Being a patriotic fellow, I am always saddened to learn that the good ol’ USA isn’t No. 1 in all fields.
That was my reaction last week when I read an Associated Press story from Edinburgh, Scotland, that said a collector had paid $12,840 for 35 original poems by a William Topaz McGonagall, “internationally celebrated as the worst poet ever to assault the English language.”
To be sure, the Scottish rhyme mangler had a huge non-talent and would take an umbrella on stage during recitals to protect himself from flying vegetables thrown by the audience.
One of the most famous poems by McGonagall (1825-1902) was “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” which began in this execrable fashion:
(ital) 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. (endital)
It would be hard for a bard on these shores to top such lines, but I believe strongly that somewhere in America some hopeless wordsmith is up to the task. Oddly, I know this because I work at a newspaper.
You may have the conventional idea that newspapers are all about news. That is a quaint notion that I find very charming and reassuring. In fact, many people view newspapers as merely places to contact when strange theories or poetic flights of fancy seize them.
When newspapers become finally extinct, their many dyspeptic critics will bubble with joy in their noxious juices but a band of poets will wander the streets forlornly composing odes to the demise of the printed word — very bad odes, of course, as is traditional.
Some newspapers (the Post-Gazette among them) still publish poetry, but those works have some literary merit in the opinion of someone other than the poet. Some are actually good. That is not what I am talking about.
No, the poetic eruptions of the popular taste are what come in to newspaper offices, usually after some dramatic event that has transfixed the nation, and they are usually left unpublished as a public service. It takes the death of a Princess Di or a scandal with a White House intern to release inspirational moonbeams to play on the foreheads of America’s unlettered muses.
I treasure this particular gem, which I have kept from the time of President Clinton’s troubles:
(ital) Our country’s in an uproar
About our President’s behavior
And the only one to save him
Can only be Our Savior. (endital)
In the event, Sen. Arlen Specter helped. The poet went on in the same good-hearted vein about Bill Clinton:
(ital) It’s none of our doggone business
What he does in his personal life
Now we’re ruining his reputation
And embarrassing his wife. (endital)
This is McGonagall-quality stuff and the poet, whose name I do not know, deserves his own cult following. (And he also deserves his own umbrella, if he wishes to take his art public.) This is why I so firmly believe that somewhere in this land of the free verse, someone is composing poems that emanate like ripe Limburger cheese.
Even as I dream that America will one day be celebrated as No. 1 for the world’s worst poetry, what do I find in the Arts & Leisure section of Sunday’s New York Times? Something to depress me. It seems that a 42-year-old German, Uwe Boll, is “often referred to as the worst filmmaker in the world.”
That is too much. America is the nation that invented the B movie, which may stand for boob, barbarous or bubonic (as in plague).
To the delight of many, certain American directors have distinguished themselves by churning out movies with bewildering plots, inane dialogue, talent less actors, gratuitous violence and sex — to mention just a few of their good points. Surely these artists should not be slighted by a newspaper that, because it hates America, favors a German as worst filmmaker.
In what area can we boast of being the No. 1 Worst? I would be flattered to think I might one day be considered worst in the columnist department but I am not one to entertain such giddy dreams.
If we want the world to take notice, it seems to me that we need to look for leadership in Washington, D.C. So who plays one folly-filled scene after another on the world stage, mangles the English language and is poetry in non-motion on major events of the day and will soon retire as the worst in our history? Gosh, can’t think of anyone offhand.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)