Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

What in the hell is Machine Poetry?  I've studied it a fair amount, and I still don't have a concise definition.

There are two musical examples of it in the Rice tutor, one by young Frank B. Converse, on page 38, the other by veteran Dan Emmit, on page 48, entitled "Oh, Ladies All."  Joe Ayers recorded that one and a few of us play it, I believe.  The Converse example doesn't really make sense to me.  The eighth and ninth measures, you just s'posed to sing one note, or maybe it fades into spoken word, like a rap or something?  I can't figure it out.

The best definition I can give of machine poetry is that it's rhyme without reason, theme or motif, just nonsense.

Some examples from Google books:

Kind of a definition:

I get the feeling that everyone knew what machine poetry was -- seems to have served as an analogy for all sorts of things, as here: 

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"a sample of a novel type of minstrel music whose humor belongs to the Dadaist variety. It's sparse, monotonous melody-a babble on a single tone, fizzling out into prose-lends a touch of idiocy to the story. The name of the genre can be traced to one of Emmett's English song sheets of about 1844, entitled "History ob be World"   

from "Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy". 


more to follow  

There are other artistic examples from that period of the obsession with the notion that someday machines would be able to make anything. I have a copy of an old playbill from Toronto advertising a "laughable farce" called Sausages Made By Steam. My favourite though is an Irish music hall song called Daniel O'Connell which explores the possibilities of making babies by steam. I actually used to know this one.


Daniel O'Connell  (Sung to the tune of Larry O'Gaff)

You lovers of mirth, I pray pay attention
And listen to what I am going to relate,
Concerning a couple I overheard talking
As I was returning late home from a wake.
As I looked around I espied an old woman
Who sat by a gap all a-minding her cow.
She was jigging a tune called 'Come haste to the wedding'
Or some other ditty I can't recall now,
She was jigging a tune called 'An Buachaill an Donn'
Or some other ditty I can't tell you now.

Then in looking around I espied a bold tinker
Who only by chance came a passing that way.
The weather being warm he sat down to rest,
"Oh what news, honest man?" the old woman did say.
"Oh, it's no news at all, ma'am," replied the bold tinker,
"But there's one and I wish he never had been,
It's that damnable rogue of a Daniel O'Connell,
He's now making children in Dublin by steam."

"Oh, children, aroo," replied the old woman.
"Ainm an diabhal! is he crazy at last?
Is there sign of a war or a sudden rebellion
Or what is the reason he wants them so fast?"
"Oh, it's not that at all, ma'am," replied the bold tinker,
"But the children of Ireland are getting so small,
It's her majesty's petition to the Lord High Lieutenant
To not let us make them the old way at all."

"By each hair on my head," replied the old woman,
"And that's the great oath of my soul, for to say,
I am an old woman but if I were nigh him,
It's little a word that O'Connell might say.
The people of Ireland, it's very well known,
We gave him our fortunes, though needing them bad,
And now he is well compensating us for it;
He's taking what little diversion we had!"

"I am an old woman that's going on eighty,
Scarcely a hair on my head to be seen,
But if the villain provokes me I'll make better children
Than ever he could produce with his steam!"
"Good luck to you, woman," replied the bold tinker
"Long may you live and have youth on your side.
For if all the young women of Ireland were like you
O'Connell might soon shove his engine one side"

"I think every woman who is in this country
Should be out making babies as fast as she can
So if ever her majesty calls for an army
We'll be able to send her as many as Dan"

I think that if we separate ourselves from music and "think outside the box" our answer is easily obtained.


What is "machine poetry?"  Would that not be the product of a "machine poet?"


As anyone who has visited a used book store with a large amount of 19th century books knows, poetry was a very popular pastime. A small bit of searching unveils that a "machine poet" is a poet that is more concerned with the rules and structure of of poetry than the actual art.  It is a pretentious editorial device.


In this case I don't believe that it has to do with any actual machinery, rather it is just referring to how art suffers when the rules are too closely followed.  And it is that snootiness that they are making fun of.


So, my conclusion would be that minstrels, notorious for satire, were parodying the pretentiousness of poets being pretentious.

I wish we could see the cover to the sheet music by Emmett for "History ob de World"....Hans Nathan describes it quite well. I'll post it when I get home, unless somebody else has it, obetter yet...the image itself.  
14 months later I finally get some answers!
Whatever you need to know next year...ask now!

Re-reading my old links here, I see a phrase that of kind of fits Joels definition.  


"...machine poetry--trivial in theme,  forced or curious in expression, and, though sometime elegant, never beautiful." 


The History of France, Vol. 1, by Parke Goodwin, pub. 1860.

And yet Ian's definition is well supported here




and here





Therein layeth my dilemma of auld- the lack of a concise definition. 


Could it not have already become a joke by 1857?

Jokes can be explained.


So, speaking of the 1844 version by Emmett of "History ob de World"..

Mr. D.D. Emmett appears as The Machine Poet. Seated at his writing desk, he appears, with wide open eyes staring into the void and a long quill tensley held between his thick Negro lips, as the very image of inspiration. Around him are books with such facetious titles as On Color, The Dark Ages, and Blackstone. and a jar labelled "Nigger Health"; in the background looms the busts of Byron, Shakespeare, and Scott. In view of the machine as the contemporaneous symbol of inventiveness and progress, "machine poet" might mean "poet and genius of the age". "Machine Poetry" is his product: the finest and latest to be had, the most "advanced" artifact of literary fashion.


Hans Nathan p. 217  

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