Monday, May 26, 2008

Time Out for (Bad) Poetry

Back in the early 20th century, when I was a smug college student, a book that got passed around a lot was "The Poetic Gems" of William McGonagall, a late 19th-century Scot who had a particular affinity for man-made disasters (and I'm not talking about his poems). His most famous poem is "The Tay Bridge Disaster," written to commemorate the worst railway disaster in British history. McGonagall's epic opens this way:
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.

Not just bad poetry but sublimely bad poetry, the kind of bad poetry that you find yourself reading aloud to roomfuls of hooting fellow students. We were sooo mean.

McGonagall was obsessed with the Tay bridge. Prior to the disaster, he had written an ode to the new bridge, which included this stanza:
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.

After the disaster, the bridge was rebuilt, which prompted "An Address to the New Tay Bridge":
BEAUTIFUL new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
Because thou are the greatest railway bridge of the present day,
And can be seen for miles away
From North, South, East or West of the Tay
On a beautiful and clear sunshiny day

Rarely has "buttressing" inspired its own poet laureate!

Using McGonagall's Tay Bridge trilogy as hallmark, we staged a "Bad Poetry Reading" with a string quartet. It was attended by faculty, students, and some administrators, and as it was well off-campus in a local hotel, everyone laughed until they were sick and got roaring drunk.

My own personal favorite of McGonagall's poems is "The Sorrows of the Blind," which opens:
PITY the sorrows of the poor blind,
For they can but little comfort find;
As they walk along the street,
They know not where to put their feet.

That kind of badness always made me a little suspicious that the McGonagall "Gems" were actually a hoax, deliberately awful verse written by some British wit to make fun of their poor Scottish country cousins to the north.

But, no, McGonagall was quite real and took himself very seriously as a great poet. (Incidentally, you can access all of McGonagall's work on-line here, along with historical, biographical, and critical extras.) That's actually McGonagall pictured above, dressed as a Highland warrior of the Bonnie Prince Charlie era, willing to put himself forward as a kind of hero of Scots culture.

What brings me to this remembrance of McGonagall past is reading this a.m. that a manuscript collection of McGonagall's poems fetched $13,000 in an Edinburgh auction last Friday. He would have been so proud.

No comments: