ON doggerel

(Tone & the signals of intention: two forms of doggerel)

The two poems on which I’ll be writing were submitted this Easter to Oxford Poetry at Magdalen College: one (‘DOSSING DOWN WITH DEATH AGAIN / ASKED THE DRIFTERS FROM DISASTER’ by Robert Mills), inside a book-length manuscript with a ‘Volume the Second’ accompanying it, for publication in the journal, and the other (‘Jemima’ by Marian Blythell) in a book for review. I will be assuming they are both doggerel, and would be recognised as such by students of literature, but will not argue the classification, for this is not an exercise in evaluation except insofar as its necessary basis is the evaluation, pretty well instinctive, of the poems as bad. My ambition will rather be to show how two distinct modes of badness, ‘funny-bad’ and ‘bad-bad’, express and signal themselves by language, and how they are largely distinguishable by tone, which is:

A particular style in discourse or writing, which expresses the person's sentiment or reveals his character; also spec[ifically] in literary criticism, an author’s attitude to his subject matter or audience; the distinctive mood created by this. [OED sense 5. d.]

Relevant particularly to my thesis are ‘expresses the person’s sentiment’ and ‘author’s attitude’, because as I see it the way in which a poem is bad—the class of doggerel to which it belongs—is a function of the poet’s intention, or ‘the self-impression of her writing’, as indicated by her language.

‘Jemima’ is funny-bad; ‘DOSSING DOWN’is bad-bad. (While the phrase ‘so bad it’s funny’ comes originally from discourse about popular cinema, it is as easily used for poetry.) Here’s another example by Blythell, to help define the word:


There was a young woman called Val,
Who was an extraordinary gal.
Her athletic prowess
Put the stars in a mess,
And her muscles were considered marvellous.

(Val died 16th May 2006 –
she was my best friend at school.)

Pound, a good poet, parodied this kind of effect in ‘The Bath Tub’, from Lustra:

As a bathtub lined with white porcelain,
When the hot water gives out or goes tepid,
So is the slow cooling of our chivalrous passion,
O my much praised but-not-altogether-satisfactory lady.

But where Pound’s bathos is a product of craft, Blythell’s comes about by lack of it. How do we know? The difference lies not simply in the facts that Pound is Ezra Pound, famous modernist, or that his title is a knowing pun, for his poem has features of poetic craft aside from its success as bathos: listen to that carefully spaced assonantal pattern, from ‘goes’ to ‘so’ and ‘slow’ to ‘O’, and compare with Blythell’s metrical confusions, by which ‘Put the’ has to be mumbled if pronounced (she should have omitted ‘the’), her second line is too obviously a fluffed cushion supporting the one amenable rhyme for ‘Val’, and the fifth fails completely. His null phrase ‘gives out’ notwithstanding, there is guile in Pound; Blythell is guileless. She has commemorated her ‘best friend at school’ with a limerick.

What’s funny, then, is Blythell’s marrying of light matter in light form, and ineptly done, with the genre of epitaph. Presumably she chose, in remembering Val, to celebrate happy achievement, and not to elegise. That she used such matter in such form shows her intention was not glum, sad, or even serious—though I would not call her insincere. If it were evident she had been trying to accomplish more than a limerick about her friend’s athletic prowess, and had foundered in the same respects, with the same unselfconscious artlessness, lapses of metre, bathetic focus on banal detail (the muscles), and subtle bizarreness (‘considered marvellous’? by whom? is this another defective rhyme-word?) her poem would not be funny, it would be abject. Moreover if such a poem gave the impression of its author having tried, we would have judged it harsher. And ‘judged’ is right: the poem’s appearance of relaxed intention, its ‘tone’ of levity, is absolving in two senses. First, it absolves the poem of what’s unintended (the technically disastrous fifth line, for example) and second, it silently withdraws the poem from comparison with those which are good. Rather than having to come last in the race, it sits on the sidelines, not even cheering—not even watching.

It’s far easier to define the form of doggerel exemplified by ‘DOSSING DOWN’. This is the poem whose signalled intention is to be important, to be good enough that we do not regret paying attention to it, to be, as are so few, worthwhile. This is the poem whose intention is not fulfilled, but whose unfulfilment is clear in every line. These do not make fun reading, except when they say funny things:


Her face is an angled overture of dead fucking;
Her eyes have the sheen of lubricating gel;
Her breasts are cold and pointed under dark clothes;
Pubic mound and buttocks assert like rising, sluicing whales.

