At dinner the other night Andy and Kenneth were discussing the legacy of the nineteenth century poet William McGonagall, of nearby Dundee. Kenneth called him the anti-poet, which is when my ears perked up. I'm not sure why, as I'm not particularly drawn to camp or art that is "so bad it's good". I've never been a fan of Ed Wood, for example, and have no need to hear William Shatner sing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (though I do stand by the Shaggs as not only brilliant, but infinitely listenable). But somehow the best of the worst poetry rivals the best of the best. And I don't say that to disparage poetry. I have dozens of volumes of poetry on my shelves, but I think the one I'm most happy with is called Cop Poet. It's written by a police officer who worked in Cabbagetown, Toronto, and was marketed in the mid-seventies as a gimmick - a cop so sensitive he writes poetry. Amazon has one last copy, I suggest you snap it up. It's selling for forty cents.
Born in Edinburgh, McGonagall was working in Dundee as a handloom weaver (a then-dying trade he learned from his father) when, in 1877, his "body got inflamed, and was instantly seized with a strong desire to write poetry". A voice in his head cried ""Write! Write!" Though this epiphany or visitation occurred when he was fifty two years old he set about his task in earnest. His first poem was published in the Weekly News, and the impulse of a journalist would run thru all of his work, recording local events for posterity. Oblivious to the general opinion of his poetry, (despite the pelting with eggs he received) he fancied himself worthy of the title Poet Laureate and walked 60 miles of mountainous terrain during a thunderstorm to ask Queen Victoria for the title. He was informed that the Queen was out and sent home. Variations on the story have him threatened with arrest.
Like his hero Shakespeare, McGonagall was also an actor. When he performed the title role in Macbeth (a privilege he apparently paid handsomely for) the theatre was packed with curious locals and his opening line was met with a standing ovation. Reportedly, he felt that the actor portraying Macduff was attempting to upstage him, and refused to die in the final scene.
As these stories are being told I remember an old Monty Python sketch about a Scottish poet named Ewan McTeagle, who I now recognize must've been a parody of McGonagall. The short sketch showed an always broke McTeagle writing and mailing poems, all of which were requests for money, such as
To Ma Own beloved Lassie.
A poem on her 17th Birthday.
Lend us a couple of bob till Thursday.
I'm absolutely skint.
But I'm expecting a postal order
and I can pay you back as soon as it comes.
or an 'earlier' work so concisely brilliant it rivals a certain red wheelbarrow:
If you could see your way to lending me sixpence.
I could at least buy a newspaper.
That's not much to ask anyone.
William McGonagall's best known poem is The Tay Bridge Disaster, which recounts the story of, ah, the Tay Bridge Disaster of of 1879.
‘Twas about seven 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.”
McGonagall's work undergoes periodic reevaluation, and it's this dedication to reportage (along with his sincerity, his deft self-promotion and enormous self-confidence) that he will be seriously remembered for. I've just ordered a 1971 biography from ABE books and I'm hoping to answer the question "could it have been a hoax?" The poster below seems to indicate a self-awareness in the line "Positively For This Night Only" and it would take a self-importance bordering on delusional to mistake hurled tomatoes at a reading for respect and admiration (he is rumoured to have carried an umbrella as protection from the barrage of rotten fruit and vegetables routinely thrown at him).
If so, he might be the missing link between, say, Diogenes of Sinope and contemporary performance art. Or at least Andy Kaufman. He was certainly a performance poet, and his readings often caused riots. City magistrates eventually banned them in the interest of public safety. So he set out for other cities, such as Glasgow, London and New York.
His works is sadly out of print now, but only a couple of months ago some of his original poems sold at auction in Edinburgh for just short of 7000 pounds.
He died penniless at the turn of the century and is buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, which I intend to visit mid-August. Less than a decade ago a grave-slab was installed to his memory. It reads
'Poet and Tragedian
"I am your gracious Majesty
ever faithful to Thee,
William McGonagall, the Poor Poet,
That lives in Dundee."