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Who Wrote World's Shortest Poem?

Article written by Eric Shackle

The world's shortest poem, countless websites tell us, is this couplet:

Fleas
Adam
Had 'em.

That claim is itself debatable, but even more intriguing is: Who wrote it? Most websites either offer no author's name, or credit it to that prolific writer, Anon.

The usually well-informed Oxford Dictionary of Quotations says that the shortest poem in the English language (by an unknown poet) is titled On the Antiquity of Microbes and contains only this much – Adam/Had 'em.

Other authorities claim the couplet was the work of that world-famous and talented U.S. humorist/poet Ogden Nash (1902-1971), who wrote Parsley/Is gharsley. and other immortal gems:

[Poems deleted at request of copyright owner.]

Ogden Nash might well have written that shortest couplet, we thought.

Next, in a discussion forum, we found an email dated February 23, 2001 from someone named David, who said "I prefer ... 'Fleas' by Shel Silverstein, which goes as follows: Adam had 'em."

To our shame, we had never heard of Shel, but when we Googled his name, we found plenty about him - which has tempted us to read some of his work. He was a popular and versatile writer of books for children and adults, and a talented musician and songwriter.

"If you saw Shel coming up a New York sidewalk with his old mailman's bag stuffed full of songs wearing a worn-out pair of cowboy boots and faded Can't-Bust-'Em jeans, you'd never guess that he'd written dozens of hit records and sold over eighteen million children's books." – Fred Koller.

Shel's nephew, Mitch Myers, wrote this tribute: "Sheldon Alan Silverstein was a renaissance man. The author of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show's 1972 hit, The Cover of the Rolling Stone, he was a songwriter, singer, playwright, cartoonist, poet and author whose work touched millions. Silverstein died of heart failure at his home in Key West, Florida, sometime over the weekend of May 8th.1999. He was sixty-eight."

Particularly interesting to an Australian was that Shel composed the music for the 1970 movie Ned Kelly, one of many films about our notorious outlaw. But he didn't compose the couplet about Adam.

At last, after searching dozens of websites, we discovered the identity of the mystery poet. It was revealed on a US National Park Service website describing Mount Rainer National Park, in west-central Washington state. The Mt Rainier Nature News Notes of July 1, 1927 contained this brief item, tucked away as an end-of-column filler:

THE SHORTEST POEM
We like poetry but we cannot stand it in too large doses. The following, which according to its author, Strickland Gillilan, is the shortest poem existing, deals with the antiquity of "bugs". It runs thus: Adam had em!

Who, we then asked ourselves, was Strickland Gillilan? Google knew (of course). He was an American poet, who lived from 1869 to 1954. As confirmation, we found this notation from ThinkQuest's LitStudies:

The shortest couplet that forms a poem is perhaps "Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes" by Strickland Gillilan: Adam/Had 'em.

Googling his name, we found that Strickland Gillilan (1869-1954), was a U.S. poet mainly remembered these days for this rhyme (particularly the final couplet) often quoted on Mothers' Day:

The Reading Mother

I had a Mother who read me things
That wholesome life to a child's heart brings –
Stories that stir with an upward touch.
Oh that every Mother were such!

You may have tangible wealth untold
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be.
I had a Mother who read to me.

Mystery solved. But we'd still like to learn the name of the genius who amended the title from Gillilan's rather ponderous Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes to what to my mind is the much funnier Fleas. My esteemed friend and colleague, webmaster Barry Downs, says "I prefer the original verbose title, which contrasts nicely with the terse verse."

© 2003 Eric Shackle (eshackle@ozemail.com.au).
This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

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