schooner Hesperus-the breaking waves dashed high!
Why is this Forum crowded? What means this stir in Rome?
Under a spreading chestnut tree, there is no place like home!

When freedom from her mountain height cried, "Twinkle, little star,"
Shoot if you must this old gray head, King Henry of Navarre!
Roll on, thou deep and dark blue castled crag of Drachenfels,
My name is Norval, on the Grampain Hills, ring out, wild bells!

If you're waking, call me early, to be or not to be,
The curfew must not ring tonight! Oh, woodman, spare that tree!
Charge, Chester, charge! Oh, Stanley, on! and let who will be clever!
The boy stood on the burning deck, but I go on forever!?

His elocution was superb, his voice and gestures fine;
His schoolmates all applauded as he finished the last line.
"I see it doesn't matter," Robert thought, "what words I say,
So long as I declaim with oratorical display."

The poem was fun because it referenced so many other poems, and we enjoyed seeing how many of the poems we could name. We needed access to Google!

Roger then read "The Common Cold" by Ogden Nash (1902-1971):

Go hang yourself, you old M.D.!
You shall not sneer at me.
Pick up your hat and stethoscope,
Go wash your mouth with laundry soap;
I contemplate a joy exquisite
In not paying you for your visit.
I did not call you to be told
My malady is a common cold.

By pounding brow and swollen lip;
By fever's hot and scaly grip;
By those two red redundant eyes
That weep like woeful April skies;
By racking snuffle, snort, and sniff;
By handkerchief after handkerchief;
This cold you wave away as naught
Is the damnedest cold man ever caught!

Give ear, you scientific fossil!
Here is the genuine Cold Colossal;
The Cold of which researchers dream,
The Perfect Cold, the Cold Supreme.
This honored system humbly holds
The Super-cold to end all colds;
The Cold Crusading for Democracy;
The F├╝hrer of the Streptococcracy.

Bacilli swarm within my portals
Such as were ne'er conceived by mortals,
But bred by scientists wise and hoary
In some Olympic laboratory;
Bacteria as large as mice,
With feet of fire and heads of ice
Who never interrupt for slumber
Their stamping elephantine rumba.

A common cold, gadzooks, forsooth!
Ah, yes. And Lincoln was jostled by Booth;
Don Juan was a budding gallant,
And Shakespeare's plays show signs of talent;
The Arctic winter is fairly coolish,
And your diagnosis is fairly foolish.
Oh what a derision history holds
For the man who belittled the Cold of Colds!

Atishooo! Hope you're all well!

Then Zella read "The Flea" by John Donne (1572-1631):

Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
Me it suck'd first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled bee;
Confesse it, this cannot be said
A sinne, or shame, or losse of maidenhead,
     Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,
     And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two,
     And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
When we almost, nay more than maryed are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloysterd in these living walls of Jet.
     Though use make thee apt to kill me,
     Let not to this, selfe murder added bee,
     And sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three.

Cruell and sodaine, has thou since
Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?
In what could this flea guilty bee,
Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and saist that thou
Find'st not thyself, nor mee the weaker now;
     'Tis true, then learne how false, feares bee;
     Just so much honor, when thou yeeld'st to mee,
     Will wast, as this flea's death tooke life from thee.

Here was a poem that was comic and clever, but not really funny. Donne used lightness to masque the topics of love and sex. Comic poetry then can be an attitude that doesn?t necessarily produce laughter, but rather becomes a way of looking at a subject.

Cynthia read a parody by Calvin Trillin called "The Rime of the Ancient Candidate" which mocked John McCain. Here was another type of comic poetry - the parody. She also read "What Every Woman Must Not Say" (1915) by Alice Duer Miller:

"I don't pretend I'm clever," he remarked, "or very wise,"
And at this she murmured, "Really," with the right polite surprise.
"But women," he continued, "I must own I understand;
Women are a contradiction--honorable and underhand--
Constant as the star Polaris, yet as changeable as Fate,
Always flying what they long for, always seeking what they hate."
"Don't you think," began the lady, but he cut her short: "I see
That you take it personally--women always do," said he.
"You will pardon me for saying every woman is the same,
Always greedy for approval, always sensitive to blame;
Sweet and passionate are women; weak in mind, though strong in soul;
Even you admit, I fancy, that they have no self-control?"
"No, I don't admit they haven't," said the patient lady then,
"Or they could not sit and listen to the nonsense talked by men."

This poem uses the comic to make an important point.

Ester said that she had looked through an anthology but had difficulty finding a comic poem that she liked, so she brought one that she had written, "Sunday afternoon at a hospice in England":

"Don't trifle with me," said Eva,
"When the trifle comes around.
It's for the patients only
Like a lady you won?t sound."

As I am partial to trifle
'twas hard to understand
Why I musn't ask for trifle
When trifle is at hand.

Twas a trifle academic
Cause on the supper tray
There wasn't a trifle of trifle
On that particular day.

Since then I've had trifle
Every single day.
For breakfast, snack and supper
It has come my way.

I do not trifle with trifle
I take it seriously
Jelly, cake, custard and cream
Is no trifle with a nice cup of tea.

This poem left us all feeling hungry and wanting nothing more than a piece of trifle!

Fran brought "Fishing on the Susquehanna in July" by Billy Collins (b. 1941). Collins is the recipient of a Mark Twain Award for comic poetry to acknowledge that poetry need not be somber. This is the poem:

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure--if it is a pleasure--
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one--
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table--
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandanna

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

This poem intrigued all of us and generated discussion again about comic poetry and what makes a poem comic.

I then read "Lucky Jim":

Jim and I as children played together.
Best of chums for many years were we.
I alas, had no luck, was a Jonah;
Jim my chum was lucky as could be.
Ah! Lucky Jim, how I envy him!

Years passed by. Still Jim and I were comrades.
He and I both loved the same sweet maid.
She loved Jim and married him one evening.
Jim was lucky. I unlucky stayed.
Ah! Lucky Jim, how I envy him!

Years rolled on and death took Jim away, boys,
Left his widow and she married me.
Now we're married, oft I think of Jim, boys,
Sleeping in the churchyard peacefully.
Ah! Lucky Jim, how I envy him!

My father-in-law used to recite this poem at festive occasions. He said that he had memorized it for recital at parties in the days when the guests provided the entertainment themselves. That was certainly a time when comic poetry may have been more popular than it is today. Someone asked how my mother-in-law enjoyed the recitation. I don't know the answer to that. Although this poem has been set to music several times, the poem itself exists in several different forms and is anonymous - although it was the source for Kingsley Amis' 1954 comic novel Lucky Jim.

AnnaLee then finished the evening with some of the bitterly comic poems of Dorothy Parker (1873-1967). The hour seemed to be up very quickly. Fewer people were at the meeting than we had hoped. We all enjoyed the variety of the poetry and the free give and take of the evening. In some ways the OPPC is like the parties of another era when the guests provided the entertainment as we all participate with the poems we have brought and our comments on other poems.

At the next meeting we would like to have more people and more poems. The schedule for the remainder of the spring is as follows:

March 17: Poetry and Wind or Weather

April 21: Poetry and Spring

May 19: Poetry and Anything (Open Topic)


Invitation to Meeting of 17 February 2009.


Flyer for February 2009


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