Archive for April, 2014

April 29th: Happy Everybody-Wants-a-Piece-of-Me Day!

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

According to his flight logs, on April 29, 1927 Charles A. Lindbergh flew three test runs in the newly-constructed Spirit of St. Louis in preparation for the first non-stop transcontinental flight from New York to Paris. The plane took a bit of a beating during its historic flight, and the damage didn’t end when it put down at Le Bourget Aerodrome, according to Lindbergh’s entry: “Fuselage fabric badly torn by souvenir hunters.”

Bad Poetry Month – Poems by US Presidents

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

This April on the PhLog, we’re celebrating Bad Poetry Month.

Today’s entry celebrates the poetry and the “poetry” of U.S. Presidents.

From George Washington to Barack Obama, many of our presidents have written poetry. And most of them weren’t very good at it.

Thanks to the Library of Congress, you can read some of these poems online.

All the world may love a lover, but it’s tough to love the love poems of a young George Washington:

From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone;
Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day,
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so Young, you’l Find
Ah! woe’s me that I should Love and conceal,
Long have I wish’d, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Loves Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great, was’t free from Cupids Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart.

Although it’s possible that, like young Washington’s “Rules of Civility,” this not-so-great poem was actually copied by Washington from a (now lost) book. In that case, we are disappointed less in his skills than in his taste.


George Washington: an original leader, not an original poet.

The young James Madison mixed his poetry with his politics in this screed against the Tories:

A poem against the Tories

Of late our muse keen satire drew
And humourous thoughts in vollies flew
Because we took our foes for men
Who might deserve a decent pen
A gross mistake with brutes we fight
And [goblins?] from the realms of night
Where Spring & Craig lay down their heads
Sometimes a goat steps on the pump
Which animates old Warford’s trunk
Sometimes a poisonous toad appears
Which Eckley’s yellows carcuss bears
And then to grace us with a bull
Forsooth they show McOrkles skull
And that the Ass may not escape
He take the poet Laureat’s shape
The screech owl too comes in the train
Which leap’d from Alexander’s brain
Just as he scratch’d his grisly head
Which people say is made of lead.
Come noble whigs, disdain these sons
Of screech owls, monkeys, & baboons
Keep up you[r] minds to humourous themes
And verdant meads & flowing streams
Untill this tribe of dunces find
The baseness of their grovelling mind
And skulk within their dens together
Where each ones stench will kill his brother;


James Madison: Politics trumps Poetry.

As is obvious from this poem, Madison was destined for a life of politics rather than a life of letters. And let’s face it – a phrase like “Come noble whigs, disdain these sons / Of screech owls, monkeys, & baboons” is pretty good politics.

Abraham Lincoln wrote tortured love poetry, doggerel, and even made some attempts at literary poetry. Sure, it’s overblown in that 19th century way, with words like “twixt” and “ling’ring” and “hallowed,” but you get the sense that he spent some time on it and took his writing seriously. Lincoln was a great lover of literature and that love continued throughout his life long after his poetical days were over.

As with most of us, Lincoln’s teenage scribbles are most entertaining. For example, these lines would be right at home in any yearbook today:

Abraham Lincoln is my nam[e]
And with my pen I wrote the same

I wrote in both hast and speed

and left it here for fools to read.


Lincoln: Literary Man.

Jimmy Carter has had a lot of time on his hands since leaving the White House and the book of poems he’s written is the work of a man with empty hours to fill. Harold Bloom called him “literally the worst poet in the United States.” That sounds a little harsh to us, but you can be the judge:

Certainly the NY Times wasn’t a fan.  They even compared the lameness of his verse with the lameness of his leadership. Ouch!

Barack Obama wrote, and even published, some poetry, long before he was running for President.

They’re actually not bad. You get a sense that if he wanted to do that kind of thing he could get pretty good at it. When it’s his turn to have some time on his hands in a few years, maybe that’ll end up being his true calling.


Obama: Future poet?

April 22: Don’t-Blink-or-You’ll-Miss-It Day!

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

April 22, 1056 was the last day the Crab Nebula was visible to the naked eye.

Two years earlier, Chinese and Arabian astronomers had recorded a supernova in the constellation Taurus; the Crab Nebula is the remnants of the supernova. When a massive star collapsed and then heated to such incredibly high temperatures that it exploded, not only could you see it without a telescope – for two years, you could see it in broad daylight.

The Crab Nebula, known as “M1” to scientists, can be found only in the night sky today – but only with the aid of a telescope.


Bad Poetry Month – Celebrities

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

This National Poetry Month, we’re celebrating the neglected work of bad poets.

This post is a bit of an exception to the neglected part – it features people who have no problem getting their poetry out there: celebrities.

Ah, celebrities. Some of them have talent, but when they overreach into poetry, they almost always fall flat, just as often as when they try to branch out into music.

To make things worse, it’s clear that celebrities, regardless of any writing talent or hard work, are able to get their poetry published merely because they are famous, whereas hundreds of decent and mediocre non-famous poets have a much harder time getting their work out there in the world.

