We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Funny poems by women · 30 June 06

Dear Marianne,

In all my letters about women’s poetry, I’ve neglected a major type: funny poems. These run the gamut from sharp hard satire, to wry self-deprecating or debunking comedy, to gentle fond teasing. They seem to me to be filled with laughter aimed at males, criticism (however held back) of the way they as women are treated as in the expectation they will jump in the arms of a nearby man and marry him at the drop of a hat, or how they are coerced into marrying. They write satiric poems rooted in female rivalry (the opposite to female love in friendship and retirement poems). They get release, a great kick out of talking back to whoever it was pressured them. They like to wish for their heart’s desires in a forlorn-hope way.

This terrain has been carved out by western women from medieval to present times.

I’ve already sent you several poems by Stevie Smith. For tonight, I send a Martial-like epigram by Catharine Gemmat (fl 1750-66). Jemmat’s is not desperate and poignant (like many of Smith’s comic ones), but flippant and mocking:

Three times I took, for better and for worse,
A bed-fellow, a fortune, and a nurse:
How bless’d the state, which such good things produce,
How dear that sex, which serves such various use.

And from The World’s Wife, Carol Ann Duffy’s inimitable:


Girls, I was dead and down
in the Underworld, a shade,
a shadow of my former self, nowhen.
It was a place where language stopped,
a black full stop, a black hole
where words had to come to an end.
And end they did there,
last words,
famous or not.
It suited me down to the ground.

So imagine me there,
out of this world,
then picture my face in that place
of Eternal Repose,
in the one place you’d think a girl would be safe
from the kind of a man
who follows her round
writing poems,
hovers about
while she reads them,
calls her His Muse,
and once sulked for a night and a day
because she remarked on his weakness for abstract nouns.
Just picture my face
when I heard
Ye Gods
a familiar knock-knock-knock at Death’s door.

Big O.
Larger than life.
With his lyre
and a poem to pitch, with me as the prize.

Things were different back then.
For the men, verse-wise,
Big O was the boy. Legendary.
The blurb on the back of his books claimed
that animals,
aardvark to zebra,
flocked to his side when he sang,
fish leapt in their shoals
at the sound of his voice,
even the mute, sullen stones at his feet
wept wee, silver tears.

Bollocks. (I’d done all the typing myself,
I should know.)
And given my time all over again,
rest assured that I’d rather speak for myself
than be Dearest, Beloved, Dark Lady, White Goddess,
                 etc., etc.

In fact, girls, I’d rather be dead.

But the Gods are like publishers, usually male,
and what you doubtless know of my tale
is the deal.

Orpheus strutted his stuff.

The bloodless ghosts were in tears.
Sisyphus sat on his rock for the first time in years.
Tantalus was permitted a couple of beers.

The woman in question could scarcely believe her ears.

Like it or not,
I must follow him back to our life
Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife
to be trapped in his images, metaphors, similes,
octaves and sextets, quatrains and couplets,
elegies, limericks, villanelles,
histories, myths . . .

He’d been told that he mustn’t look back
or turn round,
but walk steadily upwards,
myself right behind him,
out of the Underworld
into the upper air that for me was the past.
He’d been warned
that one look would lose me
for ever and ever.

So we walked, we walked.
Nobody talked.

Girls, forget what you’ve read.
It happened like this
I did everything in my power
to make him look back.
What did I have to do, I said,
to make him see we were through?
I was dead. Deceased.
I was Resting in Peace. Passe. Late.
Past my sell-by date .. .
I stretched out my hand
to touch him once
on the back of his neck.
Please let me stay.
But already the light had saddened from purple to grey.

It was an uphill schlep
from death to life
and with every step
I willed him to turn.
I was thinking of filching the poem
out of his cloak,
when inspiration finally struck.
I stopped, thrilled.
He was a yard in front.
My voice shook when I spoke
"Orpheus, your poem’s a masterpiece.
I’d love to hear it again .. ."

