Towel Day - Vogon Poetry 101

Vogon

Vogon Poetry is acknowledged to be among the worst in the universe. In a special Poetry 101, Susan Omand looks at whether this is really the case...

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy lists Vogon poetry as the third worst in the universe, the second being written by the Azgoths of Kria, including that seminal work by Grunthos the Flatulent, Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in my Armpit One Midsummer Morning, and the worst being credited to Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge in Essex and lost due to the destruction of Earth by the Vogons in order to build a hyperspace express route (you’ve got to build bypasses).

So let’s have a look at a couple of verses from one of the few examples of Vogon poetry that we have in writing which was composed and recited by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz, captain of that same Vogon Constructor Fleet with which Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent hitched a lift just as the Earth was being destroyed (apathetic bloody planet, I’ve no sympathy at all).

Anyway, I digress. Here are the first and final verses:

Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me,
As plurdled gabbleblotchits,
In a lurgid bee.
...
Groop, I implore thee, my foonting turling dromes,
And hooptiously drangle me,
With crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or else I shall rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon,
See if I don't.

As I see it, this is essentially a fetishist love poem of sorts where amorous declarations, comparing his gruntbuggly’s peeing to the honeyed gobbleblotchits of a bee, lead on to pleading with the object of his affections to indulge his masochistic fantasy of being drangled, yet the final two lines of the poem take a darker turn as, obviously having this indulgence refused before, he threatens actual physical violence with a menacing “See if I don’t” at the end leaving a challenge, almost a dare, to be met. However, the fact that it has been translated into English, (this one being done thanks to the work of the Babelfish in Ford and Arthur’s ears, although some texts carry variations on the same theme) needs to be taken into account I think since, as with a lot of translated work, not only is the rhyme and rhythm lost, the subtle nuances of words for which there is no literal English translation is also gone.

Leaving aside the subject matter, the thing that strikes me about the technique of the poetry is its similarity to the nonsense verse of Lewis Carroll – there’s enough in the bits you understand to act as context for the words that didn’t quite translate over correctly. And the composition itself is rich and varied. Contrary to what Ford Prefect said about the rhythmic devices counterpointing the surrealism of the underlying metaphor, there is, instead, a good use of simile here (saying something is like something else) and some wonderfully evocative description, referencing the lurdigity of the bee and specifying that the bindlewurdles were of the much rarer crinkly variety rather than the smooth bindlewurdles that you normally come across. All this added detail helps to build a strong visual, and olfactory, image.

Given the literal translation that a Babel Fish does, we can assume too that the word choices are accurate rather than inferred, so the choice of words in the poem is also important, harking back to the classical language of Shakespearean sonnet, using words like thy, implore and rend, while abandoning the structured form completely in a very modern beat poetry style which is, in fact, a very clever mix.

So there is much to appreciate about Vogon poetry, at least that written by Jeltz. It would be worthwhile seeking out more examples to see if this is the case for all Vogon verse, in which case The Hitchhikers Guide has been giving it a bad press all along and needs to change the entry for it in the book. After all, Ford updated the entry in the Guide about the Earth, so anything is possible (just infinitely improbable).

Image - Wikipedia