Zippy, Joyce, and Margaret

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February 21, 2019 by libroshombre


Contact Greg Hill, 479-4344                                                              January 31, 2019

A recent Zippy the Pinhead comic strip reminded me of how difficult it is to distinguish what literature will endure the test of time, and which will fade away. Zippy’s wandering through a forest while enumerating hardships faced by trees: “Knurls, burls, blight, mite, fungus, rot, rust and slime flux,” he begins, and ends with, “I think that I shall never see, a gnome as stubborn as a tree!” Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees,” is “the one poem known by practically everybody,” according to critic Guy Davenport. Kilmer’s poem was an instant, and his only, hit but today it’s parodied unmercifully. Even in Kilmer’s day he was described by Conrad Aiken, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, as “a dabbler in the pretty and sweet,” and his poetry as “pale-mouth clingers to the artificial and archaic.”

Who’s to say what contemporary writing will hold up? Victorian Edward Bulwer-Lytton once rocked the British literary scene. “Bulwer-Lytton’s literary works were highly popular,” Wikipedia assures us; “his novels earned him a fortune. He coined the phrases ‘the great unwashed’, ‘pursuit of the almighty dollar’, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, and ‘dweller on the threshold’. Then came a sharp decline in his reputation.” The Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB) says, “In his own day, Bulwer’s position among the most unquestionably popular and the most critically esteemed novelists seemed firmly established.” His Victorian readers forgave his stylistic flaws that included “a certain bombast and straining aftereffects” that wouldn’t appeal to future readers who only know him from the first line of his 1830 novel “Paul Clifford”: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

That’s why San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose opening sentences to the worst of all possible novels. 17-year-old Tanya Menezes won the grand prize this year with “Cassie smiled as she clenched John’s hand on the edge of an abandoned pier while the sun set gracefully over the water, and as the final rays of light disappeared into a star-filled sky she knew that there was only one thing left to do to finish off this wonderful evening, which was to throw his severed appendage into the ocean’s depths so it could never be found again – and maybe get some custard after.”

Then there’s Margaret Cavendish, the 17th century poet who was a laughingstock in her own time, and remains one. Cavendish was mentioned in “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain” as being “generally thought by contemporaries to be one of the worst poets of all time.” “Poems and Fancies” of 1653 was her main book of poetry, and Samuel Pepys described it as “the most ridiculous thing that was ever wrote,” and that Cavendish was “mad, conceited, and ridiculous.” Her book’s publication “caused a minor sensation,” the DLB says. “Dorothy Osbourne wrote to her fiancé William Temple … inquiring if he had seen the volume and exclaiming ‘for God’s sake if you meet with it, send it to me; they say ‘tis ten times more extravagant than her dress.” And after reading it, Osbourne wrote she was “satisfied that there are many soberer people in Bedlam; I swear her friends are much to blame to let her go abroad.”

Modern critics aren’t much kinder. Virginia Woolf thought Cavendish’s untrained mind was her problem, so her thoughts “poured out higgledy-piggledy in torrents of prose, poetry, and philosophy.” And “In Search of the World’s Worst Writers,” Nick Page names Cavendish “the grand cru of awful writing.” Cavendish must have had a clue. In “An Apology For Her Poetry” she wrote, “I language want to dress my fancies in,/ The hair’s uncurled, the garment’s loose and thin./ Had they but silver lace to make them gay,/ They’d be more courted than in poor array;/ Or, had they art, would make a better show;/ But they are plain; yet cleanly do they go.”

Fortunately our public library contains all these authors, along with the very best, and there you can judge for yourself. But beware: as Kurt Vonnegut noted, “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”



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