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William McGonagall, a Terrible Poet
Poem: The Doom That Came to Potter's Square

2003-03-08

don't come by my title of the Worst Poet in the World easily. This despite the fact that, like the Lord of the Dance or the King of Pop (or, for that matter, the Ukulele King), it is a self-declared title. And what's the matter with a self-declared title anyway? It's part of a noble tradition, and I am proud to be in the company of such notables as Hadda Brooks, the Queen of the Boogie, Ben Reitman, the King of the Hobos, and Joshua Norton, who proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States on September 17 of 1859. Norton in particular casts a long shadow: Newspapers printed his frequent proclamations and businesses honored his self-printed money, and once reportedly stopped an anti-Chinese riot by standing before the agitators and bowing his head in prayer.

Fortunately, I have yet to declare myself Emperor. However, it isn't much easier to be the Worst Poet in the World, especially as the two poet laureates of wretched verse are such towering figures. I speak, of course, of Julia A. Moore, otherwise known as the Sweet Singer of Michigan, and William McGonagall, otherwise known as the fellow who walked 50 miles to Balmoral to read a poem to Queen Victoria, was turned away unheard, and had to walk all the way back home.

At some later time I shall tackle the considerable specter of Moore, whose horrific versifying about local tragedies was so beloved by her contemporary Mark Twain that he based on her one of his greatest comic inventions, the deceased poetess Emmeline Grangerford in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Instead I will discuss McGonagall, which is by no means an easier task. But just as good poets are entreated to read great poetry ("Great writers are great readers," South African playwright and author Zakes Mda once advised), bad poets must also look to their forebears. And to the aspiring bad poet, the Scottish McGonagall is the equivalent of Homer. Before I tell you any more about him, however, let me take a moment to cite two verses from one of his poems, titled "The Tay Bridge Disaster," so that we all know exactly what I am talking about:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

'Twas about seven o'clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clods seem'd to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem'd to say--
"I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay."

Those of you who wish to read the entirety of the poem, it can be found here. However, you should be warned that it does not end well, for the 90-odd passengers on an Edinburgh train or for McGonagall. No, he ends it with a puzzling bit of advice, which is as follows: "The stronger we our houses do build, The less chance we have of being killed." So true, so true, unless we fall down in the shower.

McGonagall was a man of his time, sort of. As a poet who was born in the first half of the Nineteenth century, the sort of pastoral ditties and rhyming tales of catastrophe that he authored were in a style that was then very common. In fact, hundreds of unskilled authors of the era set quill to paper and composed melancholy odes to train wrecks or apple cheeked, fair-haired boys slowly but beautifully dying of consumption and the like while whispering comforting words to their mothers. It is honestly astounding that McGonagall's verses could somehow rise above the pallid, quavering dreck that surrounded him. However, as the two stanzas above illustrate, McGonagall was uniquely gifted. He wasn't the only poet found it impossible to compose a line that can be scanned properly -- but he was especially miserable at it. If we look at the first stanza of "Tay Bridge" as an example, we discover this astounding example of scansion: the first line above has 11 syllables, the next 10, then 10 again, and then an astounding 13, and then, perhaps having overtaxed himself, McGonagall returns to 12.

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Further, there is no evidence of any meter whatsoever. Try pounding out the rhythm of that first two abominable lines. We begin pounding along with a rather steady DUM dah dah DUM dah dah waltz rhythm, and then, with the start of line two, we unexpectedly skip into ... what? Dizzy Gillespie couldn't have followed the counterrhythm that starts the next line. And so it goes throughout the poem, and throughout all of McGonagall's poetry -- every time he seems about to establish a clear metric pace, he sudden goes rhythmically mad. You can see from the above painting that McGonagall looked to be a dour, haggard man, but whenever I read his poems I see the poetic equivalent of Animal from The Muppet Show beating uncontrollably on his drum kit.

But lack of craft is not enough to inspire true greatness. If it were so, every teenager who dyes her hair black, listens to old Depeche Mode CDs, cuts her skin with razor blades, and scribbles in three-ring binders would become the next McGonagall. (Although, in fairness, McGonagall's lack of craft exceeded that of most childlike musings, which are merely uninspired in their approach to poetic structure; McGonagall was beastly.)

No, what makes the truly greatly bad is hubris, and McGonagall, dour though he may have looked, had hubris to spare. Who else, unable to even get his syllables to match up, would nonetheless make extensive use of the poetic technique of "elision," a technique with only one function -- getting the meter to match up! Every time McGonagall drops a letter in his poetry and replaces it with an apostrophe -- and he does it constantly, such as with the words "Silv'ry" and "remember'd" -- he has committed an unforgivable act of elision. Obviously unaware of the technique's purpose, he has simply randomly dropped unstressed syllables, and to what end?

My own suspicion is that McGonagall noticed this technique in other poems, thought it looked grand, and so started simply banishing letters from his poetry without ever bothering to discover why anybody would do such a thing. And I can think of no greater act of poetic hubris than this. McGonagall has decided that he is a poet, and a great one, and so he has affected a technique of great poetry, but through his very use of that technique he betrays his lack of understanding of poetry. Magnificent!

