Essays / Features

The Terriblest Poet

by Brian Bouldrey

The following essay is dedicated to the author’s goddaughter, Rafaela Alford.

His autobiography begins, “My Dear Readers of this autobiography, which I am the author of, I get leave to inform you that I was born in Edinburgh.”

These are the stylings of William Topaz McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian, Knight of the White Elephant, Burmah, self-proclaimed Poet Laureate of Burmah, considered by many to be the author of the worst poem ever written, “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” It is filled with forced rhymes and tortured syntax, the stuff that even a child thinks ridiculous:

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.

And you have never seen as many exclamation points in one poem.

Beautiful silvery Tay!
With your landscapes, so lovely and gay!
And the beautiful ship Mars!
With her Juvenile Tars!
Both lovely and gay!
Beautiful, beautiful! Silvery Tay!

The exclamation point has been frowned upon, considered the tool of diarizing teenaged girls and small town tourist information: “Some of the trains were 36 cars long!”

Overused? I say balderdash! I’m with McGonagall on this one!

There are so many exclamation points in life. In fact, they proclaim life! Ahoy! Hark! Westward Ho! Alas! OMG! Ach du lieber! I quit! Happy Birthday! The dog barks! The duck quacks! Rah rah ree! Kick him in the knee! Rah rah rass! Kick him in the other knee! The pilgrims trekking to Santiago de Compostela shout Ultreya! at each other far too often. There is a town in Quebec called St.-Louis-du Ha!Ha! If you have formal training in typing, you know that you must cross the most distance with the weak pinky in order to make an exclamation mark. It requires intention, planning, and a little extra oomph.

I myself am a trekking pilgrim. I have turned, in my old age, to long hikes—around the Ulster Way, across Corsica, across the spine of the Pyrenees, to Santiago twice (so double the Ultreya!s). This past winter break, I went wandering in the Cairngorms near Inverness, Scotland. When tromping about in northern Scotland in late December, you have to be deliberate, insistent, for the sun sets at 3:45 pm. Despite the brevity of days, the landscape (which must have helped shape the mind of McGonagall) seems that much more crisp, insistent, emphatic: the weather! The mud! The sheep on the hill! The brief sun! the single malt! The snow! The badger! The fox! The pine marten! The song of the crested tit! Yes you heard me I said tit! The yuletide clementine oranges nestled in purple tissue papers in resinous wooden crates!

After a few days of hiking through snow and trees, we took a train down to Edinburgh, for I’m an indoor-outdoor sort of guy, like certain Sherwin-Williams paints. The conductor announced we were crossing the Tay, and I looked out the window as we rumbled across the trestles. Immediately I thought of McGonagall.

I have known his Tay Bridge Disaster poem since college, where it was recited each year in the Humanities College “Frivolous Readings” event: faculty brought to students literary texts both major and minor, meant to make everyone laugh, though not always intentionally. E.B. White said that most humor has a shelf life of about 20 years before it goes stale—with a few exceptions. Intentional exceptions like Mark Twain, or accidental exceptions like William McGonagall. So many of my classmates memorized, wallowed, made hallowed his unsophisticated lines, but I believed that if you lied down with doggerel, you’d get up with fleas. I thought there was nothing to be discovered in the unpolished, unfinished, the abandoned, the unschooled, since I was in fact all of these things. I wanted a perfect world without compromise. Learning to love McGonagall has been a journey toward loving myself.

Flying over the water in our modern train, I discovered something a bit grim at the actual site of the disaster. By the pilings of our modern bridge, you can still see the abandoned pilings of the bridge that failed, and cost the world 75 lives, and spawned an absurd poem in which buttresses is rhymed with confesses. Don’t say McGonagall didn’t try to warn you. As with any chaotic event, it falls to artists to make sense of the stuff, and McGonagall knew his role.

McGonagall is the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of poets. It is fun and easy to laugh at his ill-advised metaphors and unimaginative diction. Apropos of nearly nothing, he also took to the stage, and played Macbeth—but he had to pay the theater for the privilege; when he got to the end of the play, instead of enacting the death called for in the script, he feared the actor playing Macduff was trying to upstage him, so he refused to die.

Yet, dare I say it? I do!—He got a lot of it right in his poetry: tragic and celebratory subjects, the declamatory mode, and emotion, all the emotion an exclamation point can generate. He was never bombastic, he didn’t go on for too long (one loves to read his poems even for their terrible choices, and wishes they’d go on just a little longer in awfulness, the way a child wishes you to repeat nonsense poems by Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll), and his books are slim volumes that do not grandstand, like those bards full of their own song, books so thick the title can be printed horizontally on the spine.

And dare I say it? I do!—I am not that much different from McGonagall. He was the son of weavers, mostly uneducated, the first to leave that family trade, just as I was the first in my family to go to college. I loved poetry and chose it as an undergrad major. On the page of the first poem I wrote, my great mentor Alan Shapiro wrote, “Brian, this is a foolish piece of work. You have in this poem the attention span of a hyperkinetic three-year-old.” I have spent my entire career and life compensating for my bad grammar, clumsy rhythm, and, most of all, my unbridled enthusiasm. I have never been afraid to make a fool of myself, just like McGonagall.

We were leaving Edinburgh in the morning, and the short day was closing with a cold rain and a sobering tour of The Children’s Museum, where you can see a poor child’s doll made out of a work boot, three hobnails describing its eyes and nose, and that doll deserves its own exclamation point, if you ask me. My companion, otherwise curious and adventurous, had had enough of the raw weather, and I told her I would meet her at the hotel, for I needed to make a pilgrimage to the grave of William McGonagall. True pilgrimages, at any rate, are best conducted alone.

