In 1998, Billy Collins pulled off the greatest literary practical joke in the history of the English language: he invented the paradelle.

One morning (let’s say it was a crisp New England autumn day with blue sky and wispy clouds, just to set the mood) Billy Collins was doing what he does best: writing poems. I like to imagine that he woke up in a bit of mischievous mood and carrying a slight twinkle of the eye. For whatever reason, Collins decided to write an intentionally bad form poem, poking fun at those who write them just for pretentions sake. Thinking that too many bad sonnets and villanelles already existed, he invented a form on the fly with the most ridiculous rules he could imagine. The first set so mind-numbingly easy as to be unnecessary, the second set so restrictive and ornately circumspect as to be obviously a joke. He then wrote a brief afterword explaining that the paradelle originated from the same era as the villanelle and sonnet, but had fallen out of popularity over time. He reached out to an editor friend with a sense of humor and the poem appeared as follows in a 1998 edition of The American Scholars:

A Paradelle for Susan

I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Thinnest love, remember the quick branch.
Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the.

It is time for me to cross the mountain.
It is time for me to cross the mountain.
And find another shore to darken with my pain.
And find another shore to darken with my pain.
Another pain for me to darken the mountain.
And find the time, cross my shore, to with it is to.

The weather warm, the handwriting familiar.
The weather warm, the handwriting familiar.
Your letter flies from my hand into the waters below.
Your letter flies from my hand into the waters below.
The familiar waters below my warm hand.
Into handwriting your weather flies you letter the from the.

I always cross the highest letter, the thinnest bird.
Below the waters of my warm familiar pain,
Another hand to remember your handwriting.
The weather perched for me on the shore.
Quick, your nervous branch flew from love.
Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.

NOTE: The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d’oc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only those words.

It’s an awful poem. Collin’s thought it might generate a laugh or two, and then be dismissed as a one-off, tongue in cheek prank.

That’s not what happened.

Letters came flooding into the journal decrying the outrage that a paradelle of such low quality would be published in such a respected journal. An embarrassment to poetry, readers declared. One particularly audacious armchair critic even declared it “the worst paradelle he had ever read.”

And here’s where the joke goes from a clever literary riff to the greatest practical joke ever played upon the confines of academia and pretention. Collins, instead of writing a letter informing readers that the paradelle was a parody and they had all been duped, wrote a letter asking for forgiveness. The paradelle, he said, was just an extraordinarily difficult form to master. He had tried his best and evidently he had come up short. If any of The American Scholars readers thought they could do better, they should give it a go.

Then he sat back and waited. Paradelles began to show up as literary curriculum in creative writing classes. People began pouring effort and time into writing them, creating genuinely good poetry, and publishing them in literary journals across the country.  A young professor from Georgia began to put together an anthology of paradelles and approached Collins to write an introduction, hoping to get an explanation of why the paradelle fell out of vogue from 1200 to 1998. Of course, some knew it to be a joke, but their collective bemused silence allowed the paradelle to run its course. Collins even published it, straight-faced, in his 1999 poetry collection Picnic, Lightning.

Best I can tell, the first ever formal acknowledgment of the prank came via a 2001 interview in The Paris Review, where he recounts the whole saga. (He also pays homage to what is now my number two favorite literary joke of all time: a 1930 poem published in Poetry which looked rather serious but when read as an acrostic translates to: “Nicholas Murray Butler is a horse’s ass.”)

Hats off to you Mr. Collins. You can be my ex-poet laureate any day.

1 Comment

  1. Sam

    Hey Matt,

    Thank you for writing some background on this interesting piece of poetry parody history.

    I was wondering if you had a resource for the copy of the apology letter than you state Collins wrote in The American Scholars. I have not been able to find it and would like to if possible.




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