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94: AN IMMORTALITY UNIQUE

#94: AN IMMORTALITY UNIQUE. Orwell in an essay coined the notion of “the good-bad poem”: he was talking about Kipling, but I extend it in my mind to the doggerel sentiment that used to fill the spare column inches of local newspapers and the obituary notices, the clunky uninspired verses whose meters nonetheless had a certain power to please. Described as “a graceful monument to the obvious,” they were usually as empty of ideas as they were full of exclamation points—panegyric substituting for content—and its favorite playground in the nineteenth century was the memorial verse. (Mark Twain suggested that the prospect of being poetized by Lydia Sigourney, the necroproductive “Sweet Singer of Hartford,” added a whole extra dimension to the terror of death for city locals.) All this is true, but what, one wants to ask, about the great bad poems? Deliberate anthologies of bad poetry gathered up for stone-throwing were once common, but our energies now have gone into bad movies and television. One wants to ask: where is the Plan Nine from Outer Space of poetry? The Ishtar of verse?

Too little known is that minor classic of Canada, Sarah Binks by Paul Hiebert (McClelland and Stewart, 1947), his mock biography of “The Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan,” poetess of the Horsebreeder’s Gazette and authoress of the geo-literary epic “Up from the Magma”. Hiebert neatly takes on the inflations of literary biography and has above-standard fun with academic citation, but his real object of humor is the endless, mundanely detailed, faint-making boredom of life on the Canadian plains. Sarah’s effusions, to everything from horses and farm chores to, apparently, trilobites—I particularly liked the Heine “translations”—are very nice examples of poetic flights that sadly, insistently, never get off the field. Of Sarah, Hiebert says, “She spread the fertilizer with a lavish hand.” So, happily, did her biographer.

But Sarah is, of course, mere fiction, whose badness is deliberate. I would hold that there are some places you can only go by accident. There are always nominations for the title of greatest poet: Shakespeare of the English language, Homer of classical literature, Gide’s famous comment “Hugo, helas!” for best French poet. Kenneth Rexroth called Tu Fu “the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet”—sort of backing him into the garage, as it were. But I’ve wondered how many readers outside of the English language have had the pleasure—the bonus-point prize—of a semi-official nomination, and clear winner, for the title of worst poet ever. To have and to treasure a poet so genially and endearingly awful as William McGonagall, the Victorian Edinburgh creator of celebrated and endlessly- repeated club-footed panegyrics and laments, perhaps demonstrates how central and widely loved poetry was in the British nineteenth century: it takes a good ear for metrical composition to catch how bad and how funny McGonagall’s limping and afflicted meters can be. (One can imagine Auden staring at the page, horrified and delighted.) A good deal of his work is just plain bad, of course, but somehow the Scots bar-room recitation character of McGonagall’s verse, rather than staling, has ripened in its hundred years into a deeper vintage of the ludicrous than you might think possible. Part of McGonagall’s charm is that he is utterly devoid of ill temper or malice; he is also devoid of anything much resembling content, or any idea above the fifth-rate and conventional. This, in the reading, leaves you alone with his immensely pleasurable, almost incredible technical badness: the metrical gear-grinding; syllabic counts that vary from line to line like a party with people leaving and returning; the wandering caesura, like a man lost in a hotel; the climactic train-wreck of those thudding, lopsided rhymes. My copy—Poetic Gems, selected from the works of William McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian (Dundee, David Warner, 1954), the title itself a fine touch of straight-faced innocence—includes a brief (soi-disant) autobiography, with a seemingly endless account of (not) being received at Balmoral, and a splendid show of McGonagall’s mastery of what Mark Twain called “not the right word but the right word’s first cousin.” Even the author’s name, which pronounces like a mouthful of Demosthenes’ pebbles, adds its touch to the comedy. I’ve always thought that “so bad it’s funny” is a smaller species than most folks allow, but McGonagall qualifies. Worst poet ever? Put that phrase in as key words on Google and watch what happens. I rest my case.

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