Walking briskly in wet boots, I passed many cheerful pubs and monuments to famous Scottish skinflints. There is a bank in Fountainbridge with a gloriously indulgent mosaic, full of decadent golds and blues, spelling out “Thrift is Blessing,” the way somebody might spend a lifetime making a lace banner that read, “Reason over Passion.” Both of these, I dare say, deserve an exclamation point.

Greyfriars Kirkyard, said to be haunted, has been taking permanent residents since the late 16th century. It is appropriately dark, and there are several graves with iron bars over them to discourage grave robbers. There is a famous terrier said to have stayed at his dead master’s grave for fourteen years before finally dying himself.   All of this, of course, draws the tourist to guided tours given by people in spooky rubber masks, and attracts Harry Potter fans who wish to see the grave of Tom Riddle, believed to be the original Voldemort. The cemetery is not without its moss-covered tombstone and more than a few grisly skeletons. The ground is uneven from all those caskets settling among roots and rills. It’s not a small place, and by the time I arrived, the sun had set and the rain had started to come down.

I thought there would be markers set for the more famous inmates of Greyfriars, but at dusk, in the rain, in an old cemetery, it was more and more difficult to read through the moss, the melting fade of acid-rain on solid stone, and mud, always the mud! I dashed from stone to stone, leaned into the mausoleums. Desperation was running high as night came and hope waned. Where could I find McGonagall? It was a tragedy from one of his poems! Night would make the search impossible, and also creepy.

And then I heard, in the distance, in the dark, near the back wall of the kirkyard, the sound of laughter. It was a tour group under black umbrellas, a chiaroscuro of wicked mirth, and I could just make out that their guide had told them something hilarious. Something hilarious dotted with an exclamation point and much emphatic laughter. The laughter kept coming. It could only mean one thing—they were standing near McGonagall’s grave. I had to maneuver through a gauntlet of stones and markers, quick, before the tour group moved away!

Redmond O’Hanlon, in his travel narrative No Mercy: A Journey into the Heart of the Congo, describes adopting a baby gorilla orphaned by poachers, and because of the restless crying the gorilla made for its mother, he took the gorilla out for a walk in the thick dangerous jungle. He fell asleep and got lost, and as the sun set on his certain jungle doom, he heard the screams of a village woman being beaten by her husband, a man named Vicky who beat his wife each night, to O’Hanlon’s great horror. This time, however, the beating and the screaming were a beacon. O’Hanlon followed the screams back to the safety of the village, gorilla on his shoulder, and all the time, he prayed the terrible prayer: “Vicky . . . please. Just this once. Keep at it. Keep beating her.” I said a similar sort of prayer as I made my way, in the gloaming, toward the jeering mob. I knew they were laughing at McGonagall. I hated them for laughing at McGonagall. I needed them to laugh at McGonagall.

The little group of tourists had hardly shuffled to the next grave, that of somebody called “The Man of Feeling.” I stood where they stood, and used the flash on my phone’s camera to illuminate the wall, and the ground. I have a dozen photos saved that seem eerie, as I pointed toward places a stone might sit, or a bundle of flowers. All I got was lichen illuminated. I looked up at the twilit wall on which a plaque proclaimed McGonagall’s body “near this spot,”

I am your Gracious Majesty
ever faithful to Thee,
William McGonagall, The Poor Poet,
That lives in Dundee.

Poor indeed! These were his words, but taken out of context, the double entendre regarding “Poor”—McGonagall’s meaning of penniless, and our consideration of him as “the terriblest”—a fish shot in a barrel. I watched the laughing stock of tourists trundle away, and I felt protective of the Poor Poet.

There are many bad artists, and artists on their way from the depths to the heights. Great stuff does not just spring forth, like a child of Zeus out of his head. Sure, McGonagall had two flat feet and a tin ear (“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!”), but so did Susan Sontag when writing her brilliant prose, in my opinion. Have you never beat on your horn, stuck in traffic, shouting with any number of exclamation marks, trying desperately to get to the grade school in order to hear your daughter’s choir concert and her wobbly adenoidal solo? You weep at the child’s enthusiasm, at her ability to be game, to fearlessly try, to take off the cool-kid sunglasses and just sing out. “Desperado! Why don’t you come to your senses!” There is nothing like a child singing a song about death to break your heart. So it is with McGonagall—in an age in which we are always looking for the flaw, can’t we glean the wheat from the chaff, or must finding the flaw be our entertainment? Isn’t enthusiasm crucial to the making of art?

The questions are as much for me as they are for you. My personal pilgrimage to McGonagall’s grave was to meditate upon my own strengths and weaknesses. After touching the plaque, searching the dark mossy ground for any evidence of flowers left behind by any one like me, I went down to the used bookstores below Greyfriars and found a couple of volumes of his work. I returned happy to my friend at the hotel, and we had a wee dram and toasted the terriblest poet. It was a moment of quiet joy—no exclamation points this time—yet still insistent and emphatic.

Bloom Post End

Brian Bouldrey, is the author of four books of nonfiction (most recently The Peasants and the Mariners) and four novels. He is the editor of several anthologies, and the North American Editor of the Open Door literacy series for GemmaMedia.  He teaches creative writing and literature at Northwestern University.

Homepage Image courtesy Son of Groucho

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