The Wellington Poetry Society held monthly meetings in the 1980s and 90s at a house on the corner of Elizabeth and Brougham Streets in Mount Vic, and later at Turnbull House. D- often got up to read during the open mic portion. D- would be scantily dressed, various bits visible through various tears, and carrying a large strip of cardboard covered with block capitals in black or blue felt tip.
The poems were invariably one of two kinds: either a protestation of undying love for Jesus or a protestation of undying love for Cilla Black.
It’s unkind I know to derive a decadent pleasure from reading or hearing very bad poetry. Yet, one does: the world has a special place in its heart for William McGonagall, for instance. McGonagall (1825-1902) is generally accepted as the world’s worst poet, and it is hard to deny him the title (although I once deeply offended Scottish Uncle Ken by saying so). “The Tay Bridge Disaster” remains McGonagall’s masterpiece despite numerous other strong contenders. The opening stanza goes:
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 ….
How can one resist such consummate banality, such ineffable bathos, such hirpling metre and ham-fisted rhyme, such plangent sincerity – the unbridgeable chasm between aspiration and execution? McGonagall’s personal myth was that he was a genius and should succeed Tennyson as poet laureate. (He even walked to Balmoral Castle to ask Queen Victoria to appoint him.) He preserved this myth despite catcalls and food thrown at him in pubs when he stood up to recite, and many other humiliations.
He has his immortality: he has been translated into many languages, including Russian, Japanese, Thai, Bulgarian and Romanian, and has sold far more copies of his work than Tennyson. He and his poems live on in popular culture. The Goons had a character called McGoonagall, played variously by Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. The Nac Mac Feegle in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men have a designated Gonnagle, a battle poet whose role is to drive the enemy back with his terrible lines. JK Rowling named the Professor of Transformation at Hogwarts Minerva McGonagall in his honour. There are films, musicals, stage plays. Gavin Ewart wrote a number of deliberate McGonagallesque poems, highlighting the essential qualities of the original. A commemorative plaque adorns McGonagall’s final residence.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (that invaluable compendium of interstellar information), we are told that the worst poetry in the universe is that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Sussex. Douglas Adams based his character on a schoolfriend, Paul Neil Milne Johnstone, who wrote:
The dead swans lay in the stagnant pool.
They lay. They rotted. They turned
Bits of flesh dropped off them from
Time to time.
And sank into the pool’s mire..
They also smelt a great deal.
As for D-, the poet manque at Turnbull House, I remember that after reading, D- would disappear into the night, never staying to hear the guest poet in the second half.
On the never-to-be-forgotten evening when the same poem protested undying love for both Jesus and Cilla Black, D- might have given Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Sussex from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a good run for her money, but still didn’t hold a candle to McGonagall.
Wellington’s Verb Festival hosts the Worst Poet Wins event on Friday, November 10 at Bats Theatre. It invites “hilariously terrible, laugh-out-loud embarrassing, entertainingly cringe-worthy poetry so awful that it transcends quality – becoming genius. A panel of judges are already preparing themselves to give out shockingly low scores and crown the Worst Poet in Wellington. It’s a prestigious title and the competition will be fierce.”