Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In Memoriam William McGonagall

William McGonagall (1825-1902) is often described as the worst poet of all time. He was a Scottish handloom weaver who felt the vocation to be a poet when he was in his fifties. His poetry is extremely naive and artless. He tended to write memorial poems and poems about disasters-- 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' is his most famous work. He was often mocked in his lifetime, even pelted with fruit, but he seemed completely unaware he was a figure of fun. He once walked to Buckingham Palace to recite before the Queen. (He was turned away.)

I wrote this poem in 2003. I had a lot of fellow feeling for McGonagall in my youth, when my burning ambition was to become a poet. First of all, I thought that anyone whose poetry was printed, sold and remembered was more more to be envied than the vast majority of humankind. Secondly, I felt that McGonagall's case was only an exaggeration of the case of any poet who did not have Nobel Prize or a poet-in-residence position to justify his or her versifying. As I've written before, I was wretchedly aware of the mockery often doled out to would-be poets, and in fact I greatly exaggerated it in my own mind. (McGonagall himself encountered kindness as well as cruelty. His friends often arranged sales of his poetry books to ward off his poverty.)

The poem is written in the style of McGonagall, whose lines were highly irregular in length, and who never worried much about scansion. I call him 'sober' because he was a temperance advocate.

The figure of the "holy fool" has always been a potent one in my imagination.

Perhaps McGonagall has had the last laugh. His poems have never gone out of print. I remembered this poem yesterday evening, when I happened across a reference to the great man, and decided I may as well blog it.

Oh, sober bard of the silvery Tay!
Alas, I am very sorry to say
That many great names of your age have passed away
While yours-- never great but in jest-- stays with us today.
Until relatively recently a Scottish pub bore your name
And second-hand bookshops attest to your rather dubious fame.
Does the mockery you were deaf to in life now sting you in death?
Or does McGonagall's ghost keep his holy innocence yet?

That ignorance, my bonny Wiliam, that not every smile showed a friend;
That innocence (just like your lines) that seemed all but powerless to end.
You only saw kindness in cruelty, only touched paper to praise;
What man of the times did you fail to lament at the end of his days?
No genius doubted his genius as little as you doubted yours
Though you drank to the dregs all the woes that the man of the muses endures.
You were poetry's bastard son; but even the truest of heirs
Have tasted the scorn that you tasted. It waits upon each man who dares
To mould words to beauty, forge phrases that speak of a soul to a soul;
Dear ghost, it is only the worthiest things that a cynic finds droll.
They have no mocking words for the river of newsprint that endlessly flows;
And why? Is a folly in verse to be cursed more than venom in prose?

The last words we leave to the world are some stanzas carved into a stone
And no man so poor and so beaten but harbours a dream of his own.
And every street corner, and coffee shop table might hear unimpressed
The flash of a phrase, that the ages might happily hold to their breast.
But nobody knows where to look, when you go about baring your soul,
For to feel is indecent, and silence a little like bladder control,
We like words that deepen the soul. It's not your crude lines that offend
But your hankering after the wondrous, William; your thirst to transcend.

As the boy with the gentle bright eyes must be beaten by sullen-eyed louts
His soul clouded over with fear, and his dreams choked with dreads and with doubts,
So the world tried to punish you, William, for keeping a hold of your dreams;
But their dull worldly wisdom can only make weary. Your folly redeems.

Does your spirit still pace those long paths, from the Tay to the Thames,
In search of your fugitive fortune, sack stuffed with your Poetic Gems?
Or has God lent grace to your yearning, and granted what man has denied;
To stand in the ranks of the poets, and sleep upon Shakespeare's right side?
Rest now from your wandering minstrel; a vison's a troublesome thing.
The prophet does not choose his truth, or the poet the song he must sing.
The heavens had marked you for folly, but better a fool than a knave;
And Westminster's ghosts lost a comrade, when you filled a pauper's mean grave.

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