He was smiling modestly
when he turned,
when he turned and he looked at me.

What else?
I noticed he hadn’t shaved.
I waved once and was gone.

The dead are so talented.
The living walk by the edge of a vast lake
near the wise, drowned silence of the dead.

And back to the mid-18th century for Mary Chandler’s Horatian epistle:

A True Tale
To Mrs. J-S.

Written at her Request

Why, Madam, must I tell this idle tale?
You want to laugh. Then do so, if you will.
Thus take it, as it was, the best I can;
And laugh at me, but not my little man:
For he was very good, and clean, and civil,
And, though his taste was odd, you own not evil.
ou know one loves an apple, one an onion;
One man’s a Papist, one is a Socinian:
We differ in our taste, as in opinion.
Not often reason guides us; more, caprice,
Or accident, or fancy: so in this.
His person pleased, and honest was his fame;
Tis true there was no music in his name,
But, had I changed for A the letter U,
It would sound grand, and musically too,
And would have made a figure. At my shop
I saw him first, and thought he’d eat me up.
I stared, and wondered who this man could be,
So full of complaisance, and all to me:
But when he’d bought his gloves, and said his say,
He made his civil scrape, and went away.
I never dreamed I e’er should see him more,
Glad when he turned his back, and shut the door.
But when his wond’rous message he declared,
I never in my life was half so scared!
Fourscore long miles, to buy a crooked wife!
Old too! I thought the oddest thing in life;
And said, ‘Sir, you’re in jest, and very free;
But, pray, how came you, Sir, to think of me?’
This civil answer I’ll suppose was true:
‘That he had both our happiness in view.
He sought me as one formed to make a friend,
To help life glide more smoothly near its end,
To aid his virtue, and direct his purse,
For he was much too well to want a nurse.’

He made no high-flown compliment but this:
‘He thought to’ve found my person more amiss.
No fortune hoped; and,’ which is stranger yet,
‘Expected to have bought me off in debt!
And offered me my Wish, which he had read,
For ‘twas my Wish that put me in his head.’
Far distant from my thoughts a husband, when
Those simple lines dropped, honest, from my pen.

Much more, he spake, but I have half forgot:
I went to bed, but could not sleep a jot.
A thing so unexpected, and so new!
Of so great consequence—So generous too!
I own it made me pause for half that night:
Then waked, and soon recovered from my fright;
Resolved, and put an end to the affair:
So great a change, thus late, I could not bear;
And answered thus: ‘No, good Sir, for my life,
I cannot now obey, nor be a wife.
At fifty-four, when hoary age has shed
Its winter’s snow, and whitened o’er my head,
Love is a language foreign to my tongue:
I could have learned it once, when I was young,
But now quite other things my wish employs:
Peace, liberty, and sun, to gild my days.
I dare not put to sea so near my home,
Nor want a gale to waft me to my tomb.
The smoke of Hymen’s lamp may cloud the skies
And adverse winds from different quarters rise.
I want no heaps of gold; I hate all dress,
And equipage. The cow provides my mess.
‘Tis true, a chariot’s a convenient thing;
But then perhaps, Sir, you may hold the string.
I’d rather walk alone my own slow pace,
Than drive with six, unless I choose the place.
Imprisoned in a coach, I should repine:
The chaise I hire, I drive and call it mine.
And, when I will, I ramble, or retire
To my own room, own bed, my garden, fire;
Take up my book, or trifle with my pen;
And, when I’m weary, lay them down again:
No questions asked; no master in the spleen
I would not change my state to be a queen.

In all 3 cases we find a woman taking over a latin or classical precedent or type poem. The woman who does this seriously (say in the later 17th century Aphra Behn in her Heroides Oenone to Paris), internalize male privileges and outlooks and create a parrot counterpart. The woman who provides a distintively genuine female perspective rewrites and reverses central tropes.

