collection1b

collection1b

April 03, 2016

Poor Ink, Poor Pen


 



        One of the earliest things I remember reading and writing is a little humorous rhyme that 
was often used by children to sign one another’s autograph albums back then.  At least that’s where I first encountered it.  I first wrote it in my brother’s autograph album around 1961, but 
the first time I read it was when my grade school teacher signed the same autograph album with her Parker 51 filled with Waterman’s South Sea Blue turquoise ink.
Poor ink,
Poor pen,
Poor writing,
Amen.

But it can also be found much earlier.  This is the earliest one I have found, so far, the one above from an 1850 letter from the Poe Archives, a school teacher writing to her sister about teaching.
Poor ink, poor pen,
Poor writer.  Amen.
And then Titivillus sneaks in some errors, and creates some variants of the text.  Here’s a similar one from 1887, but slightly jumbled, so that the rhyme is all screwed up.
Poor Pen, Poor Ink,
Poor Writer, Amen.
Here are two more variations from the 1880s.
My pen is poor and my ink is pail
but my love for you shall never fail!
My pen is lon, my ink is pale,
my hand trembles like a puppy dogs tail.
Here’s a prose, but not prosaic, version from the Woman’s Home Companion, 1908.
Poor ink, poor pen,–perhaps worst crime of all!–the writing crossed upon the page; added to this, handwriting which through carelessness is nearly illegible, and you have a sorry travesty of what a letter should be.
A short ad-poem in American Stationer, Sept 28, 1912, p.39, includes the lines, “My pen is poor, My ink is pale”, but then a Waterman’s pen swoops in to help the writer “As he indites his tale”.

Here’s one from 1927.

Poor ink, Poor pen.
Poor girl, Amen.
And one from 1931.
Though my ink is bad,
And my pen is poor,
Remember me forevermore.
Then back to this in 1943.
Poor ink,
Poor pen,
Poor writer,
Amen.
It sometimes shows up in this version, found in an autograph album from 1947.
Poor ink,
Poor pen,
Cant think,
Amen.
Here’s another version from an autograph album from 1969.
No ink, no pen,
Can’t think,
Amen.
Here’s a longer variant from 2006, remembered by someone as something her mom used to say.
Can’t think, brain dumb,
Inspiration won’t come.
Poor ink, poor pen,
Best wishes, Amen!
And here’s a slightly shorter version from 1956, missing just one line.  Perhaps memory failed at the spur of the moment.
Can’t think,
Brain numb,
Inspiration won’t come,
Bad pen,
Best wishes,
Amen.
        And then, there are also all the “bad ink” versions of the rhyme. But first, in the 1894 Minutes of the Memphis Conference, p.43, we find, “This journal is very much disfigured by the use of bad ink, bad pen, and careless blotting”.  The rhyme usually comes with a prefacing verse about “brain dumb”, or “brain numb”.  Here’s one from New York in 1850-1900.
Can’t think
Brain dumb
Inspiration won’t come.
Bad ink
Bad pen
Best wishes, Amen.
Here it is alone on Nov 15, 1920.
Bad ink, Bad pen
Bad writing, Amen.
And on Apr 1, 1953.
Can’t write, too dumb,
Inspiration won’t come,
Bad ink, bad pen,
Good luck.  Amen.
Here it is in Detroit on Oct 25, 1934.
Can’t think, too dumb,
Inspiration won’t come,
Bad ink, bum pen,
Best wishes.  Amen.
And in Detroit in 1963.
Can’t think, too dumb
Inspiration won’t come
Bad ink, bad pen
Pencil’s broke, Amen!
Here’s a version from Mar 13, 2007.
Can’t think
Brain dumb
Inspiration won’t come.
No ink
Bad pen
Good luck!
Amen
And from 2013.
Can’t think
Brain numb
Inspiration
Won’t come.
Bad ink
Worse pen
Best wishes
AMEN.
And on Jan 10, 2017.
Can’t think.
Brain dumb.
Inspiration won’t come.
Bad ink.
Bad pen.
Best of luck amen.
And another version from a girl in the Convent School of Sion in Saskatoon, ca. 1930.
Block Head, Brains Dumb,
Inspirations won’t Come,
Bad ink, rotten pen.
Best wishes,
Amen.
        And here are some more versions with “bum pen”.  First, here’s one from Southfield, Mich., but with no date.
Can’t think
Brain dumb
Inspiration won’t come
Poor ink
Bum pen
Best wishes
Amen
Then, another one from Nov 9, 1940.
I can’t think
My brain’s dumb
Inspiration won’t come
Bad ink
Bum pen
That’s all
Amen.
And almost the same one from Aug 8, 2016, but with punctuation.
Can’t think, too dumb;
Inspiration won’t come.
Bad ink, bum pen;
That’s all!  Amen.
And lastly, here’s one from June 17, 1944, that says this is enough.
Can’t write, too dumb,
Inspiration won’t come,
Bad ink, bum pen,
This is enough—AMEN. 
        These rhymes, however, come from a much older tradition, that of inserting marginalia and rubrics and glosses and colophons and incipits and explicits in books written by medieval scribes.  There are surviving examples concerning “Damn this ink”, and “Damn this pen”.  In the exhibit “Technologies of Writing in the Age of Printing” at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, there was a more recent poem written in 1692 by William Math, inside the front cover of a book that he once owned.
Little is the Robin
And less the Wren.
Bad is my writing
And worse my pen.
And if my pen had
Been but better
I might have mended
Every letter.
So now, finally, here is my new secular version of the rhyme.
Poor ink,
Poor pen,
Poor writing–
Amend!
To that end, one might even go so far as to say that we all need to be our own pensmiths, our own Write Right Wrights, the pensmith’s version, so to speak, of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web.  So, now, go and abide these three–ink, pen, and writing–but the greatest of these is writing, no matter how poor the ink and the pen.  In other words,
Good ink,
Good pen,
Good writing–
All men!

  George Kovalenko.

.