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“All poets write bad poetry. Bad poets publish them, good poets burn them.”*…

 

Thunderstorm with the Death of Amelia 1784 by William Williams active 1758-1797

Thunderstorm with the Death of Amelia, by William Williams, 1784. Photograph © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0).

 

Readers may recall an earlier nod to William Topaz McGonagall, widely considered to be the worst published poet in British history.  McGonagall, best known for his widely-excoriated verse recounting of “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” distributed his poems, often about momentous events, on handbills and performed them publicly (often, it is reported, to cat calls and thrown food).  And he collected his verse into volumes including Poetic Gems, More Poetic Gems, Still More Poetic Gems, Further Poetic Gems, and Yet Further Poetic Gems.  Imagine your correspondent’s surprise and delight to find a learned appreciation of McGonagall’s place in poetic history:

Not unjustly, McGonagall is rarely mentioned without an epithet: some version of “the worst poet in the English language.” And by any reasonable account, any judgment based on the most universally shared values of poetics, prosody, and taste, there is little to admire in McGonagall. The rest of his corpus shares—replicates, really—the faults of “The Tay Bridge Disaster”: its lapses into bathos, its involuted syntactical structures, its rhymes so slanted as to be more or less horizontal.

There have been worse poets, of course, and as such it would be more accurate to describe McGonagall as the worst famous poet in the English language, a testament in part to the man’s powers of self-promotion and the caprices of literary history. But McGonagall’s notoriety still owes much to the singularly strange power of his own badness. There’s something, I think, in poems like “The Tay Bridge Disaster”—as well as McGonagall’s many poems on his great themes of death and destruction—that is worth examining; something that might redeem him, ever so slightly, from the annals of amusing semi-obscurity; something unsettling about his ostensibly blinkered artistic vision that might help to account for why he lingers as the patron saint of misbegotten verse…

On William Topaz McGonagall, the worst famous poet in the English language: “The Disaster Poet.”

(Readers will find a selection of McGonagall’s poems here.)

* Umberto Eco

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As we bathe in bathos, we might spare a thought for the decidedly more-accomplished poet (and playwright, artist, biologist, theoretical physicist, and philosopher) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; he died on this date in 1832.  Probably best remembered these days for Faust, he was “the master spirit of the German people,” and, after Napoleon, the leading figure of his age.

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Written by LW

August 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

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