Marisa Acocella, 1999


Catherine Jemmat was daughter to Admiral John Yeo of Plymouth by his first wife (unnamed). Her mother died when she was 5 and her father married a woman who was mean to her (the father was often at sea). She was sent to a boarding school and married a silk mercer named Jemmat by whom she had a daughter. The escape was worse than the original sentence. He was abusive (violent, often drunk) and went bankrupt.

So Catherine was (according to her memoir) "thrown upon the wide world for support." We may imagine what this means, but she did survive and wrote a 3 volume book of Memoirs (1st ed, 1762, which I wish I could read). She became dependent on aristocratic patrons who had known her father (so she presents the situation). She also published Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1766) which includes an essay called "In Vindication of the Female Sex" where she protests against the scapegoating meted out to women who may be said to have sexual relationships with anyone outside marriage (no matter when or how this is written or talked about). Lonsdale says there are "mysteries" surrounding her.

Mary Chandler (1687-1745) was one of the several women poets of the 18th century who was not gentry. It’s said because she was badly crippled or deformed, she did not marry but instead opened a milliner’s shop in Bath (nearby the Pump Room where Elizabeth Montagu and her friends would meet). From Chandler’s poems she seems not unhappy (she has friendship poems of great warmth), and the most famous is her long comic and successful "Description of Bath." However, it’s also said (but we remember what Virgil said about Rumor) that under the "care" of George Cheyne, she became anorexic (a girl who wanted "out"or was continually made to feel her body was unacceptable). In the spirit of Johnson upon the legend that Otway starved to death, let us hope not, but if she did deliberately starve herself to death, she at least did not give up her shop to put herself under this male doctor’s control.

No, she stayed in business successfully for 35 years. No small thing. But her epitaph harps again on her looks. It does not begin with her life and success but rather "Here lies a true maid, deformed and old …" Is not it terrible, Marianne, a woman should endlessly judge herself as an object a man might want to go to bed with? Like the comic Horatian "True Tale," her epitaph does have a combination of wry self-acceptance and stalwart Horatian ideals of being content with what you can manage to wrest from life: "Her book and her pen had her moments of leisure".


I finished reading a non-funny but eloquent book tonight, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In the close she writes:

"if we look past Milton’s bogey [this stands for all the misogyny and false things about women’s lives we are confronted with daily], for no human being should shut out the view [you can see beyond the bad art pushed at you]; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unkinown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born."

Woolf maintains that a real women’s literature will come if we will only ground ourselves on ourselves, see clearly the life we really do lead, and through imitating and revivifying real women’s works and writing new ones genuinely out of their paradigms, and face working in obscurity and for little money, it will be a life worth living.

I love the line in Chapter 5 where she says turn your mind away from the cruel and inane garbage you find around you:

"illumine your own soul with its profundities and its vanities and its generosities, and say what your beauty means to you or your plainness, and what is your relation to the everchanging world of gloves and shoes and stuffs swaying up and down … if you stop to curse you are lost."

A beautiful justification for blogging.

But then she says "equally, if you stop to laugh." Well, sometimes laughter can help, if not all that much.

Ana Juan reversing the famous first cover illustration

Adieu my dear. This was written in stages.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. Addendum:

    Extras I’ve put on before. A comic portrait of a woman's life:

    by Connie Bensley:

    "Keeping on top of things"

    I want to be alone.
    But I have to see the chiropodist, the dentist
    the car mechanic, the ear-syringer,
    the roofer, the window cleaner,
    and a man to cut back the creeper
    which is forcing its way in
    through the bedroom window.

    Thank goodness I don’t have to see
    the manicurist, the otologist
    the arboriculturalist,
    the reflexologist, the phrenologist
    the hypnotherapist, the gynaecologist
    the Chinese herbalist, or the psychiatrist
    at least not this week.

