Only To Be Read by Writers


As regular readers of this column will probably know, I’m a huge fan of poetry. I write poems. I read poems. I perform poems. I teach people how to write poetry. In short, I’m a poetic person.

As far as writing fiction is concerned, I’ve always been of the Coleridge school of thinking. Coleridge famously categorised prose and poetry with the following definitions: “Prose – words in their best order; poetry – the best words in their best order.” And, whilst it might sound like a grandiose ambition, especially for a humble author of erotic fiction, I’ve always tried to create prose that uses those best words in their best order. I’ve always tried to create prose that reads like poetry.

Which is part of the reason why I adore poetry and one of the reasons I advocate the experience to any aspiring writer. I believe that working with poets, listening to poetry and basking in the flow of words, raises the standard of my writing.

But, and this is the thing I want to blog about this month, I have a guilty secret: I enjoy bad poetry.

Perhaps one of the most commonly cited examples of a writer of bad poetry is the Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall. McGonagall was a poet with aspirations that stretched well beyond his abilities. He has been hailed as the writer of the worst poetry in the English language.

Obviously this is a subjective judgement.

What one person thinks is dire, another reader will laud for being superlative. But McGonagall’s verse is generally regarded as being pretty bad. Worse, McGonagall had an elevated opinion of his writing. He considered himself to be good. McGonagall petitioned to be poet laureate, although the Queen at the time seemed content with the incumbent poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. If you’re wondering what his writing was like, here’s a sample from the opening lines of McGonagall’s poem, ‘Captain Teach alias Black Beard.’

Edward Teach was a native of Bristol, and sailed from that port
On board a privateer, in search of sport,
As one of the crew, during the French War in that station,
And for personal courage he soon gained his Captain’s approbation.

‘Twas in the spring of 1717, Captain Harnigold and Teach sailed from Providence
For the continent of America, and no further hence;
And in their way captured a vessel laden with flour,
Which they put on board their own vessels in the space of an hour.

Critically we could explore the forced rhymes, or the absence of a measured metrical form or the fundamental lack of poetic devices. But, to truly appreciate the reason why this poetry is described as being bad, we only have to try and read it aloud. It clunks. It groans. It has few (if any) redeeming qualities.

And yet, we have to come away from the experience of this poem thinking at least one positive thing:

William Topaz McGonagall aspired to be a poet and he was successful in that goal. More than a hundred years after his death he’s still being talked about because of his writing. His work is still being read – a fact that is testified by the dozen or so websites devoted to his work. He’s one of those poets known by more than just a handful of elitist pseudo-intellectuals. And this is an accomplishment that most of us writers would dearly want to emulate.

Admittedly, I’m sure we’d all prefer to be celebrated for our literary genius and runaway success. But if it comes to a choice between fame, infamy or obscurity, my guess is that most people won’t bother ticking that third box on the list.

Whether your writing is praised as poetry or ridiculed and reviled as rubbish, the truth is you’re a writer. To my mind, that’s always going to be an improved state of affairs compared to the couch potato with no aims of ever putting pen to paper or the cocktail party wannabe who says, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel but I can never seem to find the time.”

Writing is seldom easy. The rewards are often difficult to see especially, compared to the investment of time, effort and talent that goes into most pieces of work. It’s also worth noting that no bank on the planet will convert ‘critical acclaim’ into currency.

And yet we struggle on to produce those words that will meet the needs of our readership.

Maybe, in a century from now, we will be mocked like McGonagalls. Or maybe we’ll be touted as the Tennyson’s of our time. But the only way we can hope to leave a legacy of our own words is if we put pen to paper now.

Ashley Lister
April 2012

“The Write Stuff” © 2012 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.

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