Friday, November 19, 2010


A few evenings ago, the great Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel gave a recital at Carnegie Hall. He opened the second half of the program with a presentation of several songs from the plays of Shakespeare set to music by the twentieth-century British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). These songs contain such brilliant lines as:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun;

Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney sweepers come to dust;

Journeys end in lovers’ meeting;

What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;

Sweet lovers love the spring;

Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness;
And, being helped, inhabits there.
After a set of songs (Chansons de Don Quichotte) by Jacques Ibert, Terfel devoted the rest of the program to a dedication to another great singer of Welsh ancestry. (Who said, “Charlotte Church”? Go stand in the corner!). John Charles Thomas (1891-1960), American-born son of a Methodist minister of Welsh descent, was a renowned musical stage, operatic, and radio star for almost four decades. Many composers arranged poems and texts for Thomas to perform, and the first of them that Terfel sang received a more rapturous welcome than the Shakespeare cycle. It was an arrangement of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.”

Like most people, I guess, before Terfel’s rendition I knew only the first (“I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree”) and last (“Poems are written by fools like me,/ But only God can make a tree”) couplets—and I always thought that “Trees” is crap. After hearing the full text, I know the poem is crap.


So I got to thinking: What is the crappiest famous poem?

Among the crappiest lines of poetry are these attributed to (but perhaps not written by) Alfred Austin, a future British Poet Laureate, upon the serious illness in 1871 of the then Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII):

Along the wires, the electric message came,
"He is no better, he is much the same."
Awful, but merely a single couplet, so it can’t compete for the title of crappiest famous poem.

For a corpus of awful poetry no-one can beat the oeuvre of Scotsman William McGonagall. His most famous work, “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” was occasioned by the collapse of that railway bridge in 1879. It begins:

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv'ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which shall be remembered for a very long time.

And ends:

Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv'ry Tay
I now must conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay
That your central girders would not have given way
At least many sensible men do say
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses
At least many sensible men confesses
For the stronger we our houses build
The less chance we have of being killed.

Still, chauvinistically, I am going to hold out for the American, Kilmer. Because of McGonagall’s erratic meter, eccentrically-varying lengths of lines, and forced rhymes, undoubtedly even the Carnegie Hall audience would recognize “The Tay Bridge Disaster” as indeed a disaster. But while that poem is famous as a crappy poem, how many people can actually quote from memory any of its lines? “Trees,” on the other hand, has a celebrityship about it. It is famous for being famous; it is easily remembered and widely quoted, and instantly recognizable. It has the attributes that now-grown-ups thought verse should have when they tried to write “Poetry” in high school; such as, the strait-jacket of a strict iambic tetrameter (contrast the variations in stress in Shakespeare’s verse above), and end-stopped couplets with trite rhymes.

Beyond those flaws, “Trees” does not even sustain a coherent analogy. Here are the lines that fall in the middle of the poem (and probably no-one can quote):

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
A tree, then, is like a babe at the breast of Mother Earth. OK—but what orifice does the tree have that is analogous to the child’s mouth? The tree gets its nutrition through its roots, which are totally un-mouth-like. Besides, a tree is implanted in soil not the liquid implied in “flowing breast.” So, the lips are pressed to the ground, but a nest rests hat-like on the top of the tree (the “hair”). Er, how even the greatest contortionist could manage that is beyond me. But wait! What’s between the “hungry lips” on the ground and the nest on the hair? The “bosom” (i.e., the trunk).

But even if we ignore the clip-clop meter and the beyond-Cubist anatomy lesson, there is the vapid religiosity of the poem, culminating (after the false humility of “fools like me”) in the childishness of the well-known last line (“But only God can make a tree”).

It is only fitting that New Jersey has memorialized Kilmer by naming a rest area on the Turnpike after him. The idling tractor-trailers in the parking lot, belching diesel fumes into the atmosphere, are just an alternate form of pollution.

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