    And hitting out at how we behave in social situations (the need to be guarded, have status, prevents any enjoyment, and then satire turns into pitty, Phyllis McGinley rewrites the Petrarchan sonnet:

    Evening Musicale.

    Candles. Red tulips, ninety cents the bunch.
    Two lions, Grade B. A newly tuned piano.
    No cocktails, but a dubious kind of punch,
     Lukewarm and weak. A harp and a soprano.
    The 'Lullaby' of Brahms. Somebody's cousin
    From Forest Hills, addicted to the punch.
    Two dozen gentlemen; ladies; three dozen,
    Earringed and powered. Sandwiches at one.

    The ashtrays few, the ventilation meager.
    Shushes to great the late-arriving guest
    Or quell the punch-bowl group. A young man eager
    To render 'Daddy Deever' by request.
    And sixty people trying to relax
    On little rented chairs with gilded backs.

    Occupation: Housewife.

    Her health is good. She owns to forty-one,
    Keeps her hair bright by vegetable rinses,
    Has two well-nourished children -- daughter & son
    Just now away at school. Her house, with its chintzes
    Expensively curtained, animates the caller.
    And she is fond of Early American glass
    Stacked in an English breakfront somewhat taller
    Than her best friend's. Last year she took a class

    In modern drama at the County Center.
    Twice, on Good Friday, she's heard _Parsifal_ sung.
    She often says she might have been a painter,
    Or maybe writer; but she married young.
    She diets. And with Contract she delays
    The encroaching desolation of her days.

    McGinley is not really funny I know. But I'm bitter this morning. It's the loneliness: very few conversations (the lists I run seem dead just now) and what's there often demoralizing (on Wompo they are talking of how the writers have to pay anyone to publish their stuff, and the publishers how the writers are so inane as to not to produce a respectable ms and themselves don't buy poetry or help spread it as a popular commodity to "consume") or dumb (a couple of Yahoo groups I'm on where they relentlessly keep away from "hot spots" or spout resignation and repeating inhumane values.

    Woolf's inspiriting admonition is easier said than done. We did have a pleasant walk this evening and this morning at the pool and gym with Yvette and Caroline was enjoyable. Tomorrow we'll all three go to see The Lost City. Last week Yvette and I saw the very grim The Proposition: Roy Winstone as the officer and Emily Watson as his repressed wife were brilliant.

    Elinor    Jul 1, 12:27am    #
  2. Poem Composed in Santa Barbara
    Wendy Cope

    The poets talk. They talk a lot.
    They talk of T. S. Eliot.
    One is anti. One is pro.
    How hard they think! How much they know!
    They’re happy. A cicada sings.
    We women talk of other things.

    Wendy Cope

    I used to think all poets were Byronic—
    Mad, bad and dangerous to know.
    And then I met a few. Yes it’s ironic—
    I used to think all poets were Byronic.
    They’re mostly wicked as a ginless tonic
    And wild as pension plans. Not long ago
    I used to think all poets were Byronic—
    Mad, bad and dangerous to know.
    Marcus Bales    Jul 1, 11:46am    #
  3. Ellen, I’m so glad to see people taking up this topic. Theresa Welford and I are compiling an anthology of humorous poetry/light verse in form and meter by women, and quite an impressive roster of contributors has checked in already.

    One of the questions we hope to address is "What’s funny?", which Annie Finch raised at West Chester last month. There is a lot of transgression in humor and satire, and I personally don’t think that anxiety about transgression per se is going to "cleanse" (for lack of a better word) humor, in the sense of making it politically correct—even among feminists with a notoriously well-developed sense of humor.

