In Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams outlines the three worst styles of poetry in the universe: 3) that of the Vogons; 2) that of the Azoths of Kria; and 1) that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings in Greenbridge, England. Since Adams has already got bad poetry covered, let’s take a look at some of the weirdest poetry in history. (In Earth’s history, anyway.)
While some may associate “weird” with “modern” when it comes to art, you might be surprised to see how many of these were written in the seventeen- and eighteen-hundreds, long before being weird was even cool. In chronological order, here nine of the top contenders.
1. Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Albatross
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a rambling 636-line work about a grizzled old sailor who crashes a wedding ceremony and talks the ear off one of the guests.
As his story goes, the mariner was a member of a sailing crew that suffered a terrible demise: the wind stopped, the sun baked, the sea turned slimy, and everyone died of dehydration (but him). The crew then became re-animated à la Curse of the Black Pearl and manned the ship back to land – where it sank, condemning the mariner to a lifetime of survivor’s guilt and therapy bills.
Why? All because he shot a bird.
Before you put down that turkey sandwich, remember that this wasn’t just any bird; it was the ship’s lucky albatross, which had a knack for finding good wind and fair weather.
After shooting it with his crossbow – for inconceivable reasons that he never explains – the mariner is forced to wear its dead body around his neck as a reminder of his complicity in his shipmates’ suffering.
212 years later, people are still using the expression “the albatross around your neck” to describe things that will dog you or weigh down your conscience.
2. Mister Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Running for the Hills
“Porphyria’s Lover”, by Robert Browning
Robert Browning’s 1836 poem “Porphyria’s Lover” is a dramatic monologue about taking refuge from a storm with the person you love most. Nestled in a cottage in the woods, the narrator and his beautiful Porphyria cozy up by the fire and gaze longingly at each other.
Realizing that Porphyria loves him, the narrator decides to preserve the Kodak moment by strangling her with her own hair. He then kisses, props up, and sits beside her dead body, admiring its loveliness through the rest of the night. So much for everything you thought you knew about Victorian love poetry.
Describing all the ways in which this poem classifies as weird doesn’t seem like the best use of time, so let’s just stick with the theme of voyeurism for now.
“Porphyria’s Lover” is written in the first person, meaning the reader is temporarily forced into the narrator’s head. Experiencing this twisted a frame of mind should make any sane person want to take a long, well-lit shower.
So what does this say about Robert Browning’s own lovelife? Actually, Browning was happily married to Elizabeth Barrett – who, incidentally, is best known for writing “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” about Robert. Guess there’s a lot to be said for the attraction of opposites.
3. Five Servings a Day Just Got Creepier…
“Goblin Market”, by Christina Rossetti
Published in 1862, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” is probably the most intensely detailed poem about goblin fruit-vendors that you’ll ever read. (It maxes out at a whopping 567 lines.)
The poem follows Laura and Lizzie, two young sisters struggling with the temptation to eat delicious-looking fruit sold by goblins from unknown lands.
Although Lizzie stands strong, Laura eventually succumbs to their exotic delights, ingesting poison in the process. Gradually, she becomes listless, thin, and gray-haired, forcing Lizzie to face the goblins and save her sister from a slow death. The poem is either an allegory demonstrating the power of sisterhood or a very early cautionary tale about buying locally.
Although Rossetti often said it was intended for children, the poem is so weirdly sexual that we expect an eyeshadowed, spandex-wearing David Bowie to turn up at any minute and proclaim himself Goblin King.
Some examples: Laura “suck[s]” of the forbidden fruit “until her lips [are] sore”; when Lizzie sister confronts the goblin vendors, they “beset” her like “bee[s]” pollinating an “orange-tree”; Lizzie is then compared to “a royal virgin town” being attacked by an army that wants “to tug her standard down.” Get the picture?
We’ll be the first to admit that people can get carried away with this “erotic undertones” business, but for a supposed kids’ story, this is pretty suggestive stuff.
4. In Uffish Thought by the Tumtum Tree
“Jabberwocky”, by Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll’s 1872 poem “Jabberwocky” is some the most famous gibberish ever written in the English language… kind of.
Of the poem’s 166 words, 43 aren’t actually nineteenth-century English, but are in fact Carroll’s own invention. (As a mathematician, he’d point out that this comes to more than 1 in every 4 words.)
If Carroll can write poetry that’s popular, critically acclaimed, and almost 26% meaningless, he must be doing something right. Right?
Perhaps what’s weirdest about “Jabberwocky” is that it actually makes a lot of sense; Carroll’s invented words play enough with real English that we get an intuitive feel for the poem without having to think too hard.
The bandersnatch sounds like an animal that can snatch you up bandit-style. The Jabberwock burbles as it moves, which could easily be a sort of gurgling noise. The hero’s father chortles, which sounds like a mixture of a chuckle and a snort. (If you think this isn’t a made-up word because you’ve heard it before, think again; it didn’t exist before 1872.)
Of course, the Jabberwock itself calls to mind not only the jabbing of a sword, but also the useless jabber of pointless conversation – or, of nonsensical poetry.
Considering that the whole idea behind poetry is to convey meaning through sound, “Jabberwocky” is actually a brilliant work of art. We only wish the other poems on the list were this straightforward.
