Spectrum: Little Willies


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.


Stray Brats

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.”


Just Deserts

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 Chef

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.”]

Bill Clinton
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!)

George Washington
Little Georgie, cultured, couth,
Always coveted the truth.
The cherry tree (that hew and cry)?
That was someone else’s lie.

Bernie Madoff
Little Bernie, barely six,
Picked kids’ pockets just for kicks.
(Bern’s career would soar like rockets
When he found some deeper pockets.)

Grace Kelly
Little Grace grew into quite
A Philadelphia socialite.
In High Society, in fact,
She didn’t even have to act.

Tom Cruise
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.”

Toulouse Lautrec
Little Henri thought Degas’
Ballerinas had the blahs.
Toulouse you can, if any man can,
Replace the tutu with the Can-Can.

Vanna White
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.

Anthony Harrington has written more than a hundred “Zany Janies” and will send a copy of the chapbook to anyone who sends four (4) Forever stamps to him at P.O. Box 5005, Alpharetta GA 30023. (For his full bio, go here.)

Julie Kane’s most recent book is Paper Bullets (White Violet Press, 2014), a collection of light verse. She is also the author of Jazz Funeral (Story Line Press, 2009), which won the Donald Justice Poetry Prize, and Rhythm & Booze (University of Illinois Press, 2003), a National Poetry Series winner and Poets’ Prize finalist. The 2011-2013 Louisiana Poet Laureate and a former Fulbright Scholar, she is a Professor of English at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Her work appears in more than fifty anthologies including The Norton Seagull ReaderPenguin’s Poetry: A Pocket AnthologyThe Book of Irish American Poets from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, and Best American Poetry 2016.

X.J. Kennedy has written several books of verse, most recently Fits of Concision: Collected Poems of Six or Fewer Lines (Grolier Poetry Press); two dozen children’s books, including a much praised novel The Owlstone Crown; and schoolbooks used by millions, including An Introduction to Fiction. His first comic novel for adults is A Hoarse Half-human Cheer.

Bob McKenty wrote his first Little Willes in 1986. After chronicling the exploits of Little Willie, Naughty Norton, Myron Melnick, and others, it occurred to him that real people might make fine subjects for the genre. His first such effort appeared in issue #23 of Light in 1998:
As hard as Little Bonnie tried
She couldn’t interest Little Clyde
In playing house. He said “No thanks.
Why don’t we rob some piggy banks?”

Mary McLean grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC, and now works as a scientist at University of Cambridge. She started writing poetry (mostly humorous) in 2011, and it has so far appeared in Mezzo Cammin, New Verse News, The Oldie, Light, and Lighten Up Online. See http://profanepoet.wordpress.com for more information.

Susan McLean is a professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota. She has written a chapbook and two books of poetry, and has translated a collection of over 500 Latin epigrams by the poet Martial.

Mae Scanlan can’t remember a time when she didn’t write humorous verse. Happily, she’s managed to get a fair amount of it published, in both the U.S. and the U.K. Her other addictions are song writing, photography, and The Washington Post’s Style Invitational.

Gene Weingarten is the nationally syndicated humor columnist for The Washington Post, where much of his light verse has appeared, principally as “pokes,” a negligible art form he has done much to popularize.  Pokes are old jokes re-told as poems.  He is also co-creator of the newspaper comic strip Barney & Clyde. He has written five books.

Gail White‘s career took off with the Formalist movement, since when she has published three anthologies and three books of poetry. Her work appears in several anthologies, including Villanelles and Killer Verse, both from Pocket Poets. She has twice won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award (2012 and 2013), and is the featured poet in the Summer/Fall 2013 issue of Light. Her chapbook Sonnets in a Hostile World is available from Amazon. Her new book, Asperity Street, has been published by Able Muse Press. She lives in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana with her historian husband and three cats.