The fact that Robert Mills has thought this, written it down, rhymed it, and sent it off with the hope that it get published is amusing, yes, but with two more stanzas of it, ending on, ‘Brain, mind, are no different in orgasm or when she pisses; / Her marble turds are the fragmentation of polyester civilisation’, your amusement quickly pales.

I want to wake up in your arms;
I want to lick your flesh in all sexual charms;
I want to go in fluid ecstasy to your womb
And merge alive from our joyless mutual mental tomb.
You you glorious angelic big bitch
Belong to and love another in this appalling life itch!

Whether you find this funny or depressing (certainly a bookful would give anyone headaches) is subjective; we can all agree, however, that it’s bad. What right has such verse to judge life appalling? If he had confined himself to horny rants, Mills would have earned the absolving influence of our laughter, but he writes often as though he held the serious belief that people ought to listen, and so, when he writes badly, since he’s demanding our attentive judgement, he is nakedly bad.

I watched mental wine drown the sky

Jemima stole from her best mate –

Immediately it’s clear Blythell is telling a story; she confirms the smallness of her ambition with a homely colloquialism, ‘best mate’, which also works for Jemima (analogously to free indirect speech) as appropriated diction. In Mills, carrying on the style of the title, there is thick alliteration—a heavy play on the n consonant, a strong correspondence between ‘watched’ and ‘wine’—there is pseudo-Audenesque reduction of the celestial to the malleable and palpable, and in ‘mental wine’ there is what was potentially a surprising juxtaposition deprived of that quality by strangeness and nonsense. In other words, Mills’ line bears the watermark of good poetry: you can just see where beauty might have taken root, but there is no colour or strength, only the outline of what is wanting. Unfortunately this means the line sinks to pretension, in that it appears the poet intended great things for it, and perhaps thought he’d pulled them off, but to readers the signals of intention, betokening a tone of self-importance, will be all that subsist there. Here is a snatch of successful poetry:

To find out that, good shepherd, I suppose,
In such a scant allowance of starlight,
Would overtask the best land-pilot’s art

While it would feel absurd to set Blythell against these words, of Mills’ watermark they are the gorgeous obverse, rich with vibrant expression and exact imagination where Mills has only the grey lines of failure.

I watched mental wine drown the sky
And champagne rage choke the horizon:
I sensed the skull slick with icy, pretty poison
And the better sense of being battered to want to die!
I stood up angry and crazy with vertical doom to lie:
I was my own black midnight beach of revelation
Armageddonically frustrated: one man apocalypse institution:
My breath crushed mind and bloody was my sigh…

Jemima stole from her best mate –
It very nearly sealed her fate.
A pile of coins, some jewellery too,
Her poor young friend didn’t have a clue!

She took her gloves, she pinched her hat,
She almost stole Iona’s hat.
But the feline pal let out a wail,
Jemima, yes, let go of her tail!

Blythell’s verse is not wholly in want of craft: the line ‘She almost stole Iona’s hat’ is perfect, like ‘Her athletic prowess’ in the limerick. Many more lines are peculiarly clumsy, though, so that, if you believe light verse demands regularity, her attempt to write in such form looks less an act of hubris than a noble misstep. Her flaws of metre (‘from her’, ‘friend didn’t have’, ‘But the’), and the contortions she will tolerate to bung in a desired rhyme-word, by dint of their suggestion of guilelessness, may be seen as cheery imperfections; Mills, with his strained, metrically dead abba, evinces guile gone wrong. But why can’t we say simply that the two poets write on about the same level of incompetence, and that the substance of the ‘two forms’ distinction is really to be found in the matter of which they treat? The point is good, but critics are naïve who take matter to bespeak intention, for if, say, I write about cows, my style may indicate I want them to act as allegory for state idiocy, or for antivivisectionism, but never the plain fact I’ve written about cows. There is no reason why bad writing about death, Armageddonic frustration and disaster could not have been funny if it appeared unseriously intended, like Blythell’s on theft; it is Mills’ style which signals his seriousness about—and prejudices readers against—this manner of egotistic doomsaying.

