Purple Cows

December 18, 2010 § 5 Comments

I don’t usually write about poetry, because I mostly hate it. Detest. This is probably due to extreme overexposure to the same three war poems all the way through school. The effect is a sort of long-term trauma resulting in a shudder of pure horror at the mention of the very word ‘poetry’.

The fact that I am thinking about poetry at all is the fault of Andy, who is probably off feverishly exploring about eighteen large tomes of sober brown verse as we speak. The good stuff, naturally, complete with ample soul-searching and no doubt a healthy dash of misery. I’d love to be able to ‘engage’ with serious poetry (note my accomplished use of a literary buzz-word there: feels good). Alas, I cannot.

In my world, if we’re going to do poetry at all, it really ought to be about purple cows.

It starts with this brief but famous piece from Gelett Burgess in 1895:

I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.

Followed up by the same in 1897:

Ah, yes, I wrote the “Purple Cow”—
I’m Sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I’ll Kill you if you Quote it!

Showing some small signs of frustration there. Indeed, who would ever expect an absurd four-line poem about purple cows to become widely popular?

Then came the 20s and  a whole slew of purple cow parodies, the best of which (in my opinion) are those of Carolyn Wells, parodying the style of several very famous poets including Milton, Shelley and Wordsworth. Read them here. I’m not sure whether the parody or the subject matter amuses me more. Possibly it is both: there’s a decided incongruity about elevated poetic styles applied to something so essentially nonsensical. It’s perfect.

On the topic of cleverly absurd nineteenth-century poetry, it’s also well worth mentioning that perennial favourite, Lewis Carroll, and the genius Jabberwocky. The genius is in the construction of an evocative narrative out of nonsense words that somehow ring true. Words like ‘mimsy’ and ‘tulgey’ create their own meaning – and how else would you describe a borogove anyway? Though I have never arrived at a satisfactory definition for ‘outgrabe’. Any suggestions?

My stock of good humorous poetry is on the thin side, all told, which is disappointing, so I’m going to ask for recommendations. Forget anguish: purple cows and jabberwocks are much more in my line.


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§ 5 Responses to Purple Cows

  • Kit says:

    I love the purple cows.


  • Andy says:

    I can’t say I’m an expert either, but Shel Silverstein was one of the most fun authors I read while growing up and all my friends love him. That’s the kind of whimsical poetry that’s a joy to get into.

  • […] by a certain someone’s adoration of poetry and all that is whimsy (I’m starting to really like that […]

  • Amala says:

    I had the same feelings with poetry! Secondary School conditioned me to fear and avoid them! Every Tuesday for the last two years of school held ‘Poetry Doom’ which I would whisper to my friends in a sombre voice, for giggles, before we fell asleep in the actual class.

    I am trying to change that now. Recently, I read Smokes and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman and I found out that it is possible for me to enjoy poetry. And when I thought about it, I remember enjoying poetry before Secondary School too (and if I dared to think a little more, I might say that not all the poems in school were all that bad either).

    Appreciating poetry is good practice because devices like rhythm, flow and imagery are just as important in prose.

    • Charlotte says:

      Isn’t it sad how much damage school education can sometimes do? They try so hard to instill a value for certain types of literature in we rowdy teenagers and it often fails so mightily. I think it’s the overkill that’s the problem. The seventy-fifth reading is excessively trying on something one had no natural taste for in the first place. You’re quite right, though, that poetry’s very relevant in all forms of writing and it’s unwise to ignore it altogether. I’ve no doubt there’s poetry in the world that I’d love (besides the purple cows) – just have to have the stomach to wade through and locate it! Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look out for Smoke and Mirrors.

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