memorial for a brilliant woman

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hysterical!! A poetaster's birthday!

from the Writer's Almanac by Garrison Keillor (I subscribe and get it by email every day)

It's the birthday of Julia A. Moore  born in Plainfield Township, Michigan, on this day in 1847. She grew up on a Michigan farm, dropped out of school at the age of 11, bore 10 children, and is famous for writing really bad poetry — so famous for it, in fact, that Mark Twain modeled a character after her in The Adventures of Huck Finn, and he wrote a parody of Moore's bad poetry for that character, Emmeline Grangerford, to recite.

She's sometimes referred to as a "poetaster," which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "a petty or paltry poet; a writer of poor or trashy verse; a rimester." This distinction usually entails things like the use of awkward meter, painfully sappy sentimentality, words that rhyme in an unpleasant way, or poor taste in subject matter. Other poetasters famous enough to be anthologized include J. Gordon Coogler, William McGonagall, and James McIntyre.

As for Moore, her favorite topics included abstinence, temperance, sudden death, terrible destruction, obituaries of small children, and big disasters, such as train wrecks or fires. One of her most famous poems is about the Chicago Fire. She wrote:

The great Chicago Fire, friends,
Will never be forgot;
In the history of Chicago
It will remain a darken spot.

It was a dreadful horrid sight
To see that City in flames;
But no human aid could save it,
For all skill was tried in vain.

Her first collection was published locally as The Sentimental Song Book (1876). But then a big Cleveland publisher picked it up, re-titled it The Sweet Singer of Michigan Salutes the Public, and sent out a bunch of copies to newspapers around the nation, along with a review of mock praise he'd written up. In spite of all this bad publicity, or perhaps because of it, Julia Moore's book of verse became a national best-seller, and she began to give public readings.

The readings did not go well. She was jeered off stage, and her husband, a Michigan farmer, made her promise to never publish any more poetry. She waited until her husband died, and then she published some more.

Each year in Michigan, the Flint Public Library holds a Julia A Moore poetry contest, and people have the chance to do their best imitations. In 1997, 150 years after her birth, the governor of Michigan set aside a week in her honor. A new edition of her poems was published a couple years later by Michigan State University Press, edited and introduced by Thomas J. Riedlinger; it's called Mortal Refrains: The Complete Collected Poetry, Prose, and Songs of Julia A. Moore, The Sweet Singer of Michigan (1998). She once said, "Literary is a work very hard to do."

In her poem "Sketch of Lord Byron's Life," she wrote:

"Lord Byron" was an Englishman
A poet I believe,
His first works in old England
Was poorly received.

Perhaps it was "Lord Byron's" fault
And perhaps it was not.
His life was full of misfortunes,
Ah, strange was his lot.

The character of "Lord Byron"
Was of a low degree,
Caused by his reckless conduct,
And bad company.

He sprung from an ancient house,
Noble, but poor, indeed.
His career on earth, was marred
By his own misdeeds.

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