A long time ago in a land far, far … actually in 19th-century Scotland, William McGonagall put pen to paper in a brave attempt (actually many brave attempts) to write verse.
He was terrible. No, really. Terrible. According to a story in the Washington Post, his work “was so bad that he carried an umbrella with him at all times as protection from the barrage of rotten tomatoes he faced wherever he recited.”
I’ve been thinking about McGonagall lately, for a couple of reasons. First, his most famous work, “The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay,” required a rewrite after the bridge collapsed. That no one saw fit to write (or rewrite) poetry about the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis is one of the few bits of good news to come out of that disaster.
Second, his own publisher branded his work the “world’s worst,” by putting it on a volume of his works. In all fairness to the publisher, it might not have been hyperbole:
BEAUTIFUL Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.
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.
A long time ago, when I was a younger, cockier newspaper columnist, I plumbed McGonagall’s poetic depths for a cheap laugh, going so far as to write my column in similar tortured verse (and while we’re confessing sins, I should add that I rhymed something with “.html”)
Though in responsible journalistic fashion, I also noted that some could make a case for James McIntyre, a.k.a. “Canada’s Chaucer of Cheese,” wearing the intercontinental World’s Worst Poet weight belt (or something). If hungry young English professors are reading this, they might consider taking up the cause, noting that McGonagall derived huge benefits from being at the center of empire. I’m sure there’s a masterful PhD dissertation waiting to be written in the field of post-colonial literature, about how McIntyre’s profound incompetence has been overlooked for so long if for no other reason than being from the colonies.
As evidence, consider his masterpiece, “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese Weighing Over 7,000 Pounds,” written about an actual cheese produced in Ingersoll in 1866 and sent to exhibitions in Toronto, New York, and Britain:
We have seen thee, Queen of Cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze;
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed, soon you’ll go
To the provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
The other reason McGonagall and McIntyre come to mind is I spent last weekend at a writers’ conference,
where so many hopeful scribes
risked fright and their peers’ gibes
all because they aspire
to take their writing careers higher
I was one such hopeful, pitching my project in front of literary agents. And I will now say this. Though of course I consider myself better than McGonagall, at least he got published. And as I wandered around the airport hotel, hearing other people’s pitches, and examples of work I knew would never be published (fretting all the while that my work may meet a similar fate), I found myself with a lot more respect, of sorts, for writers who stick their neck out, even if it sometimes gets pelted with tomatoes.