Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Guest Want: Less Bad Poetry

Ever-erudite contributing blogger LAW reports from the depths of the Dictionary of Every-day Wants:

When, at the end of his book, Youman turns to “Writing for the Press,” he gives a ten-point list for what, and what not, to do. As we’ve come to expect from him, he begins by exhorting writers to take responsibility—for their grammar, spelling, and facts. Curiously, his second point is a warning: “Do not write poetry.” Whyever not? His response is brutal: “Ninety-nine one hundredths of the rhyme written is good for three things”—to give to friends, to use for kindling, or for pulp at the paper mill.

What may seem like simple literary prejudice on Youman’s part is easier to understand if we see what he was up against in the literary world of his day. An easy, and highly amusing approach, is through the memorable anthology compiled by the brother-and-sister team of Kathryn and Ross Petras, published in 1997 by Vintage Books as Very Bad Poetry. Unlike most other such publications, the Petrases focused on poetry that was written in good faith, by people who believed themselves to be poets. As they note in their introduction, “A compulsion to write verse, and a happy delusion regarding talent—that is the beginning of a very bad poet.”
Among the worst poets in Youman’s day was one William McGonagall of Dundee, Scotland, who self-published more than 200 poems in his lifetime. The Petrases quote McGonagall’s own description of how he began:
“I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and remained so for about five minutes. A flame … seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry … It was so strong I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, ‘Write Write!’ So I said to myself, ruminating, let me see; what shall I write? then all at once a bright idea struck me.”
McGonagall was often inspired by current events of his day, such as the railway accident on the Tay River Bridge in 1879 (just a few years after Youman’s book appeared):
The Tay Bridge Disaster
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.
’Twas about s
even o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
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.

 You can enjoy more of McGonagall’s memorably awful verse (which he referred to as his “poetic gems”) by visiting the website consecrated to him.

[Check back soon for more on Youman’s other 8 tips for aspiring writers. —Ed]