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Execrable Poems

I learned from the "Guardian" (UK) that the long reigning champion in the search for the world's worst poem, William McGonagall, whose opus on the Tay Bridge Disaster ends with the risibly horrible lines "And the cry rang out all o'er the town/Good Heavens! The Tay bridge is blown/ down" is now being challenged by the nomination of another nineteenth century bard, the Brussels born Theophile Jules-Henri Marzials whose commemoration of another aquatic disaster involving runaway barges ends: "Drop/Dead/ Plop,flop.Plop." I could not help but think that a third nineteenth century poem on matters maritime, "The Wreck of the Deutschland" was turned down by the Jesuit editors of "The Month" because they could not make heads nor tails of it. If there is a moral to this story it might be something like this: take courage you poets. All that stuff editors turn down may turn out to be works of genius while the things that do get published may be the stuff of ridicule in the distant future. And a final admonition: do not feel compelled (indeed, resist the urge) , dear fellow bloggers, to share your own Parnassian inspired works with us.

About the Author

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.



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I think this is a good place to put in a plug for the short poems that appear in Commonweal. There was an especially nice one a while back about an elderly deaf dog, whose ear had become attuned to something other-worldly. After I'm done getting worked up over the articles, I go back a week or so later and read the poems. They provide a kind of meditative counterpoint to the immediacy of the prose.Most poetry after 1950 (Commonweal poets excepted, of course) strikes me as confessional self-gratification or commercialized sentiment. No thank you, Sylvia Plath and Leonard Cohen.Though I have to say I am a fan of the "poetic vendetta" form, because it is (unintentionally) hilarious. Bob Dylan's "LIke a Rolling Stone" is a classic example of relentless kvetching which never fails to make me laugh out loud.

Poor Father Hopkins! Not only did my Jesuit brother have to deal with the shortsighted editors at "The Month," but he also had one of the worst best friends in history, Robert Bridges. (Bridges, who said about "The Wreck of the Deutschland," that he wished that those nuns had stayed home.) By the way, Ron Hansen is coming out with a new novel on Hopkins and "Deutschland," and Paul Mariani is doing a big bio of GHM, so stay tuned.But he's not the only one that has been overlooked by blinkered but well-meaning Jesuits. Some time soon America be running a piece on how the magazine panned, among other books, "The Great Gatsby," On the Road," and "Catcher in the Rye." It's always a treat reading reviews of unforgettable books by reviewers who are now largely forgotten.

Clerihew in honor of GMHGerald Manley HopkinsGave up gelt and popkinsAnd his parents weren't pleasedWhen he became a Catholic priest.There, Fr. Imbelli, another terrible ending. (I love crazy rhymes. Can't help myself. God made me that way.)

I am writing this in my front room in Stratford, London E15, just around the corner from where Hopkins was born and across the road from the church where the Deutschland nuns bodies were received. The nuns are buried in the same cemetry as my dad - St Patrick's, Leytonstone. Our local library has a Hopkins room and a small memorial outside. These days Stratford is a place of refuge for so many - my children are in a local school which boasts children speaking 40 different languages, many of them having arrived as refugees - resonance there with the experience of the German nuns fleeing the Kulturkampf.Good to have the news about the Ron Hansen novel. I remember enjoying Mariette in Ecstasy.

Take courage James, the Jesuits recovered and had Catcher in the Rye as a required book in their MA in fine arts at Fordham only a few years after the book was written. A priest who received his MA from that same program introduced the book to us in the seminary. Quite a jarring book, especially in those days. But one had to love Holden Caulfield in the end. Every actor in Hollywood still wants to play him but J.D. will not allow it.

If it wasn't entirely off-topic, I'd say that America was right about panning "Catcher in the Rye." When I read it as a teenager it seemed to me that it was written by an adult trying (unsuccessfully) to capture the angst of a hypersensitive and not-very-bright adolescent boy.

I'm hesitant to bring this up, but how has Whitman's reputation been faring lately?

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