Poetry Wednesday: How Now, Purple Cow?

In 1895, humorist Gelett Burgess wrote a little four line poem for the premiere issue of The Lark, his literary magazine out of San Francisco:

The Purple Cow: Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who’s Quite Remarkable, at Least
(Gelett Burgess)

I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!

For some reason—the meter, the rhyme, the purple—this bit of nonsense caught fire.

Over the years, it has been memorized, recited, chanted over skipping ropes, analyzed to the point of <headdesk>,* and provided the inspiration behind everything from dubious ice cream treats to sports teams to writing groups.

It’s also proved irresistible to other writers, some of whom remain anonymous for good reason:

I’ve never seen a purple cow.
My eyes with tears are full.
I’ve never seen a purple cow,
And I’m a purple bull.

There are even several parodies, most of which were  written in the 1920s by Carolyn Wells in the style of other authors—including William Wordsworth,** though I personally think she was channeling a bit of Robert Frost:

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dee;
A Cow whom there were few to praise
And very few to see.

A violet by a mossy stone
Greeting the smiling East
Is not so purple, I must own,
As that erratic beast.

She lived unknown, that Cow, and so
I never chanced to see;
But if I had to be one, oh,
The difference to me!

Or maybe not Frost . . . but you have to admit “The Cow Not Taken,” is an excellent title.

The original verse was imitated so often that Mr. Burgess eventually failed to see the flattery and wrote a follow-up in The Lark several years later:

Confession: and a Portrait Too, Upon a Background that I Rue
(Gelett Burgess)

Ah, yes, I wrote the “Purple Cow”—
I’m sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you anyhow
I’ll kill you if you quote it!

As you might imagine, this didn’t stop anyone.  In fact, as you also might imagine, it just seemed to egg ’em on:

Cow’s Meow
(Täs Zinck)

I’ve never heard a cat meow.
I’d never want to feed one.
But I can tell you anyhow,
It’s some trouble to de-flea one.

I don’t believe Mr. Burgess ever made good on his threats or instructed his descendants to do so, so we’re gonna run with it.

You envy poets, so you say?
The language and the freedom?
Well, if Sarah gets her way
You’ll take the chance to be one.

Yep, it’s contest time!

Write a four-line poem about something you’ve never seen, sticking as close to the original meter (in syllables, 8-7-8-7) and rhyme scheme (a-b-a-b) as you can—but don’t sweat it.  I didn’t.


Do a purple cow parody in the style of a poet I would recognize (check the archive)*** and share it in the comments here or send it to the e-mail address in the upper left corner.   Your name will go in twice for trying Chaucer in Middle English, and will be thrown away for Thomas Hardy, because it’s continuing to be a heck of week and I can’t even deal with him right now.

If you decide to accept this mission—and you know you want to—your name will be placed in the Pink Cowgirl Hat of Win^ for a chance to score a regular-sized mug of your choice from CafePress, or an online gift card in an equivalent amount, should you not wish to give me your mailing address which won’t hurt my feelings at all, promise.

And since I wouldn’t challenge any of you to do something I wouldn’t—at least on Wednesdays—and to illustrate how little time these take out of your busy life:

I’ve never seen an orange crow
I’d pay good cash to see one
Or more, all lined up in a row
Against all sense and reason.^^

I’ve rarely seen a clean playroom
(and neither has their father)
Instead I play on my bassoon
‘Cause housework’s such a bother.

Three of the five minutes each of these took was spent counting on my fingers to see if I had the syllables right—and it was fun!

Give it a try—I double cow dare you.

You have until this Sunday at midnight, Chicago time.   Go.


*Why can’t people just let a funny little poem about a purple cow be a funny little poem about a purple cow?  Isn’t that enough?

**From “Diversions of the Re-Echo Club, The Book of Humorous Verses,  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1920.

***If you are a poet (looking at you, John S.,  lilygriff, Hansen, and the other poetical lurkers I suspect I’ve got), please pick someone else.  Kev, the moratorium on limericks still holds.

^Or possibly the Blue Cubs Hat of Maybe Next Year if the owner of the Pink Cowgirl Hat doesn’t clean her room so I can find it.

^^Or, “‘Cause ginger’s in this season.”  Tough choice . . .