O Cacohymnia!


Aspiring versifiers, put off afresh by the ego-shriveling brick of Lowell’s Collected Poems, might well hie to the sublime haunts of The Stuffed Owl, a vintage anthology with enough bizarre invocations (“Mysterious Magnet!”) toe-stubbing enjambments (“He whom thus Brutus doom’d to bleed,/Did”), opaque word orderings (“His strong sensations with how few could blend!”), and hair-raising reps (“Come to me! Come to me!”) to instill faith that one’s own paper blackening isn’t perhaps the worst thing ever written. The editors supply copious examples of “Good Bad Verse” from the 17th to the early 20th century, and the entries induce reactions from mild snorts to outright spittle situations. Adhering to rhyme, immersed in the bathwater of bathos, they are the original of the fugitive couplets Edward Gorey attached to his drawings; some of them, drawn from Roman-numeraled works (Art of Preserving Health, Bk. II), suggest an aesthetic death on the installment plan.

Droll bios of the unwitting contributors (none were alive by Owl‘s 1930 publication) show a high percentage of those who would rewrite Shakespeare (John Sheffield split Julius Caesar in two, “interpolating several interesting love scenes”). Erasmus Darwin’s “Eliza at the Battle” goes for the lachrymal with a patently absurd situation, best summarized by the deadpan index: “Eliza, takes children to see a battle, 106; gets it in the neck, ibid.” One wants more of The Dentiad, American dentist Solyman Brown’s verse as advertisement; one wants all of William Boyce’s “Man’s First Estate on Earth,” which contains this helpful tip re oysters: “And ever since the Fall you’ll find these fish/In season every month containing ‘R.’ ” Worth a book of her own is Julia Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” whose fame was such that Mark Twain parodied her. She writes gaily morbid child funeral poems, laments a victim of the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster pungently yclept “P.P. Bliss,” and dismisses her critics (“The papers have ridiculed me/A year and a half or more”).

The snipers should step off; as we all know, and as Moore so remarkably writes, “Literary is a work very difficult to do.” And it can be very difficult, too, to read two consecutive pages herein without upsetting your snifter. You have till September to recover, when Burning Deck republishes its 1971 unofficial sequel, Pegasus Descending, with more unintended muse manglings (and more Moore). For now, enjoy this o’erstuffed Owl, to which a Ginsberg title fits—viz., howl.