Road Apples
Nov. 6, 2006

National Bad Poetry and Politics Week

By Tim Sanders

Mark Twain once said that "there is no distinctly native American criminal class except for Congress." That unfortunate quote has been repeated by journalists and pundits for nearly a century, and I believe it is both hurtful and misleading. There are literally thousands of local and state politicians throughout this great nation of ours who have never trod the halls of Congress, but yet, through diligence and sheer determination, have earned the right to be included in that distinctly American criminal class. They are the unsung heroes. They are the mayors and councilmen and judges and lieutenant governors whose names have never fallen like moist prune pits from perky Katie Couric’s pouty, pursed lips, but who have nonetheless gone above and beyond the call of duty where fraud and larceny are concerned. Without accolade or fanfare, they’ve done their part to remind us that the term "crooked politician" is only a redundancy, and "honest politician" is simply an oxymoron.

There, that is my political statement for this election week, and I will leave the rest to you. I hope you will do as I always do, go to the polls, hold your nose and vote (which is harder than you’d think, especially if you are using paper ballots and wearing gloves).

Now to business. Mark Twain knew bad politics, but he knew bad poetry even better. And since this week is National Bad Poetry Week, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit one of Twain’s favorite bad poets, Julia A. Moore. Julia Moore was born in 1847 and spent most of her life in Kent County, Michigan, about fifty miles from my hometown. She wrote a variety of really bad poems over her lifetime, but she specialized in obituary poetry. Julia, in fact, was the inspiration for Twain’s character Emmeline Grangerford in Huckleberry Finn. In her "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d." Emmeline told of a young man who fell down a well:

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit had gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.

Huck said of Emmeline, "she would slap down a line, and if she couldn’t find anything to rhyme with it she would just scratch it out and slap down another one, and go ahead. She warn’t particular, she could write about anything you choose to give her to write about, just so it was sadful."

Julia Moore warn’t particular, either. Not even about rhyming. One of my favorite Moore poems is about a young man named John Robinson who had serious lung problems. This poem contains some of the worst lines in all of literary history. Or the best, depending on what you expect from poetry:

Kind friends they thought ’twould do him good
To travel for his health;
To California he did go
With his Uncle Zera French.

Sadly, John ran out of money and got very homesick. He boarded an eastbound train, but had to ride in a smoking car to cut down on expenses. This worked out badly for him, given the toxicity of second-hand smoke. But it at least allowed Mrs. Moore an opportunity to wax eloquent:

He started to come back alone–
He came one-third the way–
One evening in the car alone
His spirit fled away.

Julia never skimped on the details which the neighbors who read her little eulogies in the local paper so desperately craved. She wrote about a little boy who drowned under a raft, a little girl who "fell in a fit" and died, a child who choked on a piece of beef, entire families wiped out by smallpox, and a variety of other pitiful personal disasters. One of her obituary poems, "Hiram Helsel," told of the passing of a fifteen-year-old, and added the following:

He was a small boy of his age,
When he was five years or so
Was shocked by lightning while to play
And it caused him not to grow.

Mrs. Moore’s first book of poetry was published in 1876. Her reviewers were unkind. The Rochester Democrat said: "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." But it made no difference to her, or to her appreciative readers. Her book became a best-seller.

Mrs. Moore actually read some of her poems (and sang others, accompanied by an orchestra) at a Grand Rapids opera house in 1877. She was met with catcalls and laughter, but convinced herself that the criticism was aimed at the orchestra. Since she had more poetry than she knew what to do with, she had another recital at that same opera house in 1878. By then she realized that the jeering at her last performance had been directed at her, not the orchestra’s string section, so this time she began by admitting "literary is a work very hard to do," and then sailed into her poetry. At the end of her performance, having endured all the slings and arrows she could handle, she told her audience: "You have come here and paid twenty-five cents to see a fool; I receive seventy-five dollars and see a whole houseful of fools."

Embarrassed by his wife’s notoriety, in 1882 Mrs. Moore’s husband, Frederick, moved the family 100 miles north, to Manton, Michigan There Fred operated a sawmill, and Julia patiently waited for him to cut an arm off, so she could write a poem eulogizing his lost limb.

But in 1914 Julia’s husband disappointed her and died in one piece, of natural causes. In 1920, the Sweet Singer of Michigan shuffled off her mortal coil. Rumor has it that she’d tried to cover all her bases by penning several versions of her own obituary, with causes of death ranging from things like runaway mule teams and faulty mine shafts to eating green corn or aspirating hard boiled eggs. But the newspapers bore no poetic tributes. We can only assume that, given the difficulty of finding rhymes for her actual cause of death, "anemia," she had nothing appropriate prepared.

Here’s all I could come up with:

On the fifth of June, Julia Moore
Passed on to her home on that heavenly shore.
Not gallstones, consumption, nor dreaded toxemia,
Did Julia in–’twas only anemia.