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The worst line you ever read

The terrible stress of the holidays — all that expense, all that synthetic cheer, all that strain of pretending to like your relations and co-workers — takes its toll. Let’s relieve a little of the pressure of that relentless jollity with a little contest.

What’s the worst writing you ever read?

Now wait — before you spring at me with extracts from the work of William McGonagall* or Julia A. Moore, the Sweet Singer of Michigan, or from your counsin’s child’s fifth-grade book report or the latest memo on health care benefits from your human resources department, or the latest winners of the Bulwer-Lytton contest, we’re going to set a couple of rules.

(1) It must be published writing.

(2) It must be of some literary standing, not the work of a misguided amateur but rather that of a misguided professional.

(3) It must be limited to a single sentence or, for poetry, verse.

I’ll lead off with two of my own favorites.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature”:

“I become a transparent eyeball. …”

From Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude:

At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore

He paused, a wide and melancholy waste

Of putrid marshes.

 Have at it.


* Many years ago, I read “The Tay Bridge Disaster” to an unsuspecting radio audience in Upstate New York and since then can only return to the area heavily disguised.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:42 PM | | Comments (22)


For a poem, I'm limited to nominating just one verse? Wow...that's difficult. Which verse would you choose:

"I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree."

I guess I'd pick the second verse, but could be easily argued into the fifth. Or third. Or last. Or...

I didn't say it would be easy.

Speaking of trees, how about George Pope Morris' 1830 chestnut, "Woodman, Spare That Tree"? The last verse is probably the most intense:

My heart-strings round thee cling,
Close as thy bark, old friend!
Here shall the wild-bird sing,
And still thy branches bend.
Old tree! the storm still brave!
And, woodman, leave the spot:
While I've a hand to save,
Thy axe shall harm it not.

But it would be shame to miss the other verses, which can be found at

or, for that matter, Derek B. Scott's rendition of the musical setting by Henry Russell at

I'm leery about including the lyrics to songs in this competition; they're are worth a category of shame all to themselves. It was more than 40 years ago, much against my will, that these inane lyrics were imprinted in my head:

And I think it's going to be all right,
Yes, the worst is over now.
The morning sun is rising
Like a red rubber ball.

I can only hope that someone with the imagination of a Dante has prepared a torment exquisite enough for Paul Simon when he arrives in Hell.

Paul Simon's punishment should be an eternity listening to Neil Diamond lyrics.

But we've digressed...

I was thoroughly displeased with the outcome of Cormac McCarthy's, "The Road". It was a bit verbose, and the resolution was less than sufficient. Here is a line - one of many - that seems crammed with an unnecessary metaphor.

"And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders."

Ouch! Why consign Paul Simon to hell when you could pick on so many lesser lyricists? Simon wrote "Red Rubber Ball" more or less anonymously, for a quick buck, when he was unknown and broke. And at his best his lyrics make us wax poetic ourselves:

If the goal is to take someone with real literary standing down a peg, why not start with John Ashbery? He's an extraordinary talent, but he's also given modern poetry such lines as these:

"Popeye, forced as
you know to flee the country
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened,
duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant

Arpeggio of our years."

I agree. Damn them all.

Another treasure trove of bad lines is Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," especially Parts II and III. "Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries!" So many! Hysterical exclamations!

P.S. Looks like we left a modifier dangling in that last comment...should read: "And when he's at his best, his lyrics," etc.

I also suspect that any book by Erica Jong, opened at random, would yield a rich harvest.

Buck, there's a rest stop on the NJ Turnpike named after Joyce Kilmer. 'Nuff said?

Eve - was she from NJ?

Eve - I just went and googled Joyce Kilmer. He was a guy. Who knew? Not I. And we share a birthday. (And he was from NJ.)

Wow...the things I learn as a result of hanging out in the Parlour. I bet I'll be able to work the little "Joyce Kilmer was a guy" nugget into a conversation before the end of the year. Wanna bet?

Love means never having to say you're sorry.

Everyuthing about that is tripe.

Buck, back in the dark ages, Jersey kids learned about Kilmer in grade school. We were also required to memorize Trees like it was great literature to be revered - well, that did teach us to disregard authority figures - and recite it aloud when called upon. Of course, verse 2 has that word that makes grade school girls want to die rather than speak in front of the class and grade school boys act like...well, grade school boys! It had also been set to music, Very, very soppy!

Paul Clark, one of the stalwarts of editing, who has the questionable distinction of having worked with me both in Cincinnati and Baltimore, offered this nomination on Facebook. Since some of you may not have access there, I'm reposting it here:

"And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:"

Coleridge, "Kubla Khan"

I had a college professor who had a piece of the tree Kilmer wrote about. When it was cut down, pieces were ecased in clear plastic as mementos. I believe the tree grew (and died) on the Rutgers University campus in New Jersy.

I nominate ANYTHING by Stephen King or Tom Clancy.
They (I am being generous) may have been okay writers in their early pieces, buy they quickly started turning our dreck for the unwashed masses.

May I suggest another topic?

"The Worst Line You've Ever Fixed"

(those being the ones that never did see publication, so ineligible here)

I nominate "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley, in particular the following stanza:

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud;
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

I'm wincing now, but it seemed so relevant to me during my angst-filled* teenagerdom -- I even recited it for a school talent show.

(*Younger readers can substitute "emo" for "angst")

From Middlemarch, by George Eliot [Actually, almost any sentence from almost anything she wrote would qualify...]

"A great historian, as he insisted on calling himself, who had the happiness to be dead a hundred and twenty years ago, and so to take his place among the colossi whose huge legs our living pettiness is observed to walk under, glories in his copious remarks and digressions as the least imitable part of his work, and especially in those initial chapters to the successive books of his history, where he seems to bring his arm-chair to the proscenium and chat with us in all the lusty ease of his fine English."

GeorgiaGirl, George Elliot was another writer that Jersey kids were expected to read with reverence.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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