CRUEL TO BE CRUEL
by Rob Lopresti
The other day I was looking at Improbable Research, a website dedicated to some of the more unusual accomplishments in the field of science. (They give out the Ig Nobel Prizes to honor “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”) To my surprise they were bragging of a literary accomplishment: at their next meeting they would be reciting some long-lost poems by a famous Scottish poet, William Topaz McGonagall.
The work of McGonagall (1825-1902) has survived past that of many other British poets. There are several websites dedicated to his work and one even offers to send one of his more than 200 poems to you by email on a daily basis – and more than 1500 people have subscribed!
So, what is the secret to McGonagall’s magic pull on even modern readers?
Very simple, really. He stinks.
It’s true. People can disagree about what constitutes good poetry, but just about anyone can join in unity and agree that McGonagall’s is bad.
- ALAS! noble Prince Leopold, he is dead!
Who often has his lustre shed:
Especially by singing for the benefit of Esher School,
Which proves he was a wise prince, and no conceited fool.
Many would-be poets lack an ear for rhyme or a talent for scansion, or have a plodding and pedestrian taste in words. But the Bard of Dundee had, as the sportswriters say, the whole package.
- A HEROIC story I will unfold,
Concerning Jenny Carrister, a heroine bold,
Who lived in Australia, at a gold mine called Lucknow,
And Jenny was beloved by the the miners, somehow.
But that’s not all. He also combined deadly earnestness with an unshakable faith in his own greatness (and many tried to shake it).
- But, fellow-citizens, I will not submit to such an indignity
For I am resolved to leave the city
And bid the city a long farewell,
For I cannot get protection in it to dwell,
Therefore I’m resolved from it to flee
For a prophet has no honour in his own country,
And try to live in some other town
Where the magistrates won’t boycott me or try to keep me down.
Of course, poetry is not the only place where bad writing resides. Bill Pronzini kindly provided us with two volumes of examples from our own field: Gun in Cheek and Son of Gun in Cheek. These books collect disastrous texts from many long-forgotten authors, seasoned with some painful moments by even the good and the great.
He nodded once, mostly with his eyes. —Richard Burke, Barbary Freight
He poured himself a drink and counted the money. It came to ten thousand even, mostly in fifties and twenty-fives. —Brett Halliday, The Violent World of Michael Shayne
The next day dawned bright and clear on my empty stomach. —Michael Avallone, Meanwhile Back At the Morgue.
“In plain English, Patterson,” said Pye, “nix on the gats!” —R.A.J. Walling, The Corpse With the Floating Foot
Ina syruped, “Hello, Sally.” The redhead laid an eye on me and started rubbing it over my bulk as though she was sizing up a rib-roast. —Michael Morgan, Decoy
Against a backdrop of darkness the heater sneezed: KA-CHOWP! CHOWP! CHOWP! And sent three sparking ribbons of orange flame burning into the pillow. —Robert Leslie Bellem, “Come Die For Me.”
Don’t be such a meanie
But the question I wanted to ask is: why do we (or at least I) enjoy this kind of thing so much? Is it just schadenfreude? The delight that we haven’t written anything that bad (or been caught at it)? I suppose it is the same principle that causes people to watch videos of people falling off skateboards, or listening to bad singers try out for music shows. Not humanity’s finest instinct, is the point I am trying to make.
Ah, well. We try to be good, but few of us can be consistent. And even that isn’t always a good thing. McGonagall was consistent.