Posted tagged ‘poetry’

The undoubted grandeur of really bad poetry

March 11, 2014

There is no shortage in this world of bad poetry, or of doggerel that someone is trying to pass off as genuine art. But when poetry is really bad – I mean, really bad – it can take on a sort of grandeur that we can admire; and nobody achieved this better than the unique and wonderful William Topaz McGonagall, a Scottish handloom weaver who, inexplicably, came to believe he was a poetic genius. He is often described as the worst poet in the English language, and there is a sort of ambition in that claim that suits his style.

McGonagall had no understanding whatsoever of the key elements of poetry. His main assumption appears to have been that poetic stanzas must contain rhymes, and that the obligation to rhyme should trump everything else, from meter to meaning. But in pursuing this ideal he created a kind of nobility of nonsense that you just cannot help admiring. The opening salvo of his oeuvre was a hymn to the dissenting Protestant minister and poet, the Reverend George Gilfillan. This clergyman would have been long forgotten by now but for McGonagall’s masterpiece, which I must now reproduce in full.

All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
He is a man of genius bright,
And in him his congregation does delight,
Because they find him to be honest and plain,
Affable in temper, and seldom known to complain.
He preaches in a plain straightforward way,
The people flock to hear him night and day,
And hundreds from the doors are often turn’d away,
Because he is the greatest preacher of the present day.
He has written the life of Sir Walter Scott,
And while he lives he will never be forgot,
Nor when he is dead,
Because by his admirers it will be often read;
And fill their minds with wonder and delight,
And wile away the tedious hours on a cold winter’s night.
He has also written about the Bards of the Bible,
Which occupied nearly three years in which he was not idle,
Because when he sits down to write he does it with might and main,
And to get an interview with him it would be almost vain,
And in that he is always right,
For the Bible tells us whatever your hands findeth to do,
Do it with all your might.
Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee, I must conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen doss not refuse,
Nor does it give me pain to tell the world fearlessly, that when
You are dead they shall not look upon your like again.

And who could fail to be moved by his account of the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879, or not be impressed by his ability to explain complex (and tragic) engineering issues:

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry 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.

And of course nobody could fail to be persuaded by the sound common sense of those last two lines.

McGonagall sought Queen Victoria’s patronage – in verse of course, including the following:

Beautiful Empress, of India, and Englands Gracious Queen,
I send you a Shakespearian Address written by me.
And I think if your Majesty reads it, right pleased you will be.
And my heart it will leap with joy, if it is patronized by Thee.

In these current challenging times we need to be inspired by great thoughts and moved by great art. Surely McGonagall’s time has come again. And while he may have hoped that his heart might be patronised by the Queen, we shall certainly do no patronising here.

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Living with poetry

May 26, 2009

Maybe this is something that happens to all university Presidents, but I frequently get asked to be a member of a judging panel for this and that. On the whole I like to help where I can, but if I have no special knowledge or expertise I do think twice before setting myself up as a judge of quality. So for example, I always turn down requests to be a judge at garden or flower events, since I always kill absolutely anything I plant myself.

However, a little while ago I was asked to be one of the judges in a poetry competition, and as I like poetry (and have attempted to write some) I accepted the invitation. But then I got the entries, and was left wondering what on earth to do with them. As far as I could see, absolutely every one of them was terrible. They were either bits of doggerel where the poets were wrestling with the compulsion to rhyme everything, often really badly, while knocking over all other fundamentals of poetry in the struggle, including meter, imagery, insight and meaning; or they were really somewhat banal prose with unusual line breaks; or they were pretentious abstractions that never really managed to be poetic. But then I decided I just could not judge them, for who was I to say that these were all bad, when I had never published a poem in my life?

In fact, what do we really think poetry is? Is it a verbal or linguistic mechanism that needs to satisfy certain formal requirements to qualify? Does it need to have, or must it not have, any particular function in terms of what it communicates? Indeed, should it communicate in a verbal sense? Is what we regard as poetry mainly a product of our particular culture – in the sense for example that Eastern poetry is different from that of the west? Some questions along these lines are interestingly put on this website. If we were choosing the Oxford Professor of Poetry, what criteria would we employ?

Poetry may be influenced by culture, but it is also something deeply personal. We are affected by it in different ways, and expect different things of it. As for me, I have started to re-read the poems of Philip Larkin, who was in his professional life the Librarian of my former university, the University of Hull; but he is much better known as one of the most recognised English poets of the 20th century. There is something about this man, who was a misanthrope in his personal life but who produced some really deep insights in his verse. If you have never read anything by him, my own favourite poem of his is ‘Church Going‘ (not a religious poem per se, as Larkin was an agnostic).

Of course, you will have your own favourite poets. But for most people, there is a need at some point in our lives to see the poetry in what we experience or long for, and that need is probably something set apart from our rational and objective self. So on the whole, I was probably wrong about all those poems I was asked to judge. Let us all express and appreciate poetry in whatever way works for us. And let us support the poets, whoever they may be. After all, as I have mentioned previously, I greatly admire the work of that wonderful, unique, terrible poet, William McGonagall.

Poetry, language and history

April 5, 2009

Thirty-nine years ago this month saw the death of the great poet Paul Celan. Celan, born in 1920 as Paul Antschel, was a Romanian Jew who grew up in a German-speaking family. He began to write poetry in the late 1930s, but he also trained as a doctor, was a political activist and studied literature. During the Second World War he was detained by the fascist Romanian authorities, and he lost his parents when they were transferred to a German concentration camp where they both died. Celan survived the war, eventually settling in Paris, where he died.

