When Texas was young, in days of yore, folks wrote poems by the score. Some were flowery, some were terse, some were bad—and some were verse.
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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 verse of a five-stanza screed:
Vengeance on Santa Anna and his minions;
Vile scum, up boiled from the infer- nal regions;
Dragons of fire, on black sulphurous pinions,
The offscouring baseness of Hell’s blackest legions;
Too filthy far, with crawling worms to dwell,
And far too horrid, and too base for hell.
Inevitably Alamo and San Jacinto poets laid siege to the facts. One wrote: “Long shall the dark-browed maids of Spain / Remember San Jacinto’s plain.” Spain had nothing to do with San Jacinto, but it sure was easy to rhyme. Another had Santa Anna’s soldiers wearing sombreros. A third wrote, “Remember the Alamo, joyful sing / The doom of a tyrant, the fate of a king.” King? What king? And the spinner of one epic poem, obviously unsatisfied with the drama quotient of Sam Houston’s real-life ankle injury, opted instead for “On Houston’s breast a gaping wound / Is spirting forth the red blood round.” Which doesn’t even rhyme.
Subsequent Texas events inspired compositions too. The Civil War yielded many a florid verse about the valiant boys in gray. Other beloved subjects were pioneers, cowboys, and the Texas Rangers (“Our rifles are primed, and our coursers are fleet— / Woe! Death to the savage, this night we may meet!”). The Great Storm of 1900 and Galveston’s near-destruction were chronicled in scores of horror-struck stanzas; one begins breathlessly, “‘Twas an awful, awful windstorm,” while another reads, in part, “A bellowing wave shoots mountain-high; ‘Dear father, the mermaids are so nigh.’” Some poets attempted to relate Texas’ entire history in rhyme, including Lottie H. Hargrove, a prominent Austin clubwoman in the early 1900’s. Many of her verses deal with the social reforms for which clubwomen tirelessly lobbied; this quatrain, for example, refers to a hospital:
And here are treated people
By rabid creatures bitten.
Many are cured who else might be
With hydrophobia smitten.
Right up there with the Alamo and history as a common subject in Texas poetry is the state’s natural beauty. The earliest known poem about Texas, written around 1804 by Bishop Diego Marin of Monterrey, Mexico, includes this verse:
I see thy plains of waving green,
All flower-enameled spread,
From whence the morning’s ruddy beam
To thence upon them shed.
That kind of writing makes me “whence,” all right; it had to read more gracefully in the original Spanish. Still, it shines next to the combination geography text and travelogue published by Hugh Kerr in 1838; his three hundred or so verses rarely get better than:Red River is the northern line
A bold and navigable stream;
The soil each side exceeding fine,
Its water ting’d with red doth seem.
At one point Kerr even attempts to rhyme “Guadalupe” with “up.” A nineteenth-century critic put it best: “I cannot conceive of anything more crude.”
As the chivalrous ideals of the nineteenth century faded, Texas poets gave war and romance a rest and cast about for subjects a bit closer to home. Exalting Texas towns was especially popular. Poet Karle Wilson Baker said of San Antonio, “Hers is the darkling glow, / The heavy-lidded fire of Mexico.” A less creative soul wrote an entire ode to her hometown of Meridian (“Her depot for convenience does not lack, / And her lumber yards have many a stack”). Eventually poets of the twenties and thirties found their muses in everything from cotton (“O countless, nodding powder puffs!”) to oil (“this amber circumstance”), from tamales (“Shuck, sweet of sun / Wraps well each one”) to spiders (“… mundane shah / Of human fears—TARANTULA!”). Many poems reveal the ethnic prejudices of the day, like “I’m Longing for Old Black Mammy,” by Corsicana’s Mamie Peck, who specialized in exaggerated Negro dialect; in “Dat Coon Reception,” written in 1903, she churned out 125 lines of it to make fun of President Theodore Roosevelt for inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House.
The bad-poetry craze was still going strong after World War I. In 1924 Governor Pat Neff fanned the fire by announcing the search for a state song, because, he said, “France has her ‘Marseillaise,’ Germany her ‘Watch on the Rhine,’ England her ‘God Save the King.’” We know what ditty won, though it’s hard to believe that “Texas, Our Texas” was ever judged worthy of a $1,000 prize. But it could have been worse. Consider this runner-up stanza:
If Texas were a flower
And I the peep-o-day,
And all the gems of diadems
Were mine to give away,—
If Texas were a flower,
And I the crack-of-dawn,
With dewdrops rare I’d deck her hair,
And blush to pin them on.
Pass the Maalox! A century after the Alamo, the popularity of the battle finally yielded to that of bluebonnets as a topic for overwrought ponderings. The state flower had poets combing their thesauruses for ways to say “blue” so they could pay tribute to “asphodel pasture” and “cobalt hay.” A bluebonnet-field couplet by Grace Noll Crowell goes: “It was so blue beneath the Texas sky, / It made me want to cry.” And she was, at the time—1936—the state’s poet laureate! Crowell also displayed an alarming fondness for repetition and alliteration:
Sunlight, sunlight, sunlight, on the mountain and the plain;
Sunlight, sunlight, sunlight, on the cotton and the grain;
Little laughing leaping lights that run ahead of me,
A swishing, sweeping glory of an inland golden sea,
Texas, Texas, Texas,
When the yellow day is done,
You have garnered all the gleaming, glinting glory of the sun.
Doesn’t that just make you want to up-, up-, upchuck? That year, the frenzied centennial celebration so galvanized poets that, by the time it drew to a close, the state’s rhymers had harvested a bumper crop of works, most equally ode-ious (“Inexorable Past! The Present, how great! / May the future yet build for the Lone Star State!”). So cloying was the overall effect that, when centennial fever died, so did Texas poetry. Today it reminds us why the good old days weren’t always good—and why it’s sometimes best to let sleeping doggerel lie.