The Backwards Poem

Back when I was in school, it was very popular for teachers to make students memorize poetry. I had to memorize “Because I could not stop for death” by Emily Dickinson, Mark Antony’s Speech “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and numerous other poems and speeches I can no longer remember. The two mentioned, I can still at least recite the first few lines. When I was teaching, the other English teacher at my school required her English Lit class to memorize and recite the first stanza of the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer in Middle English with the correct pronunciation. This assignment is one of the toughest memorization assignments I know, and I too learned part of it when I was producing a play called The Canterbury Tales or Geoffrey Chaucer’s Flying Circus by Burton Bumgarner, which was a cross between The Canterbury Tales and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The only poem that I ever actually memorized and retained was one that I learned in second grade called “The Backwards Poem.” I cannot find an author from it, and I remember that it was supposedly Anonymous. This is the version I memorized and can still remember today:

Backwards Poem
By Anonymous

One bright day, in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight.
Back to back, they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came and shot the two dead boys.
If you don’t believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man; he saw it, too.

In spite of clearly remembering the poem for decades, I one day decided to look up the poem and learn more about it. I was working on a skit for my drama club and thought this poem would be a funny one to act out.  So, I decided to look it up on the Internet to see if I remembered the poem correctly and to find out who the author was.

It turns out that it’s an anonymous “folk” poem, one that has innumerable versions and has probably been around for at least a century and many different versions exist. It is also a much longer poem than I originally learned. One key point about folk poetry is that it invariably rhymes, so variations that have the odd non-rhyming line are personalized versions of it.  

The poem is essentially a sandwich-style story, but with only one slice of bread.  If a narrator is brought in at the end, there should be one at the beginning, too.  The main story starts well.  It provides a brief description of the setting for context and then plunges into the action.  Except that there is no follow through.  A story consists of series of events, not just one.  So, what happens next?  Surely there would be consequences to something that results in two dead people.  But most damning of all, where did the blind man come from?  You can’t just throw in a brand-new character right at the end to help you wrap up a story. Further research allowed me to piece together the complete poem. I also learned the poem is most often known as “Two Dead Boys” or “One Fine Day.”  

One Fine Day
By Anonymous

Ladies and gentlemen skinny and scout
I’ll tell you a tale I know nothing about
The admission is free so pay at the door
Now pull out a chair and sit on the floor

On one bright day in the middle of the night
Two dead boys got up to fight
Back to back they faced each other
Drew their swords and shot each other

The blind man came to see fair play
The mute man came to shout “Hooray!”
The deaf policeman heard the noise
And came and shot the two dead boys

He lived on the corner in the middle of the block
In a two-story house on a vacant lot
A man with no legs came walking by
And kicked the lawman in his thigh

He crashed through a wall without making a sound
Into a dry creek bed and suddenly drowned
A long black hearse came to cart him away
But he ran for his life and is still gone today

I watched from the corner of the table
The only eyewitness to facts of my fable
If you don’t believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man; he saw it, too.

With the exception of the addition of the first stanza, I like the version I memorized better. Therest of the poem seems to muddle things even further and, in my opinion, breaks up the flow of the poem.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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