Paul Celan was an undoubtedly great poet. But the remarkable thing was that, despite what he had experienced, he continued to write in German, expressing the view from time to time that only in German could he adequately communicate the horrors of the Holocaust.

His most celebrated poem is Todesfuge, or ‘Death Fugue’, which uses extraordinarily powerful language, imagery and metaphors to describe the casual cruelty of the concentration camps. When this poem was first read to us at school in Germany, many in the class were reduced to tears. Here is the original German, and here a passable translation.

Even today I cannot read the poem without a feeling of horror at what it describes; and yet I also marvel at the fact that this is described in the language of the tormentors, my own language of birth; and somehow there is hope in that. In some way, oppressors are bound forever to their victims. The cruel inhumanity of the Holocaust can never become just another footnote of history or find some sort of redemption; but poetry and culture can help to ensure that it is history rather than destiny.

Really great bad poetry

February 17, 2009

There is no shortage in this world of bad poetry, or of doggerel that someone is trying to pass off as genuine art. But when poetry is really bad – I mean, really bad – it can take on a sort of grandeur that we can admire; and nobody achieved this better than the unique and wonderful William Topaz McGonagall, a Scottish handloom weaver who, inexplicably, came to believe he was a poetic genius. He is often described as the worst poet in the English language, and there is a sort of ambition in that claim that suits his style.

McGonagall had no understanding whatsoever of the key elements of poetry. His main assumption appears to have been that poetic stanzas must contain rhymes, and that the obligation to rhyme should trump everything else, from meter to meaning. But in pursuing this ideal he created a kind of nobility of nonsense that you just cannot help admiring. The opening salvo of his oeuvre was a hymn to the dissenting Protestant minister and poet, the Reverend George Gilfillan. This clergyman would have been long forgotten by now but for McGonagall’s masterpiece, which I must now reproduce in full.

All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
He is a man of genius bright,
And in him his congregation does delight,
Because they find him to be honest and plain,
Affable in temper, and seldom known to complain.
He preaches in a plain straightforward way,
The people flock to hear him night and day,
And hundreds from the doors are often turn’d away,
Because he is the greatest preacher of the present day.
He has written the life of Sir Walter Scott,
And while he lives he will never be forgot,
Nor when he is dead,
Because by his admirers it will be often read;
And fill their minds with wonder and delight,
And wile away the tedious hours on a cold winter’s night.
He has also written about the Bards of the Bible,
Which occupied nearly three years in which he was not idle,
Because when he sits down to write he does it with might and main,
And to get an interview with him it would be almost vain,
And in that he is always right,
For the Bible tells us whatever your hands findeth to do,
Do it with all your might.
Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee, I must conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen doss not refuse,
Nor does it give me pain to tell the world fearlessly, that when
You are dead they shall not look upon your like again.

McGonagall sought Queen Victoria’s patronage – in verse of course, including the following:

Beautiful Empress, of India, and Englands Gracious Queen,
I send you a Shakespearian Address written by me.
And I think if your Majesty reads it, right pleased you will be.
And my heart it will leap with joy, if it is patronized by Thee.

In these current difficult times we need to be inspired by great thoughts and moved by great art. Surely McGonagall’s time has come again.

So what is art?

December 10, 2008

Some time during the early 1980s, when I was a young lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, a Dublin gallery put on an exhibition of paintings by the well known artist, Jo Baer. If I recall correctly, all or most of the paintings on display were what looked like empty canvases. There was a frame, and a canvas, and that was pretty much it. An example of the genre would be her painting ‘Korean’, which can be seen on this photo. Those who had come with me to see the exhibition were divided as to whether we were seeing great art or no art at all.

Of course the question what constitutes art is not a new one. Tolstoy addressed it in a book devoted to the subject which was published in the later 19th century; in it he suggests in essence that art is a form of communication, in which the artist transmits the emotion of his or her work to the viewers or audience. This could be described as ‘mutual subjectivity’, in which the artist connects some emotion or concept with the audience, a shared aesthetic appreciation.

The difficulty in assessing the nature and value of art has been compounded by the gradual withering away of agreed form in art, music and literature, so that painters could produce entirely abstract work, or poets produce poetry without meter or rhyme, or composers produce music outside previously accepted tonal conventions, to critical acclaim. This produced a significant impediment for those who liked to assess art in terms of its observing conventions as to form. If you are (like me) old enough to remember it, a whole episode of the comedy radio programme Hancock’s Haf-Hour was devoted to this, with Hancock and his friends and some guests debating what was poetry and what was simply rubbish, with Hancock himself producing this ‘poem’ (‘The Ashtray‘):

Steel rods of reason through my head!
Salmon jumping, where jump I?
Camels on fire – and spotted clouds
Striped horses prance the meadow wild
And rush on to drink at life’s fountains deep.
Life is cream I am puce…
Ching, Chang, Cholla!

Well, let me not be a Philistine. Art is not adherence to convention. Modern art, poetry, literature and music have contributed much to civilisation. But on the other hand, is something to be accepted as art because the author says it is – is it something entirely subjective in the mind of the creator? Or, as distinct from formal convention, is it social convention?

Nobody actually needs to answer that question. It may indeed be a good thing for artists to push the boundaries, even the boundaries of gullibility. If (as urban legend has it) the left-over lunch tray of a gallery security guard was once accidentally auctioned off as a work of art and sold for a large sum of money, so what? If someone is enjoying that even now, then was it not art? I confess that I am more traditional than that, and have some regard for the traditional forms; but can be impressed and sometimes amused by art that does not conform, even where I think that it is pulling my leg.

As for Jo Baer, she has argued for a ‘minimalist future‘. She may be just the artist for these uncertain times.