The volume of poetry by TV celebrity Suzanne Somers titled “Touch Me” is a legendary celebrity poetry flop. Reviews on Amazon testify to how much people continue to enjoy making fun of it to this day.

Jimmy Stewart’s poetry is just what you’d expect from the man. Playful, straightforward, simple, and just awful. Here’s an example from his poem “The Aberdares!”:

The North Pole’s rather chilly.
Those who’ve been there all will tell
There’s lots of snow and lots of ice
And lots of wind as well.

An iceberg’s really never warm
And takes a while to melt.
A snowball’s not the hottest thing
That I have ever felt.

Here’s a video of him reading a poem about his dog. On national television. What non-celebrities-turned-poets-poets get a crack at that? It’s enough to make a man tear up.

Actress Ally Sheedy was widely lampooned for her post-recovery book of poems “Yesterday I Saw the Sun” back in 1991. Poor Sheedy had a lot going against her. Her career was on the wane when she published this book, its self-indulgent examination of her personal problems was just asking for a backlash, and the fact that Sheedy’s mother was a high-powered literary agent who represented her and helped get the book published pegged it as a vanity project, even more than your standard celebrity-using-his-or-her-celebrity-to-get-a-book-published.

Leonard Nimoy has written not one, but SEVEN volumes of poetry, with titles such as “We Are All Children Searching For Love,” “Come be With Me,” and “Warmed by Love.” They are certainly earnest and, as the titles suggest, warm-hearted. That doesn’t mean that they are great.

Here’s video of him reciting his poem “A Tree of Us”:

More recently, celebrity James Franco has done his best to appear “deep” by writing poetry. As part of his massive PR push to be seen as an artist and intellectual, it’s only natural that poetry is on his checklist. And, being James Franco, it’s only natural that his poems are bad. Here’s a sample of some of them:

Franco on Obama

Franco on LA

Franco on turning 35

This is just the tip of the iceberg of course (and that is never really warm). Recent years have also brought us the poetry of Britney Spears, Pamela Anderson, Sean Penn, Jewel, Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Aniston, Charlie Sheen, Kate Moss, Rosie O’Donnell… and that’s just a small selection. We guess writing a few poems is easier for these guys than writing a novel. Because poetry is easy, right? It certainly is the way celebrities do it.

April 15th: Happy Use-Your-Words Day!

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

On April 15, 1755 Samuel Johnson published “A Dictionary of the English Language” and our vocabularies have not been the same since. Dr. Johnson worked for nine years on his compendium of nearly 43,000 words. Once it was published, he received no further royalties or payments, which Johnson must have thought was utter ordure.

You could look it up.

April 8th: Happy We-Don’t-Know-What-We’re-Missing Day!

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

What is wrong with people anyway?

Granted, there’s no accounting for taste and to each her own and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but who the heck loses track of the Venus de Milo?

At some point, the statue ended up in a cave near a subterranean theater on the island of Melos. Maybe someone hid it there to keep it from being carted away by marauders. Maybe it was stolen and kept under wraps by the perp.

In any event, there we were: on April 8, 1820, a farmer on Melos found it, the Turkish authorities confiscated it, the French ambassador bought it, and Louis XVIII sent it to the Louvre, where Venus stands right this minute.

Still. She could be dismantled and moldering in a cavern and we wouldn’t even know what we’re missing. And there could be countless works of such elegance, beauty, and accomplishment buried, hidden, forgotten, and spoilt.

Really. Who loses the Venus de Milo? If someone can do that then they can lose anything.

Now all we can think is this: we don’t even know what we’re missing.

The Venus de Milo. What else are we missing?

Bad Poetry Month – Fitz-Greene Halleck

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Today’s entry is dedicated to a once-famous poet whose work has not stood the test of time: Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867).

Halleck, called the “American Byron,” was immensely popular in his day and was known for his wit and charm. He was perhaps more famous for being famous than he was for his actual poetry. He hobnobbed with the famous people of his day, and was personal secretary to John Jacob Astor.


Yes even in his time, praise wasn’t universal for Halleck’s poetry. His most popular poem “Fanny” is a masterpiece of missed rhymes: “eyes” with “price,” “table” with “Babel,” and many, many more. Edgar Allen Poe wrote about “Fanny,” that “to uncultivated ears… [it is] endurable, but to the practiced versifier it is little less than torture.”

But Halleck had friends and admirers in high places. In 1877, ten years after his death (his last words by the way, were the poetical “Marie, hand me my pantaloons, if you please”), Halleck became the only American writer to be commemorated with a statue in Central Park’s Literary Walk. He sits there today in the company of the likes of Robert Burns and William Shakespeare. President Rutherford B. Hayes dedicated the statue, and his entire cabinet was in attendance, along with as many as 10,000 other people. Two legacies of that event: gatherings of that size were outlawed in Central Park, and requirements for determining the subjects of statues became more stringent.