5. Semicolon = ??
“In a Station of the Metro”, by Ezra Pound
Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” has one of the longest titles in poetry – relative to the length of the poem, anyway.
In 1912, Pound was in the metro station at La Concorde in Paris when he had a deeply spiritual experience. He wanted to capture the moment in a painting, but since he was no painter, he wrote 30 lines of verse instead.
Realizing that the poem was too drawn-out, he attempted a shorter version six months later but was still unhappy with the result.
Another six months after that, Pound finally found the exact words he was looking for. All 14 of them.
The poem reads:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The premise behind the two seemingly unconnected phrases is that of equation. After all, why bother with wordy descriptions and weak similes when you can reveal the exact nature of a thing by simply juxtaposing it with a second thing? (Think internet lingo. Ex. “you = fail.”)
Almost a century later, critics still go crazy over the poem, basing entire careers on the exact significance of the semicolon.
However, if this poem’s succinct beauty is exactly what you look for in literature, Ezra Pound is not for you. Most of the rest of his poems are immensely long, not to mention riddled with other languages.
6. the good, the bad, and wee
“in Just-”, by E.E. Cummings
E.E. Cummings’s “in Just-” is the only poem on this list that has the honor of not only being strange, but looking strange as well.
In addition to being a poet, Cummings was a painter, which made him more interested in poetry’s visual format than your average lit guy or gal. As a result, Cummings’s works are instantly recognizable for their unruly grammar, odd spacing, and unpredictable line breaks.
And if you think this looks pretty wild today, just imagine what it was like when “in Just-” was published in 1923.
The poem is about children romping in the springtime. According to many interpretations, it’s also about the inevitable and somewhat creepy end of innocence.
The children’s youthful, hyperactive glee is expressed through the rapid succession of words like “eddieandbill come / running from marbles and / piracies.” Set in opposition to the happy children is a “queer / old balloonman” whose actions are appropriately slowed down: he “whistles / far and wee / and bettyandisbel come dancing.”
Our gut tells us that this “goat-footed” guy doesn’t portend well for the youngsters, which perhaps explains the title’s double meaning: “in Just- / spring” might mean spring that has just sprung, or it might refer to the “injustice” of young lives destined to wither and fade.
7. Soup! – There It Is
“Oda al Caldillo de Congrio”, by Pablo Neruda
Nobel prize-winning Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda is known for his expansive, sensual writing style, and his 1954 “Oda al Caldillo de Congrio” is no exception. It soars. It triumphs. It… outlines a recipe?
For those of us who don’t speak Spanish, the title translates to “Ode to the Conger Chowder,” which, as Neruda lovingly explains, is made from garlic, onion, tomato, shrimp, cream, conger eel, and love – lots of it.
Wriggling sea beasties have never sounded so good.
Neruda writes, “que entre el congrio / y se sumerja en gloria, / que en la olla / se aceite / se contraiga y se impregne.”
Roughly translated, that’s: “let the conger enter to be submerged in glory, to be oiled, shrunk, and impregnated in the pot.”
We’ll have what he’s having.
Delicious though the recipe may be, we can’t help but ask ourselves, why the worshipful tones? As Neruda sees it, conger chowder is to Chile what wine is to France or pasta is to Italy.
A much loved patriot in his lifetime, Neruda famously considered himself of the Chilean people – and whatever the people ate, Neruda venerated.
8. I Yam What I Rutabaga
“Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”, by John Ashbery
Published in 1966, John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” is a long, complex poem written in the style of a 12th-century French sestina.
Oh yeah, and it’s about Popeye. The sailor man.
The scene is set in Popeye’s apartment, the cast of characters includes Wimpy, the Sea Hag, Swee’pea, and Olive Oyl, and the word “spinach” appears no less than seven times.
At the end of the poem, Popeye “chuckle[s] and scratche[s] his balls,” remarking that it “sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.” AP English, eat your heart out.
“Farm Implements” is one of those rare works of literature that leaves you unsure whether to laugh or crack open a dictionary; just when you never thought you’d hear the words “Popeye,” “henceforth,” and “salubrious” together in the same sentence, Ashbery decided it would be fun to mix high poetry with pop culture.
Think of it as the poetic answer to Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Technicolor Marilyn Monroes; perhaps this explains why the title that sounds like it belongs to a highfalutin oil painting.
9. A Writer Named Who?
“A Boy Named Sue”, by Johnny Cash Shel Silverstein
Among the experiences that many American children have in common is reading Where the Sidewalk Ends, a collection of offbeat poems that brilliantly play with words and poetic conventions.
As teens and adults, we then go through a Johnny Cash phase that involves singing Cash’s line “My name is Sue! How do you do!” at our windshields while stopped in traffic.
What most of us don’t realize, however, is that “A Boy Named Sue” is actually written by Shel Silverstein, the selfsame children’s writer who penned Where the Sidewalk Ends. And you thought those “Rock and Roll for Babies” CDs were innovative.
According to his autobiography, when Cash performed the song at San Quentin State Prison in 1969, he barely knew the lyrics – let alone how it would go over with the inmates. After all, how often do you hear songs about men who have complexes from being named after women? (Songs that are recited rather than sung, no less.)
Fortunately for our cathartic driving experiences, the song went on to spend weeks on the Billboard Top 100 and become one of Cash’s best known recordings.