Through tireless self-promotion, Coogler and his poetry garnered the attention of readers and reviewers from across the nation, who found his work entertaining if not aesthetic. Facetious reviews and parodies of his work found their way into dozens of newspapers and other periodicals.
Poet. J. Gordon Coogler achieved notoriety in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as one of South Carolina’s, and the South’s, most famous and arguably worst poets. He was born on December 3, 1865, in Richland County near the town of Doko (now Blythewood). By the mid-1880s he was living in Columbia and working as a journeyman printer. He printed, at his own expense, his first volume of poetry around this time. He quickly followed it with two more volumes and soon established himself as a poet with appeal to the masses. Through tireless self-promotion, Coogler and his poetry garnered the attention of readers and reviewers from across the nation, who found his work entertaining if not aesthetic. Facetious reviews and parodies of his work found their way into dozens of newspapers and other periodicals. By 1895 Coogler had opened his own printing shop on Lady Street in Columbia, where he advertised “Poems written while you wait.” In 1897 Coogler printed a one-volume edition of his complete works, Purely Original Verse, which sold more than five thousand copies, mostly to customers from outside the South. By then, according to Columbia’s State newspaper, he had become “by a freak of fate . . . the most widely celebrated citizen of Columbia.” He died in Columbia on September 9, 1901, and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
Coogler’s verse received tongue-in-cheek praise from literary critics of the day from Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York, and London. The writer and critic H. L. Mencken secured literary immortality for Coogler in 1916 when he referred to Coogler as “the last bard of Dixie” in his disparaging review of southern literature, “Sahara of the Bozart.” Mencken began the review with the Cooglerian couplet “Alas! For the South, her books have grown fewer–She never was given to literature.” Gradually the term “Cooglerism” entered the language, meaning a solemn absurdity.
Coogler’s poetic couplets preceded the inane greeting-card rhymes of the twentieth century, and as such he was ahead of his time. Coogler died believing the praise to be genuine and had included several of his reviews in his newer editions. He addressed his critics in verse, adding with humility: “You’ll never see this head too large for my hat / You may watch it and feel it as oft as you choose / But you’ll learn, as millions of people have learned / Of my character and name thro my innocent muse.”
Coogler achieved a poetic revival in 1974 with the reprint of Purely Original Verse by Claude and Irene Neuffer. Literary critics and national columnists of the day enjoyed the revival as much as Mencken had years earlier. Orders for copies were received from across the country and across the world. The conservative editor Robert Tyrrell began honoring the year’s worst book with the J. Gordon Coogler Award. Observing the renewed enthusiasm for the “bard of the Congaree” in the 1980s, the columnist William F. Buckley concluded, “Coogler, tonight, sleeps with the immortals.”
Cohen, Henry Hennig. “J. Gordon Coogler and His Purely Original Verse.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1948.
Coogler, J. Gordon. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
–––. Purely Original Verse. 1897. Reprint, Columbia, S.C.: Vogue, 1974. LaBorde, Rene. “Coogler Revisited.” Southern Partisan 3 (winter 1983): 31–33, 41.