In the end, one could argue that Fitz-Green Halleck’s work isn’t really that terrible. And that may be true. So instead, let’s celebrate his mediocrity and the knowledge that worldly fame is no substitute for lasting work, or else worldly fame is great until you’re dead and then it’s somebody else’s problem.

Bad Poetry Month – William Topaz McGonagall

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

April is National Poetry Month! All month long, the country will be celebrating the art of poetry.

But we at UPG would like to focus on a neglected type of poetry: the not-so-good kind.

Our first entry is about the poet considered to be one of the world’s worst. But here’s the thing: he would not be considered to be bad if he were not published and noticed. Yes, in order to be known as a failure, he first had to have a modicum of success!

Scottish weaver William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902) was inspired to become a poet in his 50s. He wrote more than 200 poems, plus numerous autobiographical sketches. And it was all awful. Yet he was absolutely inspirational: no matter how badly his work was received, McGonagall was utterly, stubbornly, unswervingly convinced of his genius. That’s admirable self-confidence for you!


William Topaz McGonagall: Bad Poet

However, like even the most lauded of artists, he was alone. People used to actually pay McGonagall to read his poems publically so that audiences could laugh at him and pelt him with vegetables. McGonagall didn’t know how to take a hint. Those crowds jeering him and pelting him with vegetables? He thought they loved him. And when the readings grew too rowdy and were canceled by the authorities, McGonagall wrote a poem of protest, decrying censorship. Here’s an excerpt:

Fellow citizens of Bonnie Dundee
Are ye aware how the magistrates have treated me?
Nay, do not stare or make a fuss
When I tell ye they have boycotted me from appearing in Royal Circus,
Which in my opinion is a great shame,
And a dishonour to the city’s name. […]

When McGonagall wrote to Queen Victoria asking for her patronage and received a rejection letter written by a functionary, he took it as a sign of praise and henceforth referred to himself as “The Queen’s Poet.”

McGonagall continued to suck up to power, but any artist is in an awkward and dependent position when seeking patronage (read his ode to King Edward VII here).

He was also public-minded and covered dramatic events of his time such as criminal cases, shipwrecks and other disasters, etc.

McGonagall’s scanning is rough. There are extra syllables. Sometimes a lot of extra syllables. It could happen to anybody.

His imagery will bring you to tears for one reason or another. His vocabulary is not overly expansive. The words at the end of a line will land on a word that either rhymes or nearly rhymes (and all of his poems give rhyming a try). His subject matter is close to home (his home) and never seeks attention by being flashy or showy or beautiful in any way. All of this combines to make McGonagall’s work a masterpiece of effortless (some would say unintentional) humor.

A doctor once told McGonagall that he had a disease to get him to stop writing poems, but McGonagall bravely wrote on, as if he were completely oblivious to his own mortality.

In honor of Bad Poetry Month, here is McGonagall’s poetical response to his doctor:

A Tribute to Dr. Murison

Success to the good and skilful Dr Murison,
For golden opinions he has won
From his patients one and all,
And from myself, McGonagall.
He is very skilful and void of pride;
He was so to me when at my bedside,
When I turned badly on the 25th of July,
And was ill with inflammation, and like to die.
He told me at once what was ailing me;
He said I had been writing too much poetry,
And from writing poetry I would have to refrain,
Because I was suffering from inflammation on the brain.
And he has been very good to me in my distress,
Good people of Dundee, I honestly confess,
And to all his patients as well as me
Within the Royal city of Dundee.
He is worthy of the public’s support,
And to his shop they should resort
To get his advice one and all;
Believe me on him ye ought to call.
He is very affable in temper and a skilful man,
And to cure all his patients he tries all he can;
And I wish him success for many a long day,
For he has saved me from dying, I venture to say;
The kind treatment I received surpasses all
Is the honest confession of McGonagall.

For more on McGonagall, there’s a lovely website dedicated to the man and his legacy.

April 1st: Happy Discovery-Undiscovery-Discovery Day!

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

On beaches and in fields and deserts far and near, guys in big shorts sweep metal detectors over the sand in order to find lost valuables and relics from the past. These guys make amazing discoveries and they also discard valuable artifacts without realizing it.

In 1593 a count ordered a new channel dug on his property and the workers discovered the ruins of ancient buildings of Pompeii! However, when an architect read an inscription on ruined buildings that mentioned Pompeii, he thought it referred to Roman general Pompey and not the lost city. The discovery went back to being undiscovered.

In 1709 some workers digging a well at a monastery uncovered the marble seats of Pompeii’s theater, but when nobody unearthed any valuables, the dig was abandoned a few years later.

On the first of April, 1748, an engineer named Alcubierre presided over a new dig that lead to the discovery of a skeleton clutching valuables; evidently, he did not flee the city as soon as the ash began to fall.

Over and over again, people discovered Pompeii and then undiscovered it – usually because they were more interested in treasure than relics of the past.