And there is no doubt that McGonagall considered himself a great poet. He authored a deluded, impossible-to-read autobiography called The Book of the Lamentation of the Poet McGonagall, which exists only to laud his own contributions to literature. In fact, the second chapter, after the obligatory "I am Born," is titled "The Genius of Poetry Visits Me." Here is a sample of his bizarre ramblings: " I, their sole surviving and orphan son, by a strange and eclectic natural process have had conserved in my own colossal cranium the best parts of both, the baser instincts having been eliminated by the sheer force of the perverfidum ingenium cotorum which I, though a Milesian on both aides of the house, possess in a much higher degree than that terribly over-praised and far more immoral than immortal Burns........................"

Where McGonagall was headed after all those ellipses is anybody's guess. More anti-Burns rambling? More babbling in pseudo Latin (this roughly translates as "perseverance of an innate quality through" ... what ... "inquiry," maybe?) It is another example of McGonagall's pretensions to greatness that he would suddenly discuss his genius in a language of antiquity, but that he further would simply invent the Latin to do so!

McGonagall avidly sought his notoriety as a poet. He received a small fee -- between a half-pound and a pound -- to travel and recite his poetry across Scotland, and, occasionally, as far south as London. Audiences delighted in the poet, showing up in droves to make sport of him, and how could they resist? What dull evening would not be brightened by a snippet of bad rhyme, such as these two lines from "The Death of Lord and Lady Dalhousie:" "Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last, / Which causes many people to feel a little downcast." One newspaper report from the time related the indignities McGonagall suffered for his poor art. The story describes McGonagall, dressed in kilt, plaid, sporran, and feathered bonnet, hoarsely shouting his verses while his audience responds by pelting him with eggs, herrings, potatoes, stale bread, an event that culminated in McGonagall drawing a sword and slashing wildly at the air, and then taking a quick bow.

Bad poets must be prepared to make a spectacle of themselves, but they should be duly warned: McGonagall has set the bar high. There was his disastrous trip to New York, a city that caused the poet to wax lyrical, saying:

OH mighty City of New York! you are wonderful to behold,
Your buildings are magnificent, the truth be it told,
They were the only things that seemed to arrest my eye,
Because many of them are thirteen storeys high.

However, things were not so mighty (OH!) when McGonagall actually visited the city in 1887, entreated to read by a series of letters that proved to be forged. Arriving with only eight shillings, he made the rounds of music halls, where he was told, in no uncertain terms, that he would not be able to find an audience. He then set out to sell his poems, but, much to his chagrin, found people would not even read them. After three weeks, penniless, he wrote home for money, pleading with a friend, "For God's sake, take me home from this second Babylon." He would later write of his adventure, "I love New York, for it made me Love my own land the better."

Alas, like his poetry, McGonagall did not end well. In 1902, after years of writing unhappy letters complaining of "bronchitis, deafness, 'noises in the head', &c.", he died and was buried in a pauper's grave. But he has left us pretenders to the throne of truly wretched poetry a comic image of lasting greatness. Who among us can live up to the vision of McGonagall, decked out in ill-fitting Scottish ceremonial regalia, besotted with egg and flour, shouting his fractured verse while madly waving his sword at a hooting audience? Were McGonagall alive today, I should have to title myself the "Second-Worst Poet in the World," and where is the fun in that?

It is to the memory of the Scottish poet and tragedian that I offer up this, my very own epic tragic poem, and, without a doubt, on one of the worst things I have ever written:

The Doom That Came to Potter's Square

Poor Mrs. Crumbpot, she fell deep in a spell
Her disposition was low and her mood wasn't well
She fumbled for the plug from which her room was lighted
She inserted her finger and Mrs. Crumbpot ignited.

Her husband he wept when he discovered her there
Her flesh it was ashen and ash was her hair
"I cannot endure this," he cried of his wife
And he seized up a razor and he ended his life.

Their daughter she found them coming home from a date
She pounded their chests but she pounded too late
Her boyfriend he found that he couldn't console her
She gave him a gun and he agreed to pistole her.

But he shrieked in alarm from the thing that he'd done
The girl he adored he had bored with a gun
He seized a long rope and he stood on a chair
And tied a tight noose and hanged himself there.

The lad was beloved by many young fillies
At the news of his death they mourned themselves silly
At midnight they met at the town's central square
They'd brought kerosene with them and they immolated there.

In the fumes of burnt girls the town went into a tizzy
They screamed and they cried and they beat themselves dizzy
They tore at their hair and wore sackcloth and ashes
And they cut at their throats in long, grizzly slashes.

Come morning a queer silence it fell on the town
Quite different from the shrieks heard since sundown
In a frenzy of gore the madness had ceased
And the sign to the town said, "Population: Deceased."

(By the way, I have added two new features to my Web journal. It is now possible to send ABSOLUTELY FREE bawd greeting cards via email. Additionally, I now have an online store, through which you can buy various bawd sundries and necessities, such as panties and drinking glasses. Check back often, as I will be adding more merchandise. Both can be accessed through buttons on the upper right hand of the page -- see them> No, up a little bit. Yes, right there. Cheers!)



© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.


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Posted by UkuleleKing at 1:00 p.m.

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