To move back to the texts, I want now to ask exactly what about those eight lines of Mills determines their status as ‘bad’ doggerel. I won’t bring in the concept of aural bad taste (‘skull slick’), which is too numinous for quasi-linguistic analysis to admit, but I will at least point out that most words in Mills seem to have been selected primarily for their consonant potential. ‘champagne’ and ‘rage’ clang together without making a very striking formulation for angry drunkenness, because of all drinks we are least likely to get drunk on champagne, and those who do are then almost as unlikely to feel it choking the horizon, or drowning the sky (two different things, as ‘champagne’ is elegant variation for ‘wine’). The poem has alliterative style which again and again makes compromises of sense for its scattershot sound effects, as the rhymes are contrived and perch on the edges of lines warped beyond rhythmic or grammatical coherence to allow their place. In ‘bloody was my sigh’ Mills has tried a verb-adjective reversal, which can work, and be resonant, but here is a mark at once of grandiose intention and technical inability, while also making thin sense (coughing blood, yes, but to sigh it?). That blundering coinage ‘Armageddonically’because poets coin words, don’t they?signs the warrant. Mills wants to tell us in thundrous metaphor he’s a dark ‘beach of revelation’, frustrated somehow in a way that is like Armageddon, and wants in elucidation to allude by language to the Bible (as Blythell falls to Biblical style in ‘She rued she had a wicked way’), which seem to him serious intentions, except their elements are piled together with the grace of a fat ballerina, becoming finally like the lunatic shouting of an echatologist tramp. You needn’t sound drunk to write drunkenness; you needn’t sound angry, far less inform us you’re a ‘one man apocalypse institution’ (note catachresis), to deal with anger.

What remains is to talk about how each form of doggerel ends. Mills again signals a self-important intention by clotted sound-texture (every line-end half-rhymes with the other; alliteration still rife), recklessly excessive vocabulary, which leads to tautology (‘waved and writhed’) or overstatement, and acquaintance with lifeless oxymoron—of language (‘literally symbolically’) and of thought (‘Christ waltzed with Rasputin; all demonic divines danced’). Whatever is imagined here is obscured utterly by an avalanche of verbiage:

An abstract sea of cosmetic dread literally symbolically heaved
An[d] on that surreal shore happy dread phantoms waved and writhed.
Be a holy murderer or be the holy murdered
They advised dossed down with death and from disaster drifted.
Christ waltzed with Rasputin; all demonic divines danced:
Mental wine smothered granite clouds. Champagne rage had not lifted.
‘granite clouds’ is Mills’ best phrase, though it’s lost in the cacophony of ending, where the assumption that if (in ending) one repeats what one started with, the result cannot fail to be profound, is clearly enacted and, as clearly, shown false. This is Mills’ last signal of serious intention: it proves the tone of portentousness, and its failure to do anything more than emphasise the poem’s distance from the serious, its failure to be for us what it was for Mills, seals the designation of the poem as ‘bad’ doggerel. In contrast, Blythell:

One week later, I have to say,
She rued she had a wicked way.
Confession spilled out in Iona’s ear:
“I’ll not steal again from you, my dear!”

Iona caught her by the throat:
“Give me back my best blue coat!”
Jemima gulped, she was a lout,
Her heart then stopped and time ran out.

I laughed when I first read this ending. I still don’t understand it, unless incredibly as crude morality tale against stealing. (Perhaps the poem rewrites an apologue I’ve never heard.) ‘I have to say’ is blather like Chaucer’s ‘soth to seyne’. Line eleven is farcically overladen with stresses. But it’s the clinching couplet that signals conclusively Blythell’s modesty of intention—her saving ingenuousness—for Jemima’s death is so sudden, written so hastily, it seems improvised (‘Her heart then stopped’, as if this was a matter of course), and a pretty well random way to wrap up—even as though it was contrived to suit the rhyme-scheme. And why ‘time ran out’? Is this a sly bit of poetic self-reference, or a swift profundity about the nature of our universe? The way these last words are brazenly irrelevant, ‘tacked on’ like a ragged piece of collage, must surely be a consequence of artlessness: the intention it signals is lack of much intention, uncertainty about where to go and what to do with the poem, which is responsible for the lines’ uncertain tone, their strangely blasé approach to death and that rushed, wholly unconvincing moral. It is this tranquil omission to impress itself on us, this composure of intention, which absolves the poem of its weakness, making it cause for laughter.

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