Desert Island Bookworm celebrates humorous poetry

Columnist Phil Clapham writes about poetry best enjoyed on a desert isle.

Editor’s Note: The Desert Island Bookworm is a semi-regular column in The Beachcomber. Happy reading over the Thanksgiving holiday!

This week my topic is poetry, specifically humorous verse (I’ll take on serious poems in another column). Heaven knows, if you find yourself stuck on a desert island with nothing but a couple of feral goats for company, you’re going to need something to laugh about.

Humorous poetry abounds and is often a delight. In this vein, I will confess to a particular love of parody. Some poems just cry out to be parodied: take Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”, which includes unbearably ponderous lines from beginning to end, not to mention a horribly paternalistic, colonial view of Native American culture. Look for George Strong’s wonderful parody of this famous poem.

One of the best volumes of parodies I’ve seen is Henry Beard’s “Poetry for Cats”, which parodies famous poems as if they were written by a cat. Beard gives us some brilliant feline humor while managing to keep remarkably close to the original. For example, he takes Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous sonnet which begins, How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. / I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight / For the ends of Being and ideal Grace… and turns it into a poem entitled “To A Vase, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cat.”

How do I break thee? Let me count the ways.

I break thee if thou art at any height

My paw can reach, when, smarting from some slight,

I sulk, or have one of my crazy days…

I break thee out of pure and simple spite

The way I broke the jar of mayonnaise.

The rest is just as good, and Beard beautifully parodies Browning’s ending – And, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death – with:

And if someone thy shards together fits

I’ll break thee once again when thou art glued.

A rare book dealer once pointed out to me that Samuel Coleridge’s poem “The Ancient Mariner” has the same rhyming scheme as Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, making the two works delightfully interchangeable. The Jabberwock, whose eye is bright, whose beard with age is hoar… O hast thou slain the Mariner? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! You get the idea.

A lot of humorous poetry is written with children in mind, whether as audiences or subjects. Hillaire Belloc (1870-1953) wrote a whole series of poems called “Cautionary Tales.”

The subjects of many of these are children who do things that annoy adults, and who come to dreadful ends as a result. Examples include “Rebecca: Who Slammed Doors For Fun And Perished Miserably;” “George: Who played with a Dangerous Toy, and suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions;” and “Henry King: Who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful agonies.”

They’re macabre but clever, and very fun to read. One of my favorites, entitled “Jim: Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion,” ends with this admonition to children:

So always keep a-hold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse.

(“Nurse”, by the way, was the older English term for “nanny.” )

Of all American poets, perhaps Ogden Nash is the one who manages to make us laugh with even very short poems like this little gem:

A primal termite knocked on wood,

And tasted it, and found it good;

And that is why your cousin May

Fell through the parlor floor today.

Or this sage advice, entitled “A Reflection On Babies:”

A bit of talcum

Is always walcum.

And of course there’s Nash’s famous pithy adage about alcohol:

Candy is dandy

But liquor is quicker.

Lastly, no discussion of humorous poetry would be complete without mention of the notorious Scotsman William Gonnagall, widely revered as the world’s unequivocally worst poet (at least in English). With his terrible rhymes, laughably lofty subjects and his unending attempts to cram as many words as possible into a tortured rhythm scheme, McGonnagall is so spectacularly bad that he’s actually worth reading.

An amused Scottish newspaper editor published one of his early poems as a joke; unfortunately, McGonnagall took this as an affirmation of his talents and proceeded to unleash upon the world a torrent of truly and memorably awful verse. You’ll get a taste of his twisted genius from a poem mourning the Tay Bridge disaster, when in 1879 a railway bridge over the River Tay in Scotland collapsed in a gale, taking with it a Dundee-bound train. This long and singularly dreadful poem begins thus:

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 will be remember’d for a very long time.

And ends with this appropriately solemn summary:

I must now 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 do build,

The less chance we have of being killed.

Well, it’s hard to argue with that.

Which books would you take to a desert island, and why? Email me at

Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist and writer who lives on Maury Island. His new novel “Jack”, a romantic comedy narrated by a dog who lives with a professional dominatrix, is available on Amazon under his pseudonym, Phillip Boleyn.