William McGonagall — “The Great McGonagall,” “Poet and Tragedian of Dundee” — died on this date in 1902. He was buried in a pauper’s grave — and now, more than a century later, his autographed verses sell for thousands of pounds. An early passage in his “Reminiscenses” [sic] reads, “Well, I must say that the first man who threw peas at me was a publican” — and now a petition’s going round to put the poet on a postage stamp. Isn’t this all in keeping with the spirit of comedy? You fall down and bounce back up. Your poems are so bad that they’re good.
In Randall Jarrell’s “Bad Poets” (a perfect little essay — so good that it’s great), the poet-critic describes a type of verse he finds impossible to review: “it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with ‘This is a poem’ scrawled on them in lipstick.” But McGonagall wasn’t that kind of bad poet. He aspired to be Poet Laureate — he wanted to make music, to chronicle his times. Blessed with neither metrical skills nor a sense of tonal appropriateness, he wrote verses like the following, from “Calamity in London: Family of Ten Burned to Death”:
Oh, Heaven! it was a frightful and pitiful sight to see
Seven bodies charred of the Jarvis family;
And Mrs. Jarvis was found with her child, and both carbonized,
And as the searchers gazed thereon they were surprised.
This is grandly Bad Poetry — Capital B, Capital P. As Hazard Adams writes in The Offense of Poetry, “With respect to consistency of badness, intense concentration of subject matter, and genius of repetition not even imagined by Soren Kierkegaard, no one approaches the greatest and certainly the most sublime of bad poets, William McGonagall, whose voice is as immediately recognizable as those of his contemporaries Tennyson, Browning, and Swinburne.” Adams goes on to quote McGonagall’s best-known poem, “The Tay Bridge Disaster” (and to critique it, too — though he tries to protect himself “from the crisis any critic of the comic confronts: explanation of a joke”). The poem ends with an observation that, as a new homeowner, I feel inclined to take seriously:
It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay.
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.
This afternoon I’ll ask my students to write Bad Poems in the spirit of McGonagall’s Poetic Gems. They’ll try to out-stumble one another — but will they be able to out-stumble McGonagall? In 1965, two British oil companies organized a contest to see if anyone could match McGonagall on the page. (Side note: Do American oil companies ever organize poetry contests? Doesn’t this seem like a missed opportunity?) Cash prizes were offered; the panel of judges included Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. But no winner was declared. No poems were deemed quite bad enough.