Notes on Bad Poetry

By | 1 September 2023

Some poems are bad

Maybe we’ll always disagree about poetry – about how it works, and what it’s for; about its modalities and affordances; about what makes a good poem; about why you might want to write or read one. For as long as anyone can remember, the poetry scene has been characterised by clashing opinions. In this bewildering proliferation of disagreements, the sheer existence of bad poems offers a rare point of consensus. For as we all know, bad poems exist. I’ve read them. You’ve read them. Some of us might even have written a few. And we can all agree they suck. That there are bad poems is a critical fact so empirically incontestable as to verge on the axiomatic. It is as if, in our efforts to come to grips with poetry, we have here – at last! – touched on something irrefragable, recalcitrant, certain.

Maybe we’ll always disagree about poetry, Ben Lerner says in his The Hatred of Poetry, but at least we all agree that some poems are bad. ‘It is’, he states, ‘much harder to agree on what constitutes a successful poem when we see it than it is to agree that we’re in the presence of an appalling one’.1 Lerner finds this spontaneous agreement reassuring. It’s a common-sense judgement that for him testifies to an actually existing critical sensus communis. It bespeaks the transcendental coordination of our critical faculties, despite everything that otherwise divides us from each other. With bad poetry, the universality so often promised in theories of aesthetic judgement appears finally at hand, albeit via a negative path.

Lerner takes as his Exhibit A of bad poetry ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ by the Victorian poet William McGonagall, which begins:

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.

You can read about McGonagall on Wikipedia, our contemporary repository of common sense – which, as Lerner quotes, states that McGonagall is ‘widely acclaimed as the worst poet in history.’2 But when it comes to McGonagall’s absolute badness, Lerner sees no real need for any appeal to such authority. Firsthand experience proves sufficient in itself, for the badness of this poetry will be obvious to all. Lerner remarks that ‘McGonagall’s horribleness is evident even to those of us who don’t read poetry’, and outlines a procedure for empirical verification: ‘recite this poem to a friend who has no interest in – or significant experience of – verse, who claims to know nothing about it, and I wager that she will concur, whether or not she can specify its failings, that it’s at least very, very bad’.3 If you don’t take my word for it, try it yourself. Even idiots agree: McGonagall’s no good.

McGonagall was not always acclaimed as the world’s worst poet. His rise to that bad eminence took place across two relatively discontinuous episodes of critical reception. For around two decades from his first published poem in 1877, McGonagall was essentially a local poet – an obscure figure, of minor notoriety only in the Scottish Lowlands industrial city of Dundee and, for a few years before his death in 1902, also in Edinburgh. Trips to London and New York were brief and ended in failure. Wider recognition did not follow until some decades later, when McGonagall was rediscovered in a series of print publications from around 1930 that introduced his poetry to increasingly expansive national and international readerships.

In early instances of this re-uptake, McGonagall tended to be characterised in intensely regional terms and treated as almost entirely unknown. In 1929, the English journalist and travel writer H.V. Morton observed there were ‘few who still remember McGonagall’, and noted that he ‘seems to have in some unaccounted way escaped recognition’.4 Morton’s comic discussion of McGonagall appeared in his best-selling travelogue, In Search of Scotland, where he was cast as ‘a genuine relic of Old Edinburgh’ randomly encountered while pootling about Caledonian byways.5 A few years later, Hugh McDiarmid took a more rancorous line when including McGonagall in his collection of Scottish Eccentrics. While Scottish ‘general opinion’ held McGonagall to be ‘synonymous with bad poetry’, McDiarmid was ‘not sure he is much known in the English-speaking world outside Scotland’.6 Despite being largely forgotten, McGonagall had nonetheless arrived at ‘the recipe which has made modern Scotland what it is’.7

From this initial 1930s moment, the reception of McGonagall opened out through ever more extensive pathways of mass print circulation. He was read in new contexts, taking on transformed critical functions. His writing began to be reissued: his Poetic Gems of 1890-1 was republished in 1934, and has never fallen out of print for stretches longer than a few years since. (Remarkably, McGonagall is now Scotland’s most widely published poet – ahead even of Burns.) Through the 1940s, he was a subject of comic reportage in literary magazines and weekend newspaper cultural supplements in the UK, the USA, Australia and elsewhere. In the 1950s and 60s, he provided a reliable go-to example of poetic failure for university literary critics; he was also serving as a butt of routine mockery for a new generation of English comedians. Writing in 1965, Hamish Henderson could go so far as to note that ‘McGonagall is in the news again – indeed, he is very seldom out of it’.8

In 1974, he was the subject of a feature-length biographical film, The Great McGonagall, starring Spike Milligan as McGonagall and Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria. Two years later, the critic Paul Werth sought to demonstrate the specious nature of Roman Jakobson’s structuralist method of poetic analysis by uncovering in McGonagall precisely the same kinds of linguistic patterning Jakobson had detailed in such unquestioned masterpieces as Baudelaire’s ‘Les chats’ and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129.9 So much for literariness; so much for the poetic function. Werth’s reductio ad absurdum was repeated a year later against another critical school in a tongue-in-cheek essay by ‘U.B. Leavis.’ There ‘Leavis’ claimed McGonagall as a central figure in ‘the Great (neglected) Tradition of English Poetry’ thanks to his capacity ‘to place experience in time and space, to establish order in the transient flux and upheaval of life, and to see that order in human affairs against the background of a wider, more all-embracing, almost cosmic, certainly metaphysical, universalistic order’.10 By this point, McGonagall’s badness had acquired the property of self-evidence so valued by Lerner: ‘most people would doubt that it has any literary merit whatsoever’.11

  1. Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), p. 30.
  2. Lerner, Hatred of Poetry, p. 25.
  3. Lerner, Hatred of Poetry, p. 30.
  4. H.V. Morton, In Search of Scotland (London: Methuen, 1929), p. 58.
  5. Morton, In Search of Scotland, p. 58
  6. Hugh McDiarmid, Scottish Eccentrics (London: Routledge, 1936), p. 57.
  7. McDiarmid, Scottish Eccentrics, p. 66.
  8. Hamish Henderson, ‘William McGonagall and the Folk Scene’, Chapbook 2 (1965): 3-10, 23-4, p.
  9. Paul Werth, ‘Roman Jakobson’s Verbal Analysis of Poetry’, Journal of Linguistics 12 (1976): 21-73.
  10. ‘U.B. Leavis’, ‘The Great (neglected) Tradition of English Poetry’, English in Australia 40 (1977): 42-47, p. 46.
  11. Werth, ‘Jakobson’s Verbal Analysis’, p. 36.
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