This could be a bad precedent for a writer to set, but you might want to keep a bottle of Maalox at hand as you read this article. Our subject is bad poetry—which is to say, the only kind of poetry written in Texas from its pre-Republic days until around 1936, its centennial year. Here’s an example:
Full soon I hope in Texan shades—
Fair land of flowers and blooming maids—
To roam enraptured by thy side,
As blessed with thee on Brazos’ tide
As when I first, on Galvez’ isle
Walked in the rainbow of thy smile.
That drivel, so tormenting to the modern ear, was a product of the mid-nineteenth century, when writing verse was as common as writing checks is today. The same Victorian hearts that thrilled to the noble lines of Tennyson, Byron, and Shelley went pitty-pat over the romance that was Texas. The fall of the Alamo and the victory at San Jacinto fueled many a wretched quatrain, and as the century wore on, the Civil War and the Wild West provided even more poetic fodder. Forlorn memorial compositions were especially commonplace (and chances are that few nineteenth-century Texans could see the humor in couplets such as “So we to him were much attached / When Death so cruelly him snatched”). The popularity of women’s clubs from the 1880’s through the 1930’s intensified poetry awareness; even little towns had their own literary magazine—Corsicana, for instance, boasted the Texas Prairie Flower , which was “Devoted to the Pure, the True, the Beautiful. Mrs. C. M. Winkler, Editress.”
Although Texas inspired verse by the likes of Walt Whitman and Amy Lowell, the average poet writing about Texas during the nineteenth and the early twentieth century was a native son or daughter whose devotion to the motherland was equaled only by a facility for rhyme. Endless odes titled “Texas” personify the state: “Sunbeams kiss her beauteous mouth / Bride of the world, Queen of the South!” Another poem’s Texas is manly, a “bronze-limbed Hercules of giant girth.” Regardless of gender, though, the state is always well-endowed, descriptively speaking. The highfalutin hyphenate was de rigueur: Texas is never sad but “sorrow-darkened,” never wide but “ample-bosomed.” As for meter, iamb ruled; its singsong rhythm lends a nursery-rhyme quality to most poems:
Texas, my own, my native State,
Would I could see thee now
In all thy pristine beauty bright—
The Lone Star on thy brow!
The use of “thee” and other archaic terms—“‘twas,” “blest,” “e’er”—is one of the things I love to hate about bad Texas poetry. Then there are the big words—I had to look up “ichor” and “saccade,” to name two. Occasionally modern slang confers upon a vintage phrase a meaning its author never intended; one San Antonio poet described her city as a “gay nun.” And the Spanish language could trip up native English speakers; one lonely poet referred to his love as “ mi armor ,” while another set metaphorical sail “From Texas to Chili,” by which he meant the country, not the food. And the typical bad Texas poet adored exclamation marks! And used them! A lot!
Although much old Texas poetry has survived, little is well-known—for good reason, as anyone having read this far now understands. But if the work wasn’t famous, many of the poets were—for other things. Davy Crockett wrote poetry; so did Sam Houston and Alamo activist Clara Driscoll. The most celebrated Texas poet of the century was the republic’s third president, Mirabeau B. Lamar, whose literary talent matched his statesmanship (which isn’t saying much). In 1857 he published a collection, Verse Memorials , in which he termed his creations “spontaneous effusions, extorted by the circumstances of the moment,” and judged them “destitute of intrinsic merit.” I think he was right:
But pleasant thoughts—sweet, peaceful dove—
Thoughts born of beauty, truth, and love—
Shall in thy Eden-bosom rise,
And send their moonlight through thine eyes.
Lamar’s poetry makes one thing clear: Judging by the phrase “Eden-bosom,” he wasn’t a leg man. Incidentally, after his death, one of his admirers immortalized the great man in verse, declaring “But Time the relentless, or Death cannot mar / The brilliant escutcheon of radiant Lamar!” (Time the relentless is trying, though.)
Of course, it never hurt to have famous kin. Sam Houston was so popular that his name helped his wife, his youngest daughter, and a granddaughter all achieve fame as poets. The work of his wife, Margaret Lea, was mostly insipid love poems. Their daughter Nettie Power Houston was famous for the excruciating “Little Babies”:
There are babies all about us—
Babies fresh, and sweet, and fair,
Made for seeing, loving, kissing,
Little babies everywhere.
Who on earth can fail to love them?
God’s fair sunbeams stolen in.
Bless the little sinless babies!
Innocent, though born in sin.
Finally, Sam’s granddaughter Margaret Bell Houston carried on the distaff tradition; her 1925 poem “Song From the Traffic” won her the Texas Poetry Society’s highest award: “Manhattan—Manhattan—I walk your streets today, / But I see the Texas prairies bloom a thousand miles away!”
If most Texas poets weren’t famous per se, their favorite subject was. The siege of the Alamo was the mother lode for the ode-inclined, thanks to its supply of emotionally charged topics—strength, courage, cruelty, death. Long a favorite was “Hymn of the Alamo,” by Reuben Marmaduke Potter, who, a contemporary historian noted, “only once had the mortification to stand before a court martial”:
Welcome the Spartan’s death—
‘Tis no despairing strife—
We fall, we die, but our expiring breath
Is Freedom’s breath of life!
Crockett, Travis, and Bowie all received repeated tributes, and even minor heroes rated their own poems (“Deaf Smith came down to Goliad / Upon a far-gone day / Because of his hearing, which was bad, / He hadn’t much to say”). But the best parts of Alamo poems—and their close cousins, San Jacinto poems—are the lines excoriating Santa Anna. Sometimes entire works slam the Mexican general; here’s the first