August 3, 2012

Bret Harte: the worst poem anyone ever wrote

Which I wish to remark,
     And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark
     And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,
     Which the same I would rise to explain.

The "plain language" from "truthful James" was lost on the general readership of Bret Harte and the Overland Monthly. Harte had published his poem, "Plain Language from Truthful James" in the September 1870 issue of that California-based journal. He meant it as a satire against the improper treatment of Chinese immigrants, using a character named Ah Sin. Instead, the poem was accepted as a justification for racism under its appropriated name "The Heathen Chinee." The poem takes place on August 3:

It was August the third,
     And quite soft was the skies;
Which it might be inferred
     That Ah Sin was likewise;
Yet he played it that day upon William
     And me in a way I despise.

Which we had a small game,
     And Ah Sin took a hand:
It was Euchre. The same
     He did not understand;
But he smiled as he sat by the table,
     With the smile that was childlike and bland.

This Chinese man claimed not to understand the game; in reality, he stuffed his sleeves full of aces "with intent to deceive." The narrator and his friend Bill Nye finally recognize the cheat when he plays the same card the narrator already held in his hand:

Then I looked up at Nye,
     And he gazed upon me;
And he rose with a sigh,
     And said, "Can this be?
We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor," —
     And he went for that heathen Chinee.

In the scene that ensued
     I did not take a hand,
But the floor it was strewed
     Like the leaves on the strand
With the cards that Ah Sin had been hiding,
     In the game "he did not understand."

The poem was so widely reprinted, it made Harte instantly popular. Several versions included illustrations mocking the "Heathen Chinee" and "the scene that ensued" (interpreted by some as a large-scale race riot). Later, however, the author himself looked upon the poem as "trash," and declared it "the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anyone ever wrote." The joke was not lost, however, on the up-and-coming writer named Edgar Wilson Nye, who used "Bill Nye" as his pseudonym as a tribute to Harte's poem.

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