    I think there’s a real danger of putting ideology before the joke, that humor lives in a narrow, shifting space between identification and insult, and that the reader/auditor has to be willing to accept a joke at his or her expense sometimes under those limited and shifting circumstances.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that, yes, there is a tendency to take any joke too seriously by self-selecting an in-group (in this case, women, particularly women formalists). Yet without that insider’s perspective, the joke is just another joke among many, not specifically a woman’s joke…

    That said, the poems I’ve seen thus far do indeed talk back: to men, to themselves, to other women, to stereotypes; but they are hardly wistful and forlorn. In fact, I sense what I call a "bad-girl aesthetic" among formalistas in particular, and this is borne out by the submissions I’m seeing (think Moira Egan’s Bar Napkin Sonnets, for example).

    Along those lines I'd say Marilyn Taylor's "over-40-so-here's-the-facts" is similar (think the stewardess poems, "Another Thing I Ought to Be Doing," etc.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, there’s the latest!

    Robin    Jul 1, 2:09pm    #
  4. Thank you for the poems, Marcus. I regret my inability to answer your emails to me about (to my mind) how we should regard other people’s views of us.

    And thank you, Robin. I solicited titles of funny poems by 19th century women from a list called Victoria, and got nary a suggestion onlist. I was disappointed, but not all that surprized (how few people are willing to post is part of this).

    Offlist someone named a poem by Dora Greenwell and offered to scan it in and send it along as it's "pretty obscure." He wrote: "'The Mower-Maid', about a mower-girl who falls in love with the local cute gentry boy. The mother tells her that if she can mow an entire field in 3 days, she'll let her have him. The mower-maid nearly works herself to death to get the job does, and when she crawls to the house to claim her prize, the mother says 'Oh. I was kidding.'"

    And then he added (defensively perhaps): "Well, *I* think it's funny. ;)"

    Alas, he never sent it.
    I don’t think women take joking against them any more seriously than any other group. They are more overt nowadays, perhaps tired of ridicule? perhaps they see how it functions. why single out this group? Men get just as easily sore if you squeeze where their shoes pinch.

    I wonder aloud to anyone who reads these comments, why do women pick out other women to berate? Why does Greer take her title from a mocking dismissive epigram from Pope? "Slip-shod sybils" (i.e. don't women know what's important for them is to dress well for men, certainly not to present their thoughts). If this is an attempt to enlist what males are most resentful of (women who don't aim the center of their lives at serving them), it doesn't work.

    I do agree that first we must define what’s funny and humor is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

    Elinor    Jul 2, 10:04am    #
  5. Bloody Men
    Wendy Cope

    Bloody men are like bloody buses –
    You wait for about a year
    And as soon as one approaches your stop
    Two or three others appear.

    You look at them flashing their indicators,
    Offering you a ride.
    You’re trying to read the destinations,
    You haven’t much time to decide.

    If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
    Jump off, and you’ll stand there and gaze
    While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
    And the minutes, the hours, the days.

    Wendy Cope

    The day he moved out was terrible –
    That evening she went through hell.
    His absence wasn’t a problem
    But the cockscrew had gone as well.
    Marcus Bales    Jul 4, 4:27pm    #
  6. One Perfect Rose
    Dorothy Parker

    A single flower he sent me, since we met.
    All tenderly his messenger he chose;
    Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet –
    One perfect rose.

    I knew the language of the floweret;
    “My fragile leaves,” it said, “his heart enclose.”
    Love long has taken for his amulet
    One perfect rose.

    Why is it no one’s ever sent me yet
    One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
    Ah, no – it’s always just my luck to get
    One perfect rose.
    Marcus Bales    Jul 5, 7:23am    #
  7. Thank you to Marcus. Parker is one of those who writes bitterly satiric poems. Her "Resume" is famous, but she also has poems directed at the double-standard and male insouciance.

    I’ve had a couple of replies about Victorian poetry and I’m beginning to think the strong repression of women’s sexuality and the class element so to the fore in Victorian literature prevents humor as the situation for women was not funny :).

