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Newspapers, Doggerel, and the State of the World
Poem: It's War, Boys, It's War

2003-03-17

ere we are on the eve of war. This is not a war I want, which puts me in good company, as this is not a war wanted by most of the world, including, in what must be the most underreported story of the century, the President's father. I had not planned to write about this subject here, although it is one that knocks very seriously and somberly around in my brainpan. After all, the Internet is abuzz with the subject of war, and there are Weblogs by skilled journalists who can say what needs saying better than this sorry poet and flippant arts critic ever could. But I was prompted by something today that made me want to write just a few paragraphs about the subject.

I decided to post all my Tom Hopper stories today. For those of you who don't know, Tom Hopper is a character I write about infrequently, loosely inspired by Don Marquis' Archy and Mehitabel stories. Tom Hopper is a cat who, as the result of an accident when younger, lost one of his forepaws. He has retired to a quiet life in the New York Public Library, hiding during the day and writing poems during the night, occasionally catching and killing one of the other animals that inhabits the library. As I posted these stories, I reread one of my favorites, titled "jimmy the shrew," which tells of a malicious rodent that terrorizes the library. As I read, I came across these lines:

the shrew enters the room, his cruel face twisted
into a hideous grin. he stares at the grasshopper
for a moment, and the grasshopper raises his
matchstick. then the shrew turns and looks at me.

this is your offering, tom, the shrew asks. this
won't do. did you know that they say that every
time a poet dies, another war starts.

i will read the news tomorrow, tom, and when i
read of war, i will think of you.

Reading this, I burst into tears. Tomorrow, or soon after, it will be war, and it will be war with a starving country, and a war that will mostly affect the old, enfeebled, and children, as do our current sanctions. It is a war that will occur in violation of international law. It is a war that, according to analysts in the CIA, will cause increased terrorism. It is a war that our economy might not survive. It is a war brought about in defiance of public opinion by a president who was not elected, but was instead installed through a judicial coup and voting malfeasance in the very state in which the candidate's brother is governor. And, most terrible of all, it is a war; the last, worst resort of humanity is the first, best option for this government of nobody. These are worrying times for democracy.

I am not a politician, I am a poet, and a poor one at that. But there are resources we poor poets have, and I have decided to make use of it. I have decided to write a bit of political poetry, the sort that used to find their way into newspaper's with great frequency, but a tradition that has mostly faded. Newspaper doggerel isn't an exclusively political tradition -- much of it was meant in fun, such as the once-famous Punch Brothers rhyme -- usually, and wrongly, attributed to Mark Twain -- that the New York Times used to take great pleasure in reprinting in its many variations. Based on an actual street car sign, the poem read as follows:

Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
Chorus.
Punch brothers! Punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare.

You can see that there's very little to this poem -- and yet Swinburne translated it into French for the Revue des Deux Mondes, which suggests a little something about the popularity of the newspaper doggerel.

As often as these coarse poems were meant as pure frippery -- which was very often, sometimes daily -- they are very much a part of the American tradition of political discourse. At least, they are from that part of American political discourse that believes that bad jokes and strained satire are the best tools in the cause of argument, a position I happen to agree with. In fact, if we look as far back as 1769, we find newspapers printing poems urging Boston's female population to abandon the heavily taxed English tea in favor of a dreadful-sounding concoction made from the redroot tree, which read, in part, as follows:

Throw aside your Bohea and your Green Hyson Tea,
And all things with a new fashioned duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labradore,
For there’ll soon be enough here to suit ye;
There do without fear, and to all you’ll appear
Fair, charming, true, lovely and clever;
Though the times remain darkish, young men may be sparkish,
And love you much stronger than ever.

One of my favorite works of newspaper doggerel comes from the turn of the 20th Century, when anarchist Emma Goldman was arrested in connection with the shooting of president William McKinley in 1901. I no longer have a reference for where this poem appeared, or even a copy of the poem, but I have it committed to memory. It reads as follows:

I am o so sorry
that our president is dead
and everybody's sorry
so my father said
and the horrid man who killed him
is a-sitting in his cell
and I'm glad that Emma Goldman
doesn't board at this hotel.

Newspaper doggerel also offered fascinating portraits of America, particularly in its early, wild years. Here, reprinted, in part, in David Bristow's wonderful A Dirty, wicked Town is an example from Harper's Magazine, circa 1969, which mocks my adopted -- and now notably sleepy -- home town of Omaha, and which I read with great delight nowadays.

Hast ever been in Omaha,
Where rolls the dark Missouri down,
And four strong horses scarce can draw
An empty wagon through the town?
Where sand is blown from every mound
To fill the eyes and ears and throat-
Where all the steamers are aground
And all the shanties are afloat?
Where whisky shops the livelong night
Are vending their poison juice:
Where men are often very tight,
And women deemed a trifle loose?
Where taverns have an anxious guest
For every corner, shelf and crack;
With half the people going west,
And all the others going back?
Where theaters are all the run
And bloody scalpers come to trade;
Where everything is overdone
And everybody underpaid?
If not, take heed to what I say:
You'll find it just as I have found it;
And if it lies upon your way,
For God's sake, reader, go around it!

There is much more to write on this subject if newspaper doggerel, and I am sure I will get to writing it. But for now, my mood is black with thoughts of impending violence, and I must step away from my self-declared role as historian of the bad poem. Instead, I must take up pen in my other self-declared role, as the Worst Poet in the World, and offer up my own feeble satire. I will, therefore, pen my own example of verse, styled after my beloved newspaper doggerel, in protest of this abominable waste of human life in which we are about to embark. It's a poor man's weapon, but I am a poor man, and my poor verses will at least be another voice crying out in opposition to an act of destructive foolishness in a world that has seen far too much of destruction and foolishness.

It's War, Boys, It's War

there's fighting that needs fighting
and I'm just the man to do it
my mother wept to hear this
but my father o he knew it
I made a kitsack full lentils
and a pocket full of flask
and I kissed me girly's cheeks
and I set out on me task
I enlisted as a doughboy
and they put a rifle in me hands
and promised me three square and
shipped me off to foreign lands
there's fighting that needs fighting
and after fighting then there's more
and that is why we're fighting
o it's war, boys, it's war

they put me in an office
and put files in me hands
to send to other offices
in other foreign lands
I route mess kits through to Turkey
and route munitions through Kabul
and I ship trucks from Mexico
to a Kuwaiti motor pool
I'd never left me home town
and I'd never seen Paree
but on paper I'm well-traveled
o the places that I see!
there's paper's that need filing
and when they're filed then there's more
and that is why we're filing
o it's war, boys, its war

for every fighting soldier
there are a hundred just like me
in a hundred little offices
from Cairo to Hungary
it costs a million for each platoon
and a million for each enlist
and a million for each kill they make
and a million for each they miss
its an expensive thing we do
when we send our men to fight
we spent three hundred million this morning
we'll spend three hundred more tonight
but there's money that needs spending
and when its spent there's more
and that is why we're spending
o it's war, boys, it's war

I type official letters
to parents and to kin
that are shipped home with the fallen
letters of comfort, letters thin
and printed on onion paper
with an official military sigil
some fight, they say, and die
and are honored, and keep vigil
over those who have yet to die
who have a vigil of their own
to watch and fight and fight
and die far from their native home
but there's dying that needs doing
and when we're dead there's more
and that is why we're dying
o it's war, boys, it's war.

Usually I would end here with a call of "Cheers!" However, this is not a night for cheer. It is a night for prayer. My love to all of you, and may we wake to the best that we hope is possible in this world.


© Max Sparber Click for republication information.


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Posted by UkuleleKing at 6:09 p.m.

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