One night in 1939, Wolcott Gibbs’ 4-year-old son Tony began chanting a song in the bathtub. It was sung “entirely on one note except that the voice drops on the last word in every line”:

He will just do nothing at all.
He will just sit there in the noonday sun.
And when they speak to him, he will not answer them,
Because he does not care to.
He will stick them with spears and throw them in the garbage.
When they tell him to eat his dinner, he will just laugh at them.
And he will not take his nap, because he does not care to.
He will not talk to them, he will not say nothing.
He will just sit there in the noonday sun.
He will go away and play with the Panda.
He will not speak to nobody because he doesn’t have to.
And when they come to look for him they will not find him.
Because he will not be there.
He will put spikes in their eyes and put them in the garbage.
And put the cover on.
He will not go out in the fresh air or eat his vegetables.
Or make wee-wee for them, and he will get thin as a marble.
He will do nothing at all.
He will just sit there in the noonday sun.

Pete Seeger liked this so much that he made a song of it — he called it “Declaration of Independence”:

Good for the Gander

In the early days of Dada I received for review a book which contained the following ‘poem’:

       'A B C D E F
        G H I J K L
        M N O P Q R
        S T U V W X
            Y Z.'

On which I commented:

       '1 2 3 4 5
        6 7 8 9 10.'

I still think that was the most snappy review I ever wrote; but unfortunately The Times refused to print it.

— Richard Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake, 1941


When quacks with pills political would dope us,
When politics absorbs the livelong day,
I like to think about that star Canopus,
So far, so far away.

Greatest of visioned suns, they say who list ’em;
To weigh it science always must despair.
Its shell would hold our whole dinged solar system,
Nor even know ’twas there.

When temporary chairmen utter speeches,
And frenzied henchmen howl their battle hymns,
My thoughts float out across the cosmic reaches
To where Canopus swims.

When men are calling names and making faces,
And all the world’s ajangle and ajar,
I meditate on interstellar spaces
And smoke a mild seegar.

For after one has had about a week of
The argument of friends as well as foes,
A star that has no parallax to speak of
Conduces to repose.

— Bert Leston Taylor


The poem known as Catullus 16, by the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, is so explicit sexually that a full English translation was not published until the late 20th century:

I will sodomize you and face-fuck you,
bottom Aurelius and catamite Furius,
you who think, because my poems
are sensitive, that I have no shame.
For it’s proper for a devoted poet to be moral
himself, [but] in no way is it necessary for his poems.
In point of fact, these have wit and charm,
if they are sensitive and a little shameless,
and can arouse an itch,
and I don’t mean in boys, but in those hairy old men
who can’t get it up.
Because you’ve read my countless kisses,
you think less of me as a man?
I will sodomize you and face-fuck you.

Duke classics professor Micaela Wakil Janan renders this in modern English prose:

Fuck you, boys, up the butt and in the mouth, you queer Aurelius and you fag Furius! You size me up, on the basis of my poems, because they’re a little sexy, as not really decent. A poet has to live clean — but not his poems. They only have spice and charm, if somewhat sexy and really not for children — if, in fact, they cause body talk (I’m not talking in teenagers, but in hairy old men who can barely move their stiff bums). But you, because you happen to read about ‘many thousands of kisses,’ you think I’m not a man? Fuck you, boys, up the butt and in the mouth!

Marcus Aurelius Cotta Maximus Messalinus and Marcus Furius Bibaculus had criticized Catullus’ earlier work as effeminate. Writing in the Telegraph in 2009, author Harry Mount called the poet’s response “one of the filthiest expressions ever written in Latin — or in any other language, for that matter.”


The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry contains this resonant scrap of anonymous verse:

John Wesley Gaines!
John Wesley Gaines!
Thou monumental mass of brains!
Come in, John Wesley
For it rains.

In The American Treasury, Clifton Fadiman writes, “Mr. Gaines is believed to have been a Congressman.” And lo, a John Wesley Gaines did indeed serve in the House, representing Tennessee’s 6th district from 1897 to 1909. A Washington journalist wrote in 1907, “Down in Tennessee they started a song about Gaines which found its way to Washington, and every now and then you’ll hear some one giving him a line of it just to liven things up a bit.”

Gaines is largely forgotten today, but I find that gimlet little rhyme in 18 different treasuries. I wonder who wrote it.


Somebody said that it couldn’t be done —
But he, with a grin, replied
He’d never be one to say it couldn’t be done —
Leastways, not ’til he’d tried.
So he buckled right in, with a trace of a grin;
By golly, he went right to it.
He tackled The Thing That Couldn’t Be Done!
And he couldn’t do it.

— Anonymous

03/26/2024 This seems to be a reply to Edgar Albert Guest’s poem “It Couldn’t Be Done.” A couple of readers recognized it from The Dick Van Dyke Show (“The Return of Edwin Carp,” April 1964), but I don’t know whether that’s where it originated. (Thanks, Kevin, Chris, and Seth.)

“Knight, With Umbrella”

The difficulty with all
Forms of heroism
Is that they require
Appropriate occasions,
And that these are rarer
Even than heroes.
Counsequently, the hero
Waits and waits,
Exquisitely aware
Of the absence of any
Heroic way
To mail a letter,
Buy theatre tickets,
Or put on rubbers.

Most remarkable about
The older heroes
Is their luck in encountering
Punctual dragons,
Compliantly belligerent,
And maidens regularly
Requiring rescue.
I observe all this
A little bitterly,
In rented armor
On an icy corner,
Late for the costume
Party, and reflecting
How long one waits,
These days,
Even for a cab.

— Elder Olson


For myself, I must say that I find [Edward] Lear funniest when he is least arbitrary and when a touch of burlesque or perverted logic makes its appearance. … While the Pobble was in the water some unidentified creatures came and ate his toes off, and when he got home his aunt remarked:

‘It’s a fact the whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier without their toes,’

which once again is funny because it has a meaning, and one might even say a political significance. For the whole theory of authoritarian governments is summed up in the statement that Pobbles were happier without their toes.

— George Orwell, “Nonsense Poetry,” 1945