Verse by Anthony Harrington, Julie Kane, X.J. Kennedy, Bob McKenty, Mary McLean,
Susan McLean, Mae Scanlan, Gene Weingarten, and Gail White.
From Bad to Verse
by Bob McKenty
The Little Willie is a light-verse form in which a youngster (typically “Little Willie”) is the protagonist or victim of some unfortunate tragedy, malicious mischief, or heinous crime. The form is usually attributed to English poet Harry Graham (1874-1936), although this early (and most commonly quoted) example is ascribed to Anonymous in David McCord’s 1945 anthology, What Cheer!
Little Willie, from his mirror,
Licked the mercury right off,
Thinking in his childish error
It would cure the whooping cough.
At the funeral his mother
Smartly said to Mrs. Brown
“‘Twas a chilly day for Willie
When the mercury went down.”
Retaining the above meter and line length, it seems to have evolved largely into a four-line form, most often rhymed aabb. This example is from Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, Graham’s late-19th-century anthology of the genre, which he published under the pseudonym Col. D. Streamer:
Willie with a fearful curse,
Flung the coffee pot at nurse.
As it struck her on the nose,
Father said: “How straight he throws!”
X.J. Kennedy has published three books of them: Brats, Fresh Brats, and Drat These Brats! This one’s from Drat These Brats! For the rhyme, Joe gives “Will” a last name:
On a factory tour, Will Gossage,
Watching folks make bratwurst sausage,
Jumped into the meat feet first.
Brats are bad, but Will’s the wurst.
… although the subject needn’t be named Willie (and needn’t even be mixed up in tragedy, mischief, or crime)—as proven by this collection of new Little Willies and variants galore, led off by Joe himself.
In the subway daring Dale
On the power-charged third rail
Fried some franks. Oh what a mess
When the swift uptown express
Roared right through where he was cooking.
Lucky thing Mom wasn’t looking.
Through a mousehole, chasing cheese,
Greedy Gus contrived to squeeze.
Now he can’t get out. How ghastly.
Do we miss him? No, not vastly.
With a snicker, Cousin Prout
Steals the road sign BRIDGE WASHED OUT,
Watches cars and trucks whiz by
Unsuspectingly to fly
Through thin air and then splash-land.
Prout, you need a reprimand.
“Dogs,” cried Clyde, “come have a ball!”
Opening the Reptile Hall
To mobs of mongrels. Round they tore,
Gnawing each wired dinosaur.
“Leaping lizards!” Mother cried,
“I’ve a bone to pick with Clyde.”
Willie, against his mother’s wishes,
brained young Claire with a stack of dishes,
yelling out with childish glee,
“Now there’ll be more cake for me!”
“Not so fast,” his mother said.
“Finish her Brussels sprouts instead.”
Little Willie, feeling bored,
skewered his sisters with a sword.
Spanked, he sniffled through his sobs:
“I was just making sis kebabs.”
Hindsight Little Willies
[Editor’s note: Invented by McKenty in the 1990s, Hindsight Little Willies are about real people and begin with flashbacks to their imagined childhoods. “I see a lot of potential for Hindsight Little Willies,” McKenty says, “because you can use just about any famous person as a subject.”]
Boy Scout Bill met JFK;
Would measure up to him one day;
Fell short, though, when it came to sin.
(Monica, you’re no Marilyn!)
Little Georgie, cultured, couth,
Always coveted the truth.
The cherry tree (that hew and cry)?
That was someone else’s lie.
Little Bernie, barely six,
Picked kids’ pockets just for kicks.
(Bern’s career would soar like rockets
When he found some deeper pockets.)
Little Grace grew into quite
A Philadelphia socialite.
In High Society, in fact,
She didn’t even have to act.
Tommy’s mommy was a grouch;
Yelled ‘No jumping on my couch!”
Deflated, Tommy grumbled, “Screw it!
I’ll wait till Oprah lets me do it.”
Little Henri thought Degas’
Ballerinas had the blahs.
Toulouse you can, if any man can,
Replace the tutu with the Can-Can.
Little Vanna, pert, all smiles,
Loved to play with Scrabble tiles.
It’s no surprise that nowadays
She sure knows how to turn a phrase.
Zany Janie, for a thrill,
Poured lighter fluid on the grill.
Along with all the blackened food,
Janie’s hand was barbecued.
Zany Janie was hard on kin,
Doing many a sibling in.
Janie had a surviving sister.
(I wonder how it was she missed her.)
Zany Janie thought she’d bake
Cups filled up with chocolate cake.
Sadly, on the oven’s rack,
Mother’s china tends to crack.
Zany Janie missed a catch.
The ball went in an ivy patch.
It was of the poisoned sort.
Now scratching is her only sport.
Little Willie got a “D,”
Keyed his teacher’s SUV.
Next report card: Look, an “A”!
Willie’s teacher earns her pay.
Willie had his fill of Jen
trailing him around the zoo.
He led her to the lion’s den.
The lion found he’d room for two.
Little Willie, for a laugh,
Sawed his parents’ bed in half.
“Oh,” said Ma, “you silly twit,
Now our king-size sheets won’t fit.”
Little Willie put a spider
In his sister’s apple cider.
As her simple grave was dug,
He mused, “I’ll find another bug.”
Willie took a gun (home-made)
to school and shot the whole first grade,
then said as he was hauled away,
“How I’ve amused the NRA.”
Little Willie took a scythe
To Daddy’s manhood. Did he writhe!
Sex is now Dad’s heel (Achilles)
‘Cause he’s got TWO Little Willies.