The Poetaster


On Poetry


Kārlis Padegs, Red Laughter (detail), 1931.

In 1876, Julia A. Moore published The Sweet Singer of Michigan Salutes the Public, a best-selling series of poems to honor our nation’s centennial. Moore was an obituary poet: the elegy was her preferred mode. Local death notices and tales of wartime derring-do moved her to versify. She was especially fond of addressing poems to dead children.

Her work is, in a word, bad.

In fact, her collection sallied forth with such cloying sincerity—a note from the publisher claimed that any profits would be used “to complete the Washington monument”—that the satirists of the time decided to have a field day with it. Mark Twain parodied her in Huckleberry Finn; Bill Nye—the nineteenth-century humorist, not the contemporary scientist—said that hers was a poetic license that ought to have been revoked; the Hartford Times noted her collection’s “steady and unremitting demands on the lachrymal ducts”; and a critic in the Rochester Democrat wrote of her work, “Shakespeare, could he read it, would be glad that he was dead … If Julia A. Moore would kindly deign to shed some of her poetry on our humble grave, we should be but too glad to go out and shoot ourselves tomorrow.”

Best of all, maybe, was the review in the Worcester Daily Press: “[Moore] reaches for the sympathy of humanity as a Rhode Islander reaches for a quahaug, clutches the tendrils of the soul as a garden rake clutches a hop vine, and hauls the reader into a closer sympathy than that which exists between a man and his undershirt.”

And so Moore gathered renown, like William McGonagall, as a poetaster, i.e., an inferior poet. (The word has fallen into disuse lately, but maybe it can have a renaissance in 2015.) You may chide her critics for their ironic jeering—it took some time, apparently, for Moore to get the joke, and eventually she was cowed into silence. By 1878 she’d been mocked from coast to coast and lampooned at her own public appearances. “Literary is a work very difficult to do,” she said to those who teased her.

But before you cluck, have a look at Moore’s poetry, which may make you want to throw tomatoes at her.

Here’s the whole of “Grand Rapids Cricket Club”:

In Grand Rapids is a handsome club,
Of men that cricket play,
As fine a set of skillful men
That can their skill display.
They are the champions of the West,
They think they are quite fine,
They’ve won a hundred honors well;
It is their most cunning design.

Brave Kelso, he’s considered great,
Chief of the club he is found;
Great crowds he draws to see him bowl
The ball upon the ground.
And Mr. Follet is very brave,
A lighter player than the rest,
He got struck severe at the fair ground
For which he took a rest.

When Mr. Dennis does well play,
His courage is full great,
And accidents to him occur,
But not much, though, of late.
This ball play is a dangerous game,
Brave knights to play it though;
Those boys would be the nation’s pride,
If they to war would go.

From Milwaukee their club did come,
With thoughts of skill at play,
But beat they was, and then went home—
Had nothing more to say.
Grand Rapids club that cricket play,
Will soon be known afar,
Much prouder do the members stand,
Like many a noble star.

Has there ever been a couplet as perfectly unpoetic as “And accidents to him occur, / But not much, though, of late”?

And lest you think maybe she was just having an off day, here’s some of “Roll on Time, Roll on.” (Note the absence of that direct-address comma—this may actually be a poem about punctual rollers.)

I was happy then as a girl could ever be,
And live on this earth here below—
I was happy as a lark and as busy as a bee,
For in fashion or in style I did not go.

My parents were poor and they could not dress me so,
For they had not got the money to spare,
And it may be better so, for I do not think fine clothes
Make a person any better than they are.

Some people are getting so they think a poor girl,
Though she be bright and intelligent and gay,
She must have nice clothes, or she is nothing in this world,
If she is not dressed in style every day.

Remember never to judge people by their clothes,
For our brave, noble Washington said,
“Honorable are rags, if a true heart they enclose,”
And I found it was the truth when I married.

You can read more of Moore here; and I’d be remiss if I forgot to include a link to Walter Blair’s impassioned, well-argued defense of Moore, written as an introduction to her collected works. “Mrs. Moore deserved a better fate,” he says. “Read without any thought of their historical setting, her songs endure the test of true literature by charming the reader. Considered against the background which made them possible, they present an interesting and vivid picture of a forgotten period in America’s past.”