    What people have come up with are witty riddles which parody types of poems (less pointed than Phoebe Cary’s), some satiric commentary in Aurora Leigh and the Dora Greenwell. This one shows how class and sexuality worked to hurt women badly. The man who offered it had remembered it as joke in the vein, "you didn't really believe his promises did you?" The joke is I’m afraid on her:

    Dora Greenwell's Mower-Maiden:

    "Good morning, Bessie! What! astir so early with the day!
    Love hath not made thee, best of girls, an idler on thy way;
    Well! mow this meadow in three days, and then I may not chuse
    My only son to such a girl still longer to refuse."

    So spoke the wealthy Farmer, as he went his morning round,
    With busy, self-important mien; Ah, Bessie! at the sound
    How throbs that loving heart of thine! new life, new strength it sends
    Through all her limbs—-beneath her scythe the waving meadow bends.

    The mid-day glows, the Mowers now with heat and toil opprest,
    Have sought with thirsty lip the well, the cooling shade for rest;
    And from the sultry fields awhile, all save the bees are gone,
    Yet Bessie rests not, but with them in rivalry works on.

    The vesper bells have chimed, and fast shuts in the evening gray,
    "Now, well enough," the neighbours cry, "good Bessie, for to-day."
    The mowers leave the fields, the herds draw home at set of sun,
    But Bessie whets her scythe and works as if she’d just begun.

    The dew shines soft on earth, in Heaven the moon with many a star,
    The hay smells fresh, the nightingale trills loudly from afar,
    Yet Bessie feels no wish to pause a listening ear to lend,
    She only hears with steady stroke the rustling scythe descend.

    And so from eve till morn, from morn till eve, as at the first
    She feeds on love, on happy hope she quenches still her thirst,
    The third time rises up the sun, and now are Bessie’s hands
    At rest, as weeping joyful tears upon the field she stands.

    "Good morning, Bessie! what see I! oh, active, stirring girl!
    And is the meadow really mown? that shall be cared for well;
    But for my son—-in earnest thou didst never take my jest?
    Ah! fond and simple then it seems must be the loving breast!"

    He speaks and goes upon his way, but Bessie has grown pale,
    A deathly chill has struck her heart, her knees beneath her fail;
    Her senses swim, her speech is gone, her consciousness gives way,
    And there poor Bessie has sunk down upon her new-mown hay;

    And so through stunned and silent years beside the bee that yields.

    For her its honey, Bessie still lives on amid the fields,
    A life that is not Life—-Oh, make, and make it quickly there
    A grave for her, the Mower-Maid, among the meadows fair.


    Like Lily Dale (from Trollope's The Small House at Allington) this mower-maiden lost her virginity in the grass. And like Lily Dale the jest is you didn't think he'd marry someone like you (with nothing to offer). That's the aristocratic DeCourcy attitude towards Lily; their daughter gets to marry Crosbie. They dismiss Lily as beneath their notice. Her family can't hurt theirs, too powerless. The milliner Amelia really can't get near Johnny, the young gentleman (in training). John Eames doesn't decamp since his salary is so low he's stuck at Mrs Roper's boarding-house.

    Doubtless the lack of satire in women's poems in the 19th century comes also from sheer repression. Women are not supposed to show anger. And then the genre (satire) was not popular as it had been in the 18th century so the woman could not hide behind the idea she was writing in a genre. But it seems to be also a function of the intense class consciousness of the literarure and the intense repression of women's sexuality.

    In truth the situation for women in the 19th century in England who wanted respectability and to be treated decently was not funny.

    The situation of women agricultural workers was of course hopeless; elsewhere the pressure to have sex with a man in power (as a servant or if you went to work for him --- Trollope shows this in The Landleaguers) was as ever intense. The idea of harassment as something unacceptable had not emerged and is only the product of the second phase of feminism (1970s) and has not been supported by the courts consistently. Dickens does not become realistic enough to show this and we characteristically see then are as miserable wretched or angry drudges (terrified into "good behavior" as in Great Expectations) or themselves monsters (Bleak House) years later.

    Elinor    Jul 6, 7:59am    #

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