There are many contenders for Top Dog status in the bone yard of bonehead ideas. [Provide favorite to Comments]. In the late nineteenth through early twentieth centuries, the highest honors for magnificently cockeyed excogitations belonged to one known only as the Idiot.
The Idiot, the creation of Harpers humor editor, John Kendrick Bangs (1862-1922), whose Idiot confections were collected into six volumes*, was a boarder in Mrs. Smithers-Pegagog’s High-Class Home for Single Gentlemen. I’m always anxious to learn as much as I can about the history of the fleabag with a foyer and threadbare lace doilies I currently call home, so, naturally, I am drawn Bangs’ stories.
The Idiot presided over all communal meals as an impresario of inanity, serving up moronic opinions and dubious schemes for the “amelioration of the condition of the civilized” onto his dining companions’ plates con mucho gusto, the meals invariably ending with indigestión con vertigo for fellow residents the Poet, the Biblioiphile, Mrs. Smithers-Pedagog and her ex, Mr. Pedagog.
“The trials of the barbarian are really nothing compared to the tribulations of civilized man,” the Idiot declares. Amen, brother.
So, in The Inventions of the Idiot (1904) he turns his attention to the plight of the lowly poet.
“What I’d like to see established is a sort of Poetic Clearing-house Association. Supposing I opened up an office in Wall Street – a Bank for Poets in which all writers of verse could deposit their rhymes as they write them, and draw against them, just as they do in ordinary banks with their money. It would be fine. Take a man like Swinburne, for instance, or our friend here. Our poet could take a sonnet he had written, endorse it, and put it in the bank. He’d be credited with one sonnet, and wouldn’t have to bother his head about it afterwards. He could draw against it. If the Clearing-house company could dispose of it to a magazine his draft would be honored in cash to its full value, less discount charges, which would include postage and commissions to the company.
“’And suppose the company failed to dispose of it,’ suggested the Poet.
“They’d do just as ordinary banks do with checks – stamp it, ‘Not Good,’ said the Idiot. “That, however, wouldn’t happen very often if the concern had an intelligent receiving-teller to detect counterfeits. If the receiving-teller were a man fit for the position and a poet brought in a quatrain with five lines in it, he could detect it at once and hand it right back. So with comic poems. I might go there with a poem I thought was comic, and proceed to the usual deposit slip. The teller would look at it a second, scrutinize the humor carefully, and then if it was not what I thought it, would stamp it ‘Not Comic’ or ‘Counterfeit.’ It’s perfectly simple.”
And perfectly idiotic, though it does raise the possibility of gainful employment for poets that involves poetry. Those receiver-teller positions are going to require skilled craftspeople to separate the iambic from the trochaic, the spondaic from the dactylic, the systolic from the diastolic. And, as required, comic timing will be necessary.
The Bank For Poets had a bad quarter
Sub-prime muses all underwater
Foreclosed stanzas sitting idly
Interest rates down- swing wildly
Down, down, down, the drunken bard
Says with the bastards in verse pithy
I’ve had it with these rotten bums
Who securitize our work and leave us crumbs
Spending days diffusing risk
While Greenspan yawned and said, "Tsk, tsk"
Diced poems trade for the highest quote
There’s a guy in Butte who bought a syllable I wrote
And thinks he’ll profit while I starve
But I’ve sharpened my knife for morbid carve
Weak and weary I know the dreary score
And you can quoth me on this: “Nevermore!”
The Idiot (NY: Harper & Bros.,1895).
Coffee, Repartee, and the Idiot (Harper & Bros., 1899)
The Idiiot At Home (NY: Harper & Bros., 1900)
The Inventions of the Idiot (NY: Harper & Bros., 1904)
The Genial Idiot (NY: Harper & Bros., 1908)
Half Hours With the idiot (NY: Harper & Bros., 1917)
Many thanks to Valerie Urban of Rulon-Miller Books for images of title page and binding.