Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Anti-Poet

January 25 is almost here, and that means Burns night --- a celebration of our most celebrated bard. At Cottarton we’re expecting 11 people over for our party. Amber is cooking up a storm. After dinner, the musicians will strike up some music, and we’ll have poetic recitations and singing.

Scotland also boasts of a great anti-poet --- whose poetry is recited at parties, even in the US, and garners more laughs than Burns because it’s so unashamedly bad. I refer to the great Dundee poet, actor, tragedian and quintessentially tragic William McGonnagall (1825-1902).

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 beutification to the Tay.

Six more stanzas follow about the bridge's architecture. Let’s try another one, written later after the bridge fell down one stormy night. Apparently as a result of poor engineering…

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery 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 remembered for a very long time.

Get me out of here!Two pages of verse carry on the story, each verse ending with,
Which will be remembered for a very long time.

There are more --- about 200 poems. Have someone read them and see if you don’t end up splitting your sides. He recited in bars, in music halls; even in a circus where people would pelt him with flour, eggs and the like. His performances --- and yes he was a great performance poet, what today you’d call a slammer, often resulted in riots. He certainly wasn’t ignored. People turned up always, expecting a great show. While reciting “The Battle of Bannockburn” in a Montrose hall,he waved a sword and thrust it this way and that, sending the orchestra members running for their lives.

Then King Edward ordered his horsemen to charge
Thirty thousand in number which was very large;
They thought to o’erwhelm them ere they could rise from their knees,
But they met a different destiny, which did them displease.

McGonnagall became a poet following a mystical experience. He writes,

"I was sitting in my back room in Paton's Lane, Dundee, lamenting to myself because I couldn't get to the Highlands on holiday to see the beautiful scenery, when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears- "Write! Write" I wondered what could be the matter with me, and I began to walk backwards and forwards in a great fit of excitement, saying to myself-- "I know nothing about poetry." But still the voice kept ringing in my ears - "Write, write," until at last, being overcome with a desire to write poetry, I found paper, pen, and ink, and in a state of frenzy, sat me down to think what would be my first subject for a, poem."

He certainly remained true to his vision. Despite the universal derision, he remained convinced that he was a great poet. A genius. That people were merely stupid. Tone deaf to poetic metre and metaphor, he couldn't figure out what people were laughing at. Perhaps therein lies his genius. I certainly couldn’t write such poetry. You have to hand it to the man that he never gave up, and that all the egg pelting never shook his self-esteem or his faith in himself.

Yet, I hesitate to call him a tragic figure, though numerous anecdotes point that way. Once when playing the part of Macbeth, he refused to die as required by Shakespeare. He drew out the sword fight until his exhausted adversary threw down his sword and bodily tackled him. I suspect that McGonnagall was craftier than people give him credit. The crowds did after all turn up, if only to be entertained by his performance, his inane lines, and to pelt him with cabbages. He knew he was successful. He must have loved the attention. Yet, as with most poets, he must have felt lonely.

And today, a hundred years later, his poems are best sellers. Guess who